Veteran coach Mike Brey has led the Irish to 10 NCAA Tournament appearances during his 15-year stint in South Bend including an Elite Eight last season. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein talked with Brey to discuss last March’s regional final loss against Kentucky, Demetrius Jackson, and how the ACC compares to the old Big East.
Jon Rothstein, CBS Sports: Was there any point this summer where you watched the tape of the Elite Eight game against Kentucky?
Mike Brey: Never watched it. Never watched it and never went back over it. There’s certainly different highlights that I’ve seen on our website that we use for recruiting, but I never sat there and watched the whole thing. I just never did. I never digested it.
CBS Sports: You’ve said for a long time that one of your dreams was to get Notre Dame to a Final Four. What was it like to play so well against such a formidable opponent only to come up short with a bid to the Final Four on the line?
Brey: I think our locker room summed it up best — no one was crying. I think we showed it in that game, but really starting with the Louisville regular season game in March — we just emptied the tank every night we played and we played with great togetherness. The guys were just exhausted as was I. There really wasn’t any more to give. We just emptied the tank and we can’t ask for anything more than that. I think it would have been harder to swallow if we had not won an ACC championship — you know because we were so close to going to a Final Four. But you won the ACC championship and you went through Duke and North Carolina to do it. I think you could argue it may have been the best basketball season in our program’s history. That probably helped you swallow not getting to Indianapolis.
CBS Sports: What did you say to the team in the locker room after the game?
Brey: I pulled up a chair before I went to the press conference and I sat down and told them just that we flat out emptied the tank. I told them I couldn’t have been prouder and it was an honor to coach this group. Those were the main things. It was an honor to coach them. I told them we had an unbelievable run and that we were champions. I told them to make sure they all had their heads up when they walked out of the locker because we laid everything on the line.
CBS Sports: How long did it take for you after the Kentucky game to appreciate all that your team did wind up accomplishing last season?
Brey: I think on the bus ride back to South Bend on that Sunday. That’s when you start to review the season. You were able to get past the disappointment of Kentucky and not getting to a Final Four and really think about the group as a whole. You have mixed feelings because it was one of the great groups to be around with great leadership and togetherness, but then it was a little sad because you knew when you got back to the locker room in a couple of hours and you kind of addressed them that it was going to be the last time we were addressing this group together.
And then what we did was when we pulled into the arena there was an actually an intramural game going on at the main floor and we went in and they gave us a huge hand. I made sure I got one last picture of our team together — one last family photo so to speak. Then we went in and met with players about the Spring and got with the seniors about how we could help them moving forward with their pro stuff. You had mixed feelings at that time because that was it, but I’m glad I got that one last picture with that group because of how special it was.
CBS Sports: A great deal of your success last year was due to the fact that you had two proud veterans in Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. What’s it going to be like for Notre Dame to move forward without those two guys?
Brey: We’ll have lost maybe two of the best leaders in the history of Notre Dame athletics — not just basketball. Two guys who were great players and made you believe and helped the young guys believe. But you know I think about our group coming back and we’ve got a lot of guys who were a part of a championship, who were a part of a special run. It’s a situation that we’ve had here a lot when you get back to having older players and then losing them.
The guys who will step up into those leadership spots — Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, even Austin Burgett as a senior — those guys understand the responsibility because they’ve seen those who have come before them. And certainly they saw Jerian and Pat do it at a high level. So there’s a lot of good pressure on that group to kind of set the tone from a leadership perspective and I could already see it this Summer. We’ve just got to keep nurturing that.
CBS Sports: You averaged 78.8 points last season which was the most one of your teams averaged since the 2007-08 season. How different is your team going to be offensively during the upcoming season because you have Bonzie Colson at power forward instead of Pat Connaughton?
Brey: I think the fallback of our program has been the offensive efficiency. That’s been our hallmark. I still think we can be efficient, you know — high assists and low turnovers, knowing when and when not to take a shot. I think the key with Bonzie is just getting him to play a little more as a stretch four. To play more like Connaughton and to be more comfortable outside that arc. He’s not going to make every single 3-point shot, but he’ll be able to drive and that will help us with spacing.
The other thing that’s not lost is we can downshift and play either V.J. Beachem or Matt Ryan as a second big and play the four a little more like Connaughton played and then Bonzie can slide into the post. Even though we’re small that way, we were very efficient playing that way last year. Bonzie would often come in for Zach Auguste as an undersized post and be very hard to deal with from the foul line to the low post area.
CBS Sports: Demetrius Jackson was consistent and efficient last season as a sophomore. What happens for him now as a junior as he moves on without Jerian Grant next to him in the back court?
Brey: There’s no question that they’re coming after him now, but I think now as a junior he’s ready to take that step. I was so pleased with his improvement from freshman to sophomore year and maybe just the maturity, the growing up. I think the progression will continue and I think he’s been waiting for it to be his team. Now as a junior, he should be in position to make it his team and Steve Vasturia can really take some heat off him.
I almost look at the two of them together having to do more play making since we lost Grant and it’s not just Demetrius. That’s one of the things we stressed this Summer and I firmly believe Steve with the career he’s had to date is capable of doing more play making as is Demetrius.
CBS Sports: You used to tell me that when you were coaching in the Big East that you would wake up in a cold sweat on Christmas Eve because you knew what was ahead in January and February. How does that compare to the feeling you have now that you’re coaching in the ACC?
Brey: I still have that cold sweat. There’s no question about it. I really feel this coming season that the ACC has the feel of the Big East I left when we were getting eight or nine bids. I didn’t feel that my first two years in the league and it was maybe the right feeling because we only had six bids. I actually looked up and down the standings and now we have a good feel of the league because we’ve been through it twice and we’ve played in everybody’s arena.
I actually feel it has that kind of old Big East depth that we left a couple of years ago. I’m just looking at it and wondering how do we survive? You’re looking at your home schedule. You’re looking at your away games in January and how you finish in February. You’re thinking about how you can steal a bid. It sure would be nice if we get this thing to eight bids this year in this league.