Conference realignment is a funny thing. Twenty years from now, we might look back at the last decade of movement as one of the most “turbulent” times in college athletics, but as we’re here in the moment, it seems less dramatic. The coaches, players and fans have been directed to detours from their established traditions, as powerless as a daily commuter dealing with road construction.
For Notre Dame, the move from the Big East to the ACC in 24 of 26 sports, including men’s basketball, was part of “arguably the most noteworthy across-the-board change in the history of Notre Dame’s sports programs.” For Mike Brey, it was a chance to return to familiar territory and start the next chapter of his career.
“My biggest worry was that we had an unbelievably consistent identity in the Big East, and could we do it in this new league,” Brey said this week. “After the first year, the jury was kind of out.”
That first year, the 2013-14 season, was the only losing season in Brey’s tenure as coach of the Irish. The Rockville, Md. native and former Duke assistant (1987-95) saw his team lose its best player, Jerian Grant, to an academic suspension and though Notre Dame beat the Blue Devils in their first ACC game, the team finished with a 6-12 record in conference play and a 1-5 mark against Tobacco Road (Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest).
That season is not a glamorous moment in Notre Dame, or Mike Brey’s, basketball history, but the players who endured that season have been the same ones who orchestrated second-best single-season turnaround in ACC history. Grant returned to be one of the best players in the country, while Pat Connaughton, Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem all played a role in leading the Irish to the program’s first Elite Eight appearance since 1979.
Notre Dame stacked wins against the program’s blue bloods along the way, becoming just the third team in ACC history to beat both Duke and North Carolina in an ACC Tournament title run. That trend has continued in 2016 with wins against the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium and last Saturday against then-No. 2 North Carolina, giving Brey and the Irish a 9-1 record against Tobacco Road teams over the last two years.
Before he retired and Maryland left the league to join the Big Ten, it was Gary Williams and Maryland that carried the reputation of being the thorn in the side of the ACC establishment. South Bend is a good bit farther from Duke and North Carolina than College Park, but it’s looking more and more like Brey, a DeMatha product and childhood Terps fan, has taken over that role in the lore of modern day ACC hoops.
“Hey do some stats for me, was Gary ever 9-1 against Tobacco Road? I’ll tell him that when I see him in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware at our favorite bar,” Brey joked when I pitched him the idea that Notre Dame is the new Maryland and he is the new Williams.
“I think what’s helped me is that I’m familiar with the league. I lived on Tobacco Road. That’s probably helped me and our program,” Brey continued. “Certainly when you have that kind of success in ACC country, the heart of ACC country, it gives you great credibility for your program early in this league.”
That credibility extends beyond college basketball. Brey speaks now about the importance of getting guys like Jerian Grant and other former Notre Dame players now in the NBA back on campus and wearing their gear with pride. Matt Carroll, now working for the Charlotte Hornets, tells him how great it is to celebrate the Irish in the heart of ACC country. Chris Quinn, now an assistant for the Miami Heat, reports back with photos of Justise Winslow in Notre Dame gear after the Irish beat Duke. It pumps Brey up, arguably as much as seeing this group round into form at the right time in ACC play.
When discussing the 2016 team, Brey is quick to mention leadership. There doesn’t seem to be one player in particular, but we assume it’s the same players — Jackson, Auguste, Beachem, Vasturia — that were there for the low points of 2014 and the wild ride of 2015. He hopes that because they’ve got the nucleus of a team that was part of an ACC championship, “that guys remember the formula.”
Notre Dame has shown some mental and physical toughness in the last couple games, including a hard fought win at Clemson on Monday that earned the team a few days off. The Irish return to action on Saturday against Louisville, looking to stay in the hunt for a top-four seed in the ACC tournament, something that interestingly enough is much more likely thanks to the Cardinals’ self-imposed postseason ban.
“Certainly we remember the double-bye, from the Big East days, and it’s helped us get to the semifinals and it’s something to shoot for,” Brey said.
Getting that spot improves the chances of winning another ACC tournament title and likely getting another shot at Duke or North Carolina. Winning another ACC tournament title would also double Williams’ total from his days in the ACC as the enemy of Tobacco Road, and give Brey plenty more to brag about when the two coaches meet at their favorite bar in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.