“Collectively, we’re kind of a Jeremy Lin,” joked Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey after his team came back from a 20-point deficit on Saturday night to beat Villanova in Philadelphia. The Fighting Irish might not be media darlings like the Harvard-educated Lin, but their story is every bit as much a tale of underdogs and adversity. After losing their All-Big East star, Tim Abromaitis in late-November to a torn ACL, they struggled initially, losing five games in November and December.
“We were young and we were so dysfunctional in November and December, to see them make these strides is amazingly gratifying. I tell them all the time, ‘I’m honored to be your coach.’ It’s a fabulous group of students to work with all the time. I haven’t had more fun at Notre Dame.”
The Irish lost at Gonzaga two games after losing Abromaitis for the season and then dropped their next game at home to Maryland. They would lose once more to a visiting Indiana before the end of December to drop their record to 7-5 before conference play.
“If you told me in the Gonzaga lockerroom that we’d be in this position, then I would have fell into the shower,” Brey remarked. “That was a tough night and a long flight home and we were young and we were babies, and I was thinking on the plane, ‘if somehow we can pull off the NIT, I’ll be having a parade.’
“That’s what’s great about sports because you never know.”
The Irish never stopped fighting. They opened the Big East season with a victory at Pittsburgh, exposing the Panthers who were still ranked at the time despite suffering an embarrassing loss to Wagner at home just days earlier. The Irish went on to knock off a top-10 ranked Louisville team in Louisville two games later.
Brey said that it took his team about 3 weeks to regroup from the loss of the player they expected to be their star and leader.
“What helped us was right around December 15th, we were able to practice with a nucleus, the other guys were healthy, Tim’s gone, and we showed some signs. Everybody is looking for some secret; we just got better, because we were able to practice together, we have really good players – we have smart guys.”
Despite those wins over Pitt and Louisville, Notre Dame was just 3-3 to open Big East play with losses to Cincinnati, Connecticut and Rutgers. It wasn’t a bad start, but not a mark that inspired many to predict the 8-game winning streak that would ensue.
It has been over a month since the Fighting Irish have ended up on the losing side of a basketball game, at Rutgers on January 16th. That streak started when they handed then-number-one ranked Syracuse their one and only loss and has included 5 single-digit margins of victory. They are sitting at second-place in the Big East standings, with victories over both the #1 and #3 teams in the league and are a likely NCAA tournament selection.
It has been a miracle turnaround and according to Brey, the secret to their success has been faith.
” It’s the difference-maker in this league,” Brey said. “It is so fragile and I’ve been on both sides of the belief and luckily lately I’ve been on the upside of it.
“We have really good kids, they hung in. In November and December, they hung in there when it was bad and didn’t look good, and we just I told my staff, we just have to be really good teachers. Lets just teach.”
Notre Dame plays with confidence because they believe that they are special. Why? Their coach tells them so.
“I spoke to them about striving to be special, and I told them tonight that I just think we’re special, I really do. Lets remember the recipe and remember we’ve got clear heads and remember how we play together.”
Those positives are a common thread among coaches with struggling teams. The difference in South Bend is that the players believe it.
“Coach has just done so many phenomenal things this year,” junior forward Jack Cooley said about Brey. “I mean you just see how great he is as a coach, the plays he puts in, the calls he makes during timeouts, and we all trust him and we all know he’s a great coach.
“In our opinion, he’s the best in the country. So we’re going to believe everything he says and if he tells us we’re special, especially after we had last year’s team do what they did — to hear it from him it means a lot and we’re going to believe him.”
Brey has been at Notre Dame since 2000 and has a winning percentage of 0.667 there, including bids to the NCAA tournament in four of the last five years and a deep run in the NIT in 2009. That success has allowed him that credibility with his team.
“Luckily, I’ve been at my place for a while and we’ve had success, so I get the benefit of the doubt that they’ll listen,” he explained. “Not all coaches have that. We’ve done some pretty good things with our groups previously.”
If their coach’s word wasn’t sufficient to convince the Irish players, each success on the basketball court has only cemented their faith.
“You can’t get them believing until they’ve had a little success, and winning the Pitt game and the Louisville game were big steps for us to reinforce, ‘fellas, we’ve got a chance at the NCAA tournament,” Brey explained.
It also helped to have players like Cooley setting the example. After losing Abromaitis for the season, Cooley said that he felt, “quite a bit” of pressure to step up and lead the team. Cooley set the example and rest of the team followed suit.
“I was starting to feel it a bit that unless something changed, our team wasn’t going to do well this season,” Cooley said. “I realized that I had to help cause that change and everyone has seemed to step up along with me.”
The Irish are no strangers to adversity, they bounced back from the temporary loss of star forward Luke Harangody in 2010 to finish the season with 27 wins and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Cooley was called upon that season to step into a bigger role, acting as Harangody’s understudy.
“We went through a lot of adversity, just the things that we do sometimes as a team, the way we improve, or just face adversity as a team is huge. I mean, no other team in the country can do it that well, and we’re showing it.”
Notre Dame is a team that has both experience with adversity and leadership from players like Cooley as well as their coach. They are able to rebound from setbacks that might stop other teams in their tracks because that experience and leadership has instilled a deep-seated faith that their work will pay off.
That faith has allowed a team that picked up five losses in non-conference play to fight their way into the top-25 polls and a likely double-bye in the Big East tournament next month.