Sometimes Mike Brey isn’t sure if he’s coaching a college basketball team or starring in an “ER” revival.
“We’ve been on life support at least four times this season,” Notre Dame’s pithy leader said recently. “Every time you’re ready for last rites, we come off the mat.”
Sunday’s 10-point home win over Miami made it six out of eight for the Fighting Irish. That came on the heels of a 93-89 win at Cameron Indoor Stadium, one in which Notre Dame climbed out of a 15-point hole just 6 ½ minutes in.
Just like that Brey’s 21st South Bend edition has climbed within a game of .500 and now sits 64th in the NCAA’s NET Rankings. Plenty of work remains over the next few weeks to claim a spot in the All-Indiana Field of 68 — aka the 2021 NCAA Tournament — but Notre Dame is suddenly a viable threat if you can look past its 1-7 record against Quad One opposition.
Could this possibly be the same team that dropped eight of 11 to start the year? Yes and no.
An unusually stout early-season schedule exposed weaknesses on the boards and in man-to-man defense, but the ever-resourceful Brey has found ways to compensate. This newly tweaked version of Irish hoops is back to playing small ball, running four guards at you and spacing the floor like nobody’s business.
On the defensive end, Notre Dame will play more zone than normal, often using 6-5 swingman Cormac Ryan on the back line, where he’s a sneaky-good rebounder.
“Mike has done a really good job with them,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said recently. “They’re building right now. They’re a very good basketball team. They’re learned through their experience.”
MORE FOR YOU
Like so many of Brey’s best teams over the past two decades, this Notre Dame group doesn’t beat itself. It avoids turnovers, makes its free throws and typically avoids foul trouble.
That last trait went missing on Sunday, when leading scorer and rebounder Nate Laszewski went to the bench with his third foul midway through the first half. Thanks to 6-8 reserve Nik Djogo, however, the Irish were able to withstand that challenge.
A mind-boggling losing streak against ranked teams remains active. That point of embarrassment has reached 27 games and dates to November 2017.
The good news? In a down year for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Irish don’t figure to see another ranked team until Florida State visits in the regular-season finale on March 6.
Until then, Brey hopes they can keep picking up wins and gathering confidence.
“Forget the league record or resume or whatever the hell that means,” Brey said recently. “I’m very proud of this group.”
After Sunday’s gut check, he added this: “Even though it wasn’t pretty, we figured out a way to win a hard game. We’ve come a long way with our mental toughness.”