Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey has long been squeezing more success out of less talent than many of his counterparts
Mike Brey has turned into one of the best coaches in college basketball, but never seems to get much attention. Has has carried Notre Dame to heights they haven’t seen since the days of Digger Phelps. All of this, meanwhile, has been done without the luxury of top recruits. Notre Dame is a football school. When tasked to compete with the likes of basketball blue bloods Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky, it can be a tall order to fill. In both the Big East and the ACC, Brey has done an excellent job of fielding a competitive team.
So how has he done it? In his 17th year at Notre Dame, his teams are starting to find even more success than in years past. Here we’ll take a look at some of his history, his system, and his players. That should help us get a good idea of how he became one of the best coaches in America.
Mike Brey is 57 years old, but is only on his third collegiate coaching job. The first of those three jobs was as an assistant coach. Many head coaches learn a lot and form their style based on who they have worked under, and Brey is no different. His first job after coaching for his former high school was at none other than Duke University. From 1987-1995, Brey was under the tutelage of possibly the greats college coach ever, Mike Krzyzewski. In those eight years, he really learned how to win. The Blue Devils won two national championships, made the finals twice more, and made the Final Four two more times on top of that. In those eight seasons learning under the best, he made six Final Fours. That kind of success is unprecedented.
After his time at Duke he spent five seasons at his first head coaching job with the Delaware Fighting’ Blue Hens. The success continued for him there. In Brey’s five years, Delaware never finished lower than fifth in the America East Conference. By his third and fourth years, Brey had won two conference championships and the NCAA Tournament bids that came with them. It was in 2000 that he got his real chance at a breakthrough. He was named head coach of a Notre Dame team that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 10 years. What has happened since the took over the Irish 17 years ago has been probably the best stretch in program history.
At Notre Dame
Brey’s tenure at Notre Dame has been nothing short of excellent. He brought the team back to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first three years. They’ve gone to the tournament in 11 of his 16 seasons, and will make it 12 in 17 this year. They have been ranked in the AP Poll at least once in 15 of his 17 seasons, including each of the last 11. That is the longest streak in school history.
Since joining the ACC in 2013-14, Notre Dame has taken that success to a new level. They have made the Elite Eight each of the past two years. They have only had consecutive tournament runs that deep once in their history, from 1952-54. One of those years, in 2014-15, they won the ACC Championship, the only conference tournament championship in Notre Dame history. That year they went 32-6, garnering the second-most wins in school history behind the 1908-09 team. Many will remember that team for nearly derailing undefeated Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.
So what has Mike Brey done that has made him more successful than previous Notre Dame coaches? His system has leveraged their strengths and made them difficult to stop. He emphasizes efficient offense, turning his teams into scoring machines against even the best defenses.
Brey’s offenses have consistently been among the best offenses in the country. In the Kenpom era (since 2002), Notre Dame has finished in the top 25 of the adjusted offensive efficiency rankings 13 times in 15 seasons. Their worst mark was way back in 2005, when they finished 67th. They have been in the top 10 a ridiculous seven times in that span. This year is no different, coming in at 16th entering the ACC Tournament.
While Brey never has the most talented players (more on that coming), the way he runs his offense makes it easy for them. He spreads the floor with shooters and uses crisp ball movement to find shooters. This year’s squad has six players shooter greater than 35 percent from deep on more than one attempt per game. That includes their two biggest presences in the front court. Both VJ Beachem and Bonzie Colson can stroke it from deep. The two forwards shoot a combined 38.9 percent on 8.4 attempts per game. Spreading out the defense like that provides lanes for guards to slash to the rim without fear of help. They can distribute the ball easily and move the defense, finding capable shooters everywhere on the floor.
At the heart of all of this is the pick and roll. Much of Notre Dame’s action starts with a high ball screen, and having a good point guard is key. Having a ball handler than can both shoot and distribute out of the pick and roll is vital to collapsing the defense, and Brey has had a good run of such guards in the recent past. From Jerian Grant to Demitruis Jackson to Matt Farrell, the Irish have had that go-to guy at the point each of the last three years. Each of the three made more than 50 3-pointers and accrued an assist rate over 25 percent. Most of that work was done out of screening actions:
Fantastic system or not, having great players helps any team succeed. While other teams go hard after the top recruits and watch their best play one season before leaving school, Mike Brey and Notre Dame make the most of their talent.
At Notre Dame, Brey doesn’t stand a chance recruiting against blue blood schools like Kansas, Kentucky, and Duke. Looking at the recruiting rankings, it shows. On the 2016-17 Notre Dame team, there are two players who were top 100 recruits per the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. Those two are VJ Beachem, a big contributor, and Temple Gibbs, a reserve guard. They were the 77th and 78th recruits in their respective classes. For comparison, Duke and Kentucky each had four of the top 20 in the 2016 rankings alone.
Without those top talents on his team, Brey maximizes the players he does have and uses their strengths to the advantage of the team. He fills out his roster with players capable of shooting and passing. They aren’t necessarily the best athletes, but they know what they are capable of and execute flawlessly. For example, Notre Dame’s best player this season has been Bonzie Colson. At only 6’5″, he is dwarfed by nearly every opposing center he sees. Despite all that, he uses his nearly seven-foot wingspan to play good defense in the lane and rebound the ball. He leads the ACC in double-doubles, which is not something you would expect from just looking at him. He fits perfectly in the offense by being a good finisher at the rim and shooter as well.
When Brey does get good recruits, he makes the most of them. Two of his best recruits of the past several years have been on those aforementioned point guards that serve as the engine of the offense. Demetrius Jackson was the 33rd-ranked recruit by RSCI in the 2013 class. While Jerian Grant didn’t make the top 100 by RSCI, he was likely just on the outside. ESPN had him ranked 96th in the class of 2010 while Rivals had him ranked 105th. Brey recruits at his best where it matters and fills out the roster around his best players with key cogs that fit well.
Mike Brey has had an excellent 17 years at Notre Dame. While he doesn’t get the best players, he recruits well when he can and maximizes the talent he gets. Not only has he had great success compared to other Notre Dame coaches, but with the teams he has had, he has done a great job compared to other coaches throughout the nation. No head man consistently does more with less like Brey does, and it’s time he started being recognized for that. Mike Brey is one of the best coaches in the country at Notre Dame. After finishing 3rd in the ACC and 23-8 overall, there’s a good chance he leads them on another deep run this March.