The day after his team handed previous-No. 1 Syracuse its first loss, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey wanted just one thing: a local watering hole, some good friends and a few hours of football.
There is little time to enjoy the good times in college basketball, especially if you are a team like the Fighting Irish -- good, but not great, talented but raw. The sweet taste of victory has the staying power of a court-storming, over and cleared out almost as quickly as it started.
But Brey was going to give himself and his team a 24-hour respite from the hamster wheel, a Sunday to celebrate a win. The victory elevated the Irish to 4-3 in the Big East, 12-8 overall, a respectable record for most teams, an extraordinary one under the circumstances for Notre Dame. The Irish lost senior leader Tim Abromaitis in November. Considered middle-of-the-pack to begin with, Abromaitis’ injury took Notre Dame off the radar.
But Brey has made a career out of surprising people. He memorably led the Irish through a tortoise-paced run without Luke Harangody and has quietly made Notre Dame into a consistent winner.
ESPN.com caught up with Brey on the one day he allotted himself a little euphoria and a temporary escape before digging in his heels again for a Wednesday date with Seton Hall.
Dana O'Neil: When Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL, what did you tell your team?
Mike Brey: I used Luke [Harangody] going down as an example. I hit that really hard in our first meeting and that first week. We were 6-8 when Luke got hurt. Of course, while I’m selling it to them, I have my fingers crossed behind my back. But I felt like, if we could just inch along and be at our best in New York City [for the Big East Tournament], we’d be OK. That was really the only way for me and my staff to keep our sanity.
It’s different than last year. There’s more teaching, being positive and giving confidence. The second day after Abro got hurt, we were standing at halfcourt and practice wasn’t very good and for that one moment, I think I might have said, "Oh boy, we’re not that good." And like a good assistant, Martin Ingelsby said, "You know what? This is going to be a great challenge for us. Let’s have some fun with it." And I thought, "You know what? You’re right. I’m good.’’
Could you have survived this maybe 15 years ago? At an earlier point in your career?
MB: That would have been … oh God, I would have been all over the board. I think I’ve learned to be older and wiser. Then I would have been much more anxious, not sleeping so good. But I’ve learned to pace myself. But at this point in my career, I’m having fun with it. I’m not trying to fight for my job. I’m enjoying and teaching and knowing, that, OK, we took some punches and we’ll take some more in the future, but we’re playing with house money. When Tim went down, we had nothing to lose. We were so far off the board, no one expected anything out of us.
And now that you’re back on the board, by beating Syracuse, how do you get your team to refocus for Seton Hall?
MB: When you get one like we did, you get where 9-9 [in the league] is in range and you think, hey we’re being talked about. If you told me after we lost to Gonzaga in the locker room, that we’d be 4-3 and beat Syracuse, I would have fallen off my chair. I told them normal teams are supposed to lose on Wednesday. They just are. If you’re normal, an average Joe, you take that bullet because you’re not supposed to get that one. So that’s the thing? Are we just normal? If we can bounce back and get this one on the road, that’s showing signs of being something special.
Have you ever seen the Big East so wildly unpredictable?
MB: It’s more turned upside down than ever. We’re not that top-rated league, but everybody is still watching. The drama that comes out of our league, whether on the court or off, that’s why people watch. When the league started last year, we had nine teams that had the look [of an NCAA Tournament team]. This year, we’ve got maybe four or five in October. So if you’re a team that doesn’t have the look then, you feel as if there are spots to get. Last year, if you weren’t one of the nine, you’re thinking on Jan. 5, "Geez, I hope we can get to the NIT."
Why is the league so unstable?
MB: I think that, other than Syracuse, the margin for everyone is really thin. It’s really fragile. We’ve got new faces playing key roles and it’s about handling success or handling not playing well. Guys don’t know how to do that. I think that’s why we see the roller coaster. But it’s great for the league.
Look at our repeat opponents. We did the straw poll in June. No one knew Andre Drummond was going to show up at Connecticut. We repeat with them. We repeat with Rutgers and West Virginia. If I told you in July that West Virginia would be tougher than Pitt, you would have said, "Shut up, Mike." If I would have told you Rutgers would have been tougher than Villanova, you would have said, "Shut up, Mike."
That’s why it’s such a roller coaster. The straw poll, what’s expected, is upside down.