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Another Surprise from South Bend Forget about football: Notre Dame toppled three Top 15 teams in the span of six days to prove it belongs in the upper echelon in hoops

Dec. 16, 2002
Dec. 16, 2002

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Dec. 16, 2002

Another Surprise from South Bend Forget about football: Notre Dame toppled three Top 15 teams in the span of six days to prove it belongs in the upper echelon in hoops

Outlined against the blue-gray December roof, the Notre Dame
basketball team rode again. And again. And again. If being served
warmed-over Grantland Rice leaves you tempted to continue no
further, gentle reader, please indulge us. For when an unranked
team defeats three Top 15 teams over the space of six days, a
feat the Fighting Irish accomplished last week, a little
overwrought prose is in order.

This is an article from the Dec. 16, 2002 issue

In this year of the Golden Dome there are enough awakened echoes
to go around for football and basketball alike. For the Notre
Dame hoopsters the fun began at their own Joyce Center on Dec.
2, when they waxed then 13th-ranked Marquette 92-71. Point
guard Chris Thomas, who sometimes seems to model his play after
the pet snake he has been known to bring to postgame
interviews, wriggled and writhed for 32 points and 10 assists.
Five days later the Irish slew No. 9 Maryland, the defending
national champion and de facto host team in last weekend's BB&T
Classic at the MCI Center. Notre Dame played long stretches of
matchup zone, waiting for the Terps' guards, Steve Blake and
Drew Nicholas, to sink two jumpers in a row. The Irish were
still waiting at the horn of their 79-67 victory. By Sunday
evening, after turning back No. 2 Texas 98-92 in the
tournament final, Notre Dame had swept its lofty opponents by
an average of almost 13 points. And by Monday afternoon the
Irish had a ranking of their own--No. 10.

Notre Dame accomplished its sweep with an inside-out attack
marked by superb spacing and a commitment to the extra pass. The
Irish have an efficient 1.4to1 assist-to-turnover ratio to go
with an 8-1 record blemished only by an 80-75 loss on Nov. 26
to mid-major terror Creighton, a team that Notre Dame's
third-year coach, Mike Brey, plausibly calls "this year's Kent
State." The Irish's style is winning plaudits as well as games.
"Love to watch you play," one NBA scout told Brey as the two left
the MCI Center last Saturday. "You guys move the basketball."

Like football counterpart Tyrone Willingham, Brey, formerly an
assistant at Duke and head coach at Delaware, was the Irish's
second choice for the job he now holds. The difference, Brey
says, is "I waited a year [until Matt Doherty left for North
Carolina]. Ty waited a week [until George O'Leary got busted for
embellishing his resume]." Like Willingham, Brey took over a team
rich in upper-class talent that flourished with little more than
a nudge in the right direction. Also like Willingham, Brey
benefited from the goodwill of a win-starved campus.

The specter of football keeps the Notre Dame basketball family
humble. "We beat Maryland, and it's a pretty big win," Brey says.
"And a Chicago reporter grabs Bernie [Cafarelli, the Irish's
sports information director for basketball] afterward and asks,
'When are they going to announce the BCS standings?' And I'm back
to earth."

Over three seasons Brey has gotten to know terra firma well.
Thomas originally committed to play for Doherty, who left South
Bend for Chapel Hill in July 2000 during the domino fall that
began when Bill Guthridge resigned at North Carolina. As Notre
Dame moved to hire Brey, other schools began angling for Thomas,
figuring he was back on the market. But with recruiters boxed in
by a noncontact period, Thomas did his homework on the new coach,
liked what he heard and reaffirmed his commitment. Soon Brey made
a commitment of his own, pledging to stay serene in the face of
Thomas's occasional overexuberant play. "There'll be nights when
the ball will fly over my head, and there'll be nothing I can do
about it," Brey says. In fact those nights have been rare. "Chris
is a great poster boy for us," says Brey. "He's a high-level guy
who plays with personality. He has a pet snake and a tattoo. He
says that you can come to Notre Dame and be yourself--that we
won't keep you under our thumb."

Thomas led the Irish past Marquette and held his own against the
BB&T Classic's two other superb point guards, Blake and
tournament MVP T.J. Ford of Texas, but the weekend was a
coming-out party for Notre Dame's Torin Francis. He's a freshman
from Roslindale, Mass., with an Olajuwonesque uniform number
(34), build (he's a long-waisted 6'10") and style (his dervishing
moves begin in his abdominals) who joined teammate Dan Miller
(see sidebar) on the all-tournament team after putting up 41
points, grabbing 18 rebounds and blocking 11 shots (including
eight against Texas) in two games. The players who take the most
shots for the Irish--Thomas, Miller, and guards Matt Carroll and
Chris Quinn (and yes, you can call 'em the Four HORSEmen)--are
sinking 42.0% from beyond the arc, leaving defenses little choice
but to let Francis roam free in the lane. Indeed, Brey signed
Francis, who like Thomas and Miller was a McDonald's
All-American, in part by selling him on the talent waiting to
play with him. "I told him he had no idea how much fun he could
have with a veteran perimeter," says Brey.

When Brey took over in South Bend, he was the team's third coach
in three seasons. "I've seen it all," says Carroll, a senior
recruited by John MacLeod, the coach who couldn't lead Notre Dame
to the NCAAs in eight tries. "Things started to turn around my
freshman year [under Doherty], when we beat Connecticut twice.
But it really changed my sophomore year when we made the
tournament." The one sport on campus more conspicuously troubled
than basketball had been football, but its renaissance has only
helped hoops. With football flourishing, basketball players and
coaches are no longer fielding those anxious mid-autumn queries
of, "Are you guys gonna be any good?" They can simply go about
preparing themselves, even if a portion of the campus won't pay
attention until January.

But most students are already paying attention. In the mid-1990s
the school sold no more than 400 student tickets a year. This
fall students bought up all 3,150 available seats in 36 hours. A
group of undergraduates has formed the Leprechaun Legion, a
counterpart to the Cameron Crazies at Duke, where Brey assisted
Mike Krzyzewski for eight seasons. The coach encourages the
Legion with regular e-mails, free pizza and a spotlighted role
during pregame introductions that recognizes the group as the
team's "sixth man." During the fall Brey even visited dorms, to
screen a highlight tape with a twist: Rather than showing off his
players, it featured the students themselves going crazy, albeit
tastefully. "I remind them not to cross the line," he says. "But
I don't want to rein them in too much. It's like Chris Thomas.
You've got to let a good player play."

If there's a symbol of the new expectations of Irish basketball,
it's the stair-steps of a bracket, that iconographic
representation of the NCAA tournament. The basketball office and
locker room in the Joyce Center are festooned with blank, 64-team
brackets. A watermark of a bracket is visible in the stationery
of every note Brey writes. His wife, Tish, commissioned a
carpenter to rough out an eight-foot-by-eight-foot mahogany
bracket, which commands one wall of the basement of their home.
Brey has made a fetish of the postseason for a reason: For 10
years, beginning in 1991, Notre Dame's name doesn't appear in the
NCAA tournament record book. Since Brey arrived, the Irish are
two for two. Last season they reached the second round, losing to
Duke 84-77.

Everything Notre Dame does is designed with an eye to March. The
Irish should have the best nonleague strength of schedule in the
Big East. "After Georgia got in at 16-14 several years ago and
Alabama didn't at 21-10, [Big East commissioner and former NCAA
tournament selection chair] Mike Tranghese made it clear in our
league meeting that the committee considers intent of scheduling
more than wins," says Brey, who looks at the undemanding
nonconference schedules of Big East brethren Pittsburgh and
Georgetown and wonders if their representatives slept through
that meeting. "Last year [when Notre Dame went 22-11] we didn't
beat Indiana, Kentucky or Alabama, but we played them. I'm not
hung up on winning 24 games. If we can win 16 to 18, we can get a
nice seed and maybe get lucky and make a run. We are maniacally
focused on getting in that tournament."

Several months before he arrived in South Bend, Brey happened to
catch a live shot of the Irish players on Selection Sunday,
crestfallen at not getting an NCAA bid. When he first met with
them, after they'd just been burned by Doherty's departure, the
new coach had a hard time chasing that image from his mind. "It
was a fragile moment," says Brey, who was careful not to invoke
his Duke pedigree in a lordly way. "They were hurt. I tried not
to use the D word. But I did say, 'I can help you with the
tournament. With where I've been and what I've done, I can help
you with that.'"

"Now we expect to be in the NCAAs," says Thomas. "We have three
great nonconference wins. The key now is to learn how to handle
success."

To help with that, Brey promises he will start drawing on lessons
from the D word: "If we have an Achilles' heel, it's when we
don't make the extra pass--when Miller or Carroll or Thomas says,
'I'll do it myself,'" Brey says. "That was us for 30 minutes of
the Creighton game."

Late in Sunday's tournament final, Brey's team suffered just such
a relapse, and Texas went from 13 points down to six up. Notre
Dame righted itself by making the extra pass, whether it was a
dump down to Francis, who drained seven of eight free throws in
the final three minutes, or a kickout for a three from Thomas or
Miller. But if the Irish fail to give the ball up to one another
during forthcoming nonconference dates with DePaul, Vanderbilt
and Kentucky, or while running the usual gantlet of Big East
play, they will be, as Rice once put it, "swept over the
precipice ... down on the bewildering panorama spread on the
green plain below." In which case, Sweetheart, get us rewrite.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN IRISH SPRING There was no doubting Thomas, who poured in 19 points against the No. 2-ranked Longhorns.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN FRESH FORCE The formidable Francis continually got the better of more seasoned foes like Maryland's Tahj Holden.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN JUST DANDY Miller torpedoed the Terrapins with his clutch scoring.
"We are maniacally focused on getting in the NCAA tournament,"
says Brey.