UND.com's Jack Nolan takes Irish fans inside the men's basketball program ... I first started announcing Notre Dame men's basketball games in 1982. During the past 30 years I have had the pleasure of describing to Irish fans the exploits of many outstanding Notre Dame teams, but no Irish team during the past three decades has consistently exceeded my expectations more than this year's squad. When the team walked off the floor after losing at Gonzaga by 20 points in November, no one - and I mean no one - could have expected them to go on to beat five ranked teams by the first weekend in February. But that is exactly what has happened. (And as I write this, Notre Dame and Ohio State are the only teams in the nation to beat five ranked teams this season. The Buckeyes are ranked third in both of this week's polls. The Irish are still not ranked in either polls!) This is probably just fine with a Notre Dame team that likes to "stay under the radar." However, attention is starting to be paid to the team's efforts as Mike Brey's squad did receive enough votes to rank 26th in both polls this week. An argument can be made that Brey is turning in the best coaching job of his career with a team that lost a John Wooden Award candidate in Tim Abromaitis the day after Thanksgiving. That says a lot when you consider that Brey is the reigning National Coach of the Year (the only Notre Dame men's basketball coach to win the award) and also picked up his third BIG EAST Coach of Year Award last season - an award voted on by the coaches he competes against every night in conference play. This year's team is winning by controlling the tempo on both ends of the floor and by imposing its will on the opposition. It is not an easy way to win. Brey's constant focus on pushing his players to get better every day, to always deliver a complete effort while also making sure the players remain confident on both ends of the floor makes winning this way possible. His ability to know what buttons to push and when to push those buttons has been extremely impressive. A few examples: In the days leading up to the BIG EAST opener against No. 22 Pittsburgh, Brey added a catch-and-shoot three-point drill to practice. Against the Panthers, Alex Dragicevich scored a career-high 22 points including a career-high four three-pointers in the second half when the Irish broke open a close game to build a 17-point lead before cruising to a 72-59 win. Brey and his staff, a staff he often praises, have come up with some great game plans this season. After a tough loss at Cincinnati during a five-day road trip after the Pitt win, the team regrouped and worked on a game plan to control No. 10 Louisville's attacking transition offense, in particular point guard Peyton Siva. The Irish ended up winning in double overtime, handing Louisville what was only its fourth loss ever at the Yum Center. Even more, Siva was held to four points during regulation. No. 1 Syracuse came to Notre Dame with the Irish on a two-game losing streak. During the days leading up to the game, Brey resurrected an old three-point shooting drill in which the team splits in two groups and competes against each other. The Irish shot 50% from three-point land against the Orange in the game, which included six three-pointers from four different players in the first half as Notre Dame built an 18-point lead on the way to beating the nation's top ranked team. The following week on the road at Seton Hall, Brey sensed something was out of whack with the team's end of shoot-around free throw drill, so he changed it. Brey made the team march up and down the floor to each basket for four different repetitions of the shooting drill until the team made 80 percent of its free throws. That night the Irish hit 24 of 32 free throws on the way to handing the Pirates their first home loss of the season. It is just a coincidence that the three drills cited have involved offense, because this year's Notre Dame team has raised the most eyebrows by winning with defense. Brey's Notre Dame's teams have always had an offensive identity, and that has led some observers to assume Brey does not spend a whole lot of time working with his team on the defensive end of the floor. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I distinctly remember a practice during the Hawaii-Pacific Tournament in Honolulu during Brey's second season at Notre Dame when he stopped a drill, called everyone to center court, and emphasized that he wanted his teams to have a defensive identity. Throughout his tenure at Notre Dame, Brey has assembled teams that could usually outscore just about anyone on a given night, so defense has not always been priority number one. This year the Irish have to defend to win and the players have totally bought into that need. Notre Dame is defending in uncharted territory in BIG EAST play this season. As the first full week of February unfolds, Notre Dame leads the BIG EAST in conference play in scoring defense, three-point field goal percentage defense and is fifth in field goal percentage defense. You have probably heard me say during a broadcast that I do not believe Brey (and his staff) get enough credit from Irish fans. I think they are doing an unbelievable job this year, but please do not surmise that I believe the coaches deserve all the credit. I do not. Notre Dame's success so far this season has been a true team effort, with a remarkable group of players stepping up to take on far more responsibility than they expected to have to carry before the season started, and in many cases performing at levels some thought they were not capable of reaching. Senior Captain Scott Martin has been outstanding, always doing the little things it takes to win while being a consistent and outstanding rebounder. He never lets his effort or leadership drop, even while battling a shooting slump earlier in the season. Jack Cooley has become one of the best rebounders in the league and also an effective scorer who is very difficult to stop in the paint. His effort and desire to get the basketball off the backboard and off the floor has been impressive. Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant not only unselfishly lead this team in scoring and assists, they are a huge reason why Notre Dame's defensive efforts have been so effective both inside and outside the arc this season. Alex Dragicevich has been very effective on both ends of the floor for the Irish throughout the season, both as a starter and now a very effective sixth man. And now freshmen guard Pat Connaughton is showing signs that he may soon become a difference making player night in and night out. Joey Brooks, Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer have all been solid off the bench, elevating their games with each playing key roles in huge Irish victories this season. And we cannot forget walk-on Pat Crowley, who because of Notre Dame's numbers situation is getting full-time reps in practice and has been performing at the high-level needed to help prepare his teammates to make all the headlines they have made with their great play over the first half of the BIG EAST season. It takes a special group of guys to play with the discipline necessary to control the tempo of a college basketball game the way Notre Dame has been able to do since the beginning of BIG EAST play. It takes a special team to consistently do all the little things, the gritty things, the things that leave bruises that ache the next morning to win the way Notre Dame has won so far this season. But this team is doing all those things because they want to win and expect to win every game they play. The Irish have now beaten five ranked opponents because they have proven that on those given days and nights, they wanted the win more than their opponents. I do not know what the rest of this season will bring. But I do know that the ride is far from over. - Jack Nolan