The Constant in Notre Dame Basketball

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ND v Syracuse photo by Marcus Snowden (141).JPG

Over the course of every summer and fall, I run into a handful of Notre Dame alumni, degenerate gamblers and degenerate Notre Dame alumni gamblers, and for the next 5 to 10 minutes we go through the dreaded Larry David small-talk wringer.

"What are you doing nowadays?"

I signed a confidentiality agreement at work so I'm not really at liberty to share that information, but I can say and do say, "Hi, my name is Waiter, I'll be your zach this evening."

But the only question they really care about is, "How are the Irish going to be this year?"

If I wasn't a first-born and therefore in possession of a crippling people pleaser component to my personality, I'd say, "Bro-ham, I don't know, how's the stock market going to be this year?" But instead I give them some half-baked analysis of personnel and chemistry.

So, what I usually do is start with the guys I know best, then factor in an off-season improvement variable and go from there.

The worst is when I try to describe the younger guys. Part of me just wants to call up the young'uns and say: "You don't know what it was like back in my day. You didn't have to do the Band of Brothers beat down with the Dog Faced Gremlin (our strength coach). You don't know what 50 Day was. When I was your age, we didn't even have Facebook. We had TheFacebook. You know how much time was wasted typing "the" all those times when I could have been on Twitter? I'll never know because we didn't have that either, you spoiled brat."

Oh, sorry what was your question? How's the new kid, Pat Connaughton? I, uh, you know, I know for a fact that he has two legs so he's probably pretty good. After that, they realize that I don't have an abundance of useful information, and we part ways.

But over the past couple of seasons, another question has surfaced toward the end of the season, and that's, "Why and how is Notre Dame as good as it is?"

In previous years the first thing I would do is go down the list of players and what they have done well and how they have complemented one another, giving the players nearly all of the credit. And I could certainly do the same this year.

But it would not be a complete analysis, or an honest one.

Here is a team that lost its best and most experienced player, Tim Abromaitis, early in the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. At that point, I think everyone wrote off the Irish, including me. I thought they were going to go 0-20 in the Big East in 18 games. Yes, some of them were going to feel like double losses.

But then they started winning. Again. And again. The nine-game Big East winning streak that started with Syracuse was nothing short of amazing. If Biff Tannen from "Back to the Future" could have taken a sports almanac back a couple of months, I don't even think he would have been able to pull the trigger on those bets. So what's the best explanation for all their success?

Was it because of the tremendous development and magnetic hands of Jack Cooley? Certainly. Was it because they have the best defensive backcourt in Coach Mike Brey's tenure? Yes. Was it because of the emergence of Scott Martin as glue guy, defensive stalwart and leader? All of these things are reasons they have been successful, but we are still missing the X-factor.

It has taken me seven years to see it, but the X-factor is Brey.

To begin to understand Brey as a coach, you first need to understand his personality, and as far as characters go, he is an all-time American original.

You know the line from "Tommy Boy": "he could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves"? Brey could sell white gloves to a woman already covered in ketchup Popsicles. He is a conversational chess wizard, always three, four, five steps ahead of the curve. His delivery is equal parts high school coach, Southern gentleman and a Leisure Suit Larry version of Phil Jackson. He has had enough one-liners to be able to retire and live off bumper sticker sales, and I can't wait for the day when he is a broadcast analyst, as he is one of the funniest dudes you'll meet.

During film sessions, it is not uncommon for Brey, in the middle of a play, to start saying: "You know, fellas, I just knew that shot was going in. The ball movement, the unselfishness, the basketball gods were in our favor on that one."

Ditching X's and O's for a karmic motion offense did not always make sense to me when I was in school, and that's probably why I could not hit a free throw to save my life.

After I graduated, I tried to get a graduate assistant's position (something Notre Dame does not have) with the team, not because that was my dream, but because I was an 18-year-old trapped in a 22-year-old body, and I didn't know which way was up. I was in a dark place.

When I went into the meeting with Coach, he said: "You have the kind of personality that can either heat the building ... or burn it down." What went through my head was, Yeah, well, if I don't find some kind of life direction or employment, I won't be able to pay for heat, let alone rent, and I'll most likely end up burning the apartment complex down -- whoa. How did you do that? How did you know?"

It would have been an entirely wrong decision to prop me up at that point in my life. It would have been mutually destructive. And he knew that, and told me as smoothly and thoughtfully as possible.

One of the first things Coach ever said to me turned out to be one of the most significant. It was during my first year, one of the very first practices, and I had forced up a terrible attempt at a 3-point shot. He pulled me aside later and said, "You don't need to reinvent yourself."

It took me seven years to figure out that he was not talking about on-court skills. He was talking about personality. And therein lies the rub. Don't reinvent yourself. The guys who try to reinvent themselves falter. He is not saying, "Don't improve," he is saying, "Understand who you are, and translate that to the court."

Immature players do not thrive in his system. Make yourself a man and you will have an open seat at the table. And that is not saying you cannot be a kid or that you cannot make mistakes, but when you step on the court and put that jersey on, you better take accountability for yourself and you better at least resemble a grownup.

Looking at this year's team, I see nothing but guys who routinely step up and make the right play, from freshmen to fifth-year seniors, and they all do it with a confidence that they did not have at the start of the season. And for anyone who has watched this team's trajectory over the past couple of months, it has been a master class in personality management and confidence-building. Coach has an intuitive feel for what guys are thinking, what they are going through, and what they need to hear to make improvements and be successful, and he only gets better as he gets older.

Coach Brey is not going to beat you over the head with any of this because he knows those lessons never stick. He pushes the buttons he needs to, and you cannot argue with the results. So, while it took some time for me to figure it out, this might be the best coaching job that he has done, and he certainly deserves a great deal of credit. He does not have the most talented team. He does not have the most athletic team. But what he does have is a team that earned a double-bye in the Big East tournament. That's what happens when you have the basketball gods in your pocket.

- Zach Hillesland

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