Why Mike Brey is the Leading Candidate for Coach of the Year, AgainPosted by EJacoby on February 16th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
Think back to November 24, when many teams were playing in early-season tournaments and fans were able to get a strong first glimpse of their favorite teams. Notre Dame got plenty of exposure that week, but for all the wrong reasons. The Fighting Irish had just incurred a 29-point beating at the hands of Missouri in the CBE Classic semifinals and followed that performance up with a loss to Georgia in the third place game. The next day, star senior forward Tim Abromaitis suffered a torn ACL in practice that would immediately end his season and seemingly the team’s too. If you told a Notre Dame fan back then that three months later their team would be 10-3 in conference on a seven-game winning streak in the Big East, it would be truly hard to believe. For that, and many other reasons, Irish head coach Mike Brey is the current leader in the clubhouse for National Coach of the Year once again as we head into the home stretch of the regular season.
Brey has been named Big East Coach of the Year three times (’07, ’08, ’11), and was the AP National Coach of the Year last season for guiding his team to an unexpected run at 27-7, an NCAA Tournament 2-seed and #5 overall ranking when the season ended. Coach Brey also has a habit of making a splash with his team in conference play when it looks like it has no chance to be competitive. Think back to two seasons ago, when the Fighting Irish were sitting at 6-8 in the Big East on a crash course for the NIT before Brey led the team to four straight victories to end the regular season. Then came a deep run in the Big East Tournament, and Luke Harangody, Ben Hansbrough, Abromaitis, and company were safely in the NCAA field, from NIT to 6-seed in just three weeks. The head coach in South Bend doesn’t get the same kind of recognition as some of his conference coaching peers like Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, and Rick Pitino, but Brey has often done as fine a job as them with far less talent to work with.
This season has been a familiar story with Notre Dame looking like a bottom-feeder in the conference before Brey found a way to turn things around. After his team suffered one of its many blowout losses early in the season to Gonzaga, Brey noted, “I really got on the guys that day about their mental and physical toughness and told them, ‘If Ben Hansbrough was in this locker room, he’d strangle all of you.’” Somewhere along the line, the message got through to the team, as the sophomore backcourt of Eric Atkins (12.8 PPG, 3.8 APG) and Jerian Grant (13.0 PPG, 4.8 APG) has been the catalyst to this resurgent team. Neither player is Hansbrough, but each has been effective at creating off the dribble and making good decisions. In addition, junior Jack Cooley is one of the most improved big men in the entire country. ‘Little Harangody’ is up from 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game last year to 11.9 points and 9.2 boards this season as one of the toughest bigs in the conference.
Notre Dame is not yet a lock for the NCAA Tournament, not after their horrific start to non-conference play, but at 10-3 and second place in the Big East conference it’s looking like the team is ahead for the Big Dance, a minor miracle that definitely has Brey the leading candidate for Coach of the Year. As always, there are several other worthy candidates for the award, starting with a pair of Big 12 coaches at Kansas and Missouri who have unexpectedly led their teams to top 5 rankings. But Bill Self and Frank Haith have a lot more talent to work with. Steve Prohm led Murray State as the last team to lose in the country, but with a strength of schedule ranked #217 playing Ohio Valley competition compared to the #36 that the Irish have faced. Notre Dame still has three of their five final regular season games on the road, but a strong finish to this season should all but lock up the National Coach of the Year award for Mike Brey.