Once again, Mike Brey has surprised everyone by doing more with less at Notre Dame. (Photo courtesy of Rumble In The Garden)
Two years ago, Notre Dame endured an injury many thought would be the death knell for a season that started with enormous potential. When Luke Harangody missed five games with a knee injury, Notre Dame retooled their offense and turned what could have been a disaster into an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Two years later, the Fighting Irish were thrust into a similar position when fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis; who was suspended for the first four games of the year after it was revealed that he played in an exhibition game while redshirting for the regular season three years prior, was lost for the season with a torn ACL just two games after returning. What head coach Mike Brey has done with an already young and relatively unproven Notre Dame team this season has been nothing short of miraculous. After a rough nonconference schedule, Notre Dame now sits 18th in the country after a nine-game winning streak has propelled the Irish to a 20-8 record going into this afternoon's matchup against St. John's inside Madison Square Garden, where they have not won since March of 2004.
"It's very special," said Brey following Notre Dame's most recent victory against West Virginia this past Wednesday night. "For this group to do it, I think it will be a great story in the history of our basketball program." In regard to today's game against a Red Storm team that has won two straight after enduring growing pains with their all-freshman starting lineup, Brey referred to the impending matchup and Notre Dame's subsequent meeting with Georgetown at the Verizon Center on Monday as "a good challenge for a team that kind of loves challenges."
On the other side of the bench, the man who will match wits with Brey in just a few hours was ready to anoint him as the conference's coach of the year for a second consecutive season and fourth time overall. "In my mind, he's the coach of the year nationally, or at least a candidate," St. John's assistant coach Mike Dunlap said in a pregame press conference yesterday; "but in our league, there's no doubt. Each guy plays to their strengths. It's in the subtle things that you see the job that he has done."
Brey's seven-man rotation may match St. John's six-man unit in terms of relative depth and conditioning, but the Irish players are far more talented and experienced than the young and athletic Red Storm squad. Either way, the anticipated backcourt shootout between sophomore guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant of Notre Dame and freshman backcourt partners Phil Greene and D'Angelo Harrison of St. John's should be a fun battle to watch, as well as the collision inside between Luke Harangody clone Jack Cooley and St. John's power forward Moe Harkless, a contender for the conference's Rookie of the Year honors.
Something has to give this afternoon for both teams on the court at the "World's Most Famous Arena;" whether or not it is Notre Dame's nine-game win streak or failure to defeat St. John's in their own building since George W. Bush's first term in the White House, or St. John's two-game upswing after a four-game schneid. The world could be witness to a coming-out party for the handful of rookies getting the start for the Red Storm, or maybe even yet another miracle by the Catholic university synonymous with "Touchdown Jesus." The only difference, though, is that the man performing the supernatural is a basketball coach who just somehow gets the most out of the least whenever he is overlooked.
Mike Brey gets another chance to turn skeptics into believers today.