NEW YORK -- Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was sitting around at a team dinner, talking to his assistant coaches about what coaches always talk about – basketball.
Anthony Solomon, who played on the Virginia team that nearly stunned Phi Slamma Jamma Houston in the Final Four, started talking about the Cavaliers famed run from lousy regular season to the brink of a national championship in 1984.
Brey, listening with half an ear, suddenly piped up.
“I said, ‘Anthony, what was the score of that game?’’ Brey said.
The answer -- 49-47 -- spurned a seismic shift in the Notre Dame basketball landscape that has taken the Irish from Big East afterthought to Big East beast.
“I went to sleep that night and just thought, ‘We’ve got to do something different,’’ Brey said of his Solomon-inspired epiphany. “We’ve had burn – where we run the clock in the final four minutes – in our playbook forever. So I just told the guys, ‘We’re going to extend burn to 40 minutes.’’
The burn has scorched opponents. Since Brey put the brakes on the usually run and gun, up and down Irish, Notre Dame has ripped off five wins in a row and gone from not being in the NCAA Tournament conversation to playing for a seed. The Irish defeated Seton Hall 68-56 Wednesday night.
Brey’s courageous change -- (Yes, courageous. Asking a veteran team to change its style with a few weeks left in a season, going against every gene in a coaching DNA takes guts.)-- was borne out of desperation more than invention. With Luke Harangody on the bench with an injured knee and the Irish with a pedestrian 17-10 record, Brey knew he had to do something drastic.
“Someone once asked Bill Walsh if he dreamed up with the West Coast offense playing with salt shakers and he said, ‘I put in the West Coast offense because I wanted to survive,’’ Brey said. “Well it was basically the same for us.’’
That it has worked so well is a credit to the Irish players.
“I thought he was crazy,’’ Tory Jackson said of Brey’s plan.
But Jackson laughed when he said it. The players saw the need to make a meaningful change in style and rather than balk, they went all in. Blessed with a good collection of scorers who can finish a play, the Irish have willingly made their offense more deliberate, ticking off passes in a halfcourt set rather than blazing at full throttle.
The more methodical offense has simultaneously cured Notre Dame’s longstanding Achilles heel: its defense.
Basketball isn’t complicated. You can’t score if you don’t have the ball. By holding the ball, the Irish are limiting their opponents’ possessions. During this five-game streak, the Irish have allowed an average of 56.4 points.
In its Big East opening round game, Notre Dame got the best evidence that its new plan is working. A month ago, Seton Hall scored 49 points in the first half against the Irish.
On Wednesday night, the Pirates mustered 56 ... for the game.
“A couple of weeks ago, we were dead in the water,’’ Harangody said. “Now look at us. We’re one of the best stories in college basketball.’’
Perhaps a story with yet another chapter to write. Harangody had three restorative practices before the Seton Hall game, rebuilding his confidence while restoring his conditioning. His first half 15-point, 9-rebound effort ignited the Pirates and broke open a tight game.
After playing 24 minutes, he said his body felt good and he was more than ready for Notre Dame’s quarterfinal match with Pittsburgh.
“Going into this game and especially the Marquette game, my confidence wasn’t at the level it is now,’’ Harangody said. “Right now I feel like I started to get back the swagger I had before the injury.’’