Outlined against the blue-gray December roof, the Notre Dame basketball team rode again. And again. And again. If being served warmed-over Grantland Rice leaves you tempted to continue no further, gentle reader, please indulge us. For when an unranked team defeats three Top 15 teams over the space of six days, a feat the Fighting Irish accomplished last week, a little overwrought prose is in order.
In this year of the Golden Dome there are enough awakened echoes to go around for football and basketball alike. For the Notre Dame hoopsters the fun began at their own Joyce Center on Dec. 2, when they waxed then 13th-ranked Marquette 92-71.Point guard Chris Thomas, who sometimes seems to model his play after the pet snake he has been known to bring to postgame interviews, wriggled and writhed for 32 points and 10 assists. Five days later the Irish slew No. 9 Maryland, the defending national champion and de facto host team in last weekend's BB&T Classic at the MCI Center. Notre Dame played long stretches of matchup zone, waiting for the Terps' guards, Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, to sink two jumpers in a row. The Irish were still waiting at the horn of their 79-67 victory. By Sunday evening, after turning back No. 2 Texas 98-92 in the tournament final, Notre Dame had swept its lofty opponents by an average of almost 13 points. And by Monday afternoon the Irish had a ranking of their own—No. 10.
Notre Dame accomplished its sweep with an inside-out attack marked by superb spacing and a commitment to the extra pass. The Irish have an efficient 1.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio to go with an 8-1 record blemished only by an 80-75 loss on Nov. 26 to mid-major terror Creighton, a team that Notre Dame's third-year coach, Mike Brey, plausibly calls "this year's Kent State." The Irish's style is winning plaudits as well as games. "Love to watch you play," one NBA scout told Brey as the two left the MCI Center last Saturday. "You guys move the basketball."
Like football counterpart Tyrone Willingham, Brey, formerly an assistant at Duke and head coach at Delaware, was the Irish's second choice for the job he now holds. The difference, Brey says, is "I waited a year [until Matt Doherty left for North Carolina]. Ty waited a week [until George O'Leary got busted for embellishing his r�sum�]." Like Willingham, Brey took over a team rich in upper-class talent that flourished with little more than a nudge in the right direction. Also like Willingham, Brey benefited from the goodwill of a win-starved campus.
The specter of football keeps the Notre Dame basketball family humble. "We beat Maryland, and it's a pretty big win," Brey says. "And a Chicago reporter grabs Bernie [Cafarelli, the Irish's sports information director for basketball] afterward and asks, 'When are they going to announce the BCS standings?' And I'm back to earth."
Over three seasons Brey has gotten to know terra firma well. Thomas originally committed to play for Doherty, who left South Bend for Chapel Hill in July 2000 during the domino fall that began when Bill Guthridge resigned at North Carolina. As Notre Dame moved to hire Brey, other schools began angling for Thomas, figuring he was back on the market. But with recruiters boxed in by a noncontact period, Thomas did his homework on the new coach, liked what he heard and reaffirmed his commitment. Soon Brey made a commitment of his own, pledging to stay serene in the face of Thomas's occasional over-exuberant play. "There'll be nights when the ball will fly over my head, and there'll be nothing I can do about it," Brey says. In fact those nights have been rare. "Chris is a great poster boy for us," says Brey. "He's a high-level guy who plays with personality. He has a pet snake and a tattoo. He says that you can come to Notre Dame and be yourself—that we won't keep you under our thumb."
Thomas led the Irish past Marquette and held his own against the BB&T Classic's two other superb point guards, Blake and tournament MVP T.J. Ford of Texas, but the weekend was a coming-out party for Notre Dame's Torin Francis. He's a freshman from Roslindale, Mass., with an Olajuwonesque uniform number (34), build (he's a long-waisted 6'10") and style (his dervishing moves begin in his abdominals) who joined teammate Dan Miller (see sidebar) on the all-tournament team after putting up 41 points, grabbing 18 rebounds and blocking 11 shots (including eight against Texas) in two games. The players who take the most shots for the Irish—Thomas, Miller, and guards Matt Carroll and Chris Quinn (and yes, you can call 'em the Four H-O-R-S-E-men)—are sinking 42.0% from beyond the arc, leaving defenses little choice but to let Francis roam free in the lane. Indeed, Brey signed Francis, who like Thomas and Miller was a McDonald's All-American, in part by selling him on the talent waiting to play with him. "I told him he had no idea how much fun he could have with a veteran perimeter," says Brey.
When Brey took over in South Bend, he was the team's third coach in three seasons. "I've seen it all," says Carroll, a senior recruited by John MacLeod, the coach who couldn't lead Notre Dame to the NCAAs in eight tries. "Things started to turn around my freshman year [under Doherty], when we beat Connecticut twice. But it really changed my sophomore year when we made the tournament." The one sport on campus more conspicuously troubled than basketball had been football, but its renaissance has only helped hoops. With football flourishing, basketball players and coaches are no longer fielding those anxious mid-autumn queries of, "Are you guys gonna be any good?" They can simply go about preparing themselves, even if a portion of the campus won't pay attention until January.
But most students are already paying attention. In the mid-1990s the school sold no more than 400 student tickets a year. This fall students bought up all 3,150 available seats in 36 hours. A group of undergraduates has formed the Leprechaun Legion, a counterpart to the Cameron Crazies at Duke, where Brey assisted Mike Krzyzewski for eight seasons. The coach encourages the Legion with regular e-mails, free pizza and a spotlighted role during pregame introductions that recognizes the group as the team's "sixth man." During the fall Brey even visited dorms, to screen a highlight tape with a twist: Rather than showing off his players, it featured the students themselves going crazy, albeit tastefully. "I remind them not to cross the line," he says. "But I don't want to rein them in too much. It's like Chris Thomas. You've got to let a good player play."
If there's a symbol of the new expectations of Irish basketball, it's the stair-steps of a bracket, that iconographic representation of the NCAA tournament. The basketball office and locker room in the Joyce Center are festooned with blank, 64-team brackets. A watermark of a bracket is visible in the stationery of every note Brey writes. His wife, Tish, commissioned a carpenter to rough out an eight-foot-by-eight-foot mahogany bracket, which commands one wall of the basement of their home. Brey has made a fetish of the postseason for a reason: For 10 years, beginning in 1991, Notre Dame's name doesn't appear in the NCAA tournament record book. Since Brey arrived, the Irish are two for two. Last season they reached the second round, losing to Duke 84-77.