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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

All hands on deck: Brey talks challenging schedule, player growth in opening presser

College basketball season is inching closer and closer. Head men’s coach Mike Brey’s presence on the weekly Brian Kelly press conference Zoom link (following head football coach Kelly and hockey head coach Jeff Jackson) was evidence that’s it just about time for the Irish to make the short trek across the street from Rolf’s Athletic Center to Purcell Pavilion.

What the 2020-21 Irish schedule will ultimately look like is still a question. Games against Michigan State, Western Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, Kentucky, Purdue and Howard are all that have been confirmed to date. However, if you take Brey at his word, it will be that level of competition from the get-go and it will hold throughout the slate.

Editor's note: Since this story was published, Notre Dame has released all 27 of their opponents for the upcoming season, although several dates are still to be announced.

“You’ll know that I’ve lost my mind completely,” Brey said of the reaction Irish fans and media will have when they see the schedule that he’s put together. According to Brey, the Irish are slated to play 27 games, 25 of which are against Power 5 conference teams. For context, 24 of 32 games last season and 24 of 33 contests in 2018-19 were against Power 5 competition.

Listening to Brey, this is a much-anticipated season, one in the making ever since he signed his most highly touted recruiting class ever in 2018. The expectations have only been enhanced for the current crop of juniors — a group that, at least in part, motivated Brey to stave off retirement despite being tempted by former women’s head coach Muffet McGraw — since they were thrown to the wolves as freshmen in a 14-19 campaign and likely would have been an NIT team last year.

“We really feel ... that we can be an NCAA tournament team. We’re back in that mode. I think we all knew we had to swallow when these juniors were freshmen and we lost [former Irish wing Rex] Pflueger. And we swallowed hard, quite frankly,” Brey said after the Irish took a nosedive following Pflueger’s torn ACL in December 2018.  “Our junior class, which we invested in as freshmen, they got their backsides handed to them and then they grew.”

The schedule will improve in strength as the Irish have, and that’s by design.

“You don’t throw these kinds of games on the board non-league unless you think you’ve got a group that you can have some fun with,” Brey said. “We wouldn’t have scheduled like this unless you saw at the end of last year, the second half of last year, the light bulb go on for some of our young players, especially our juniors.”

And speaking of improved strength, Brey touted his squad for the gains they’ve made in the weight room, a factor that is actually due in part to circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Never have we had more preseason because we started school earlier,” he said. “We started school earlier and what I’ve loved is — and no one’s been able to see our guys yet, none of you been able to — I’m really excited about our strength training. Because even though we lost summer school, which is a great strength training six weeks, we made it up. … We really look good.”

Brey mentioned junior Nate Laszewski and graduate student Juwan Durham as two players who have made solid strides in terms of their physicality. Those kinds of improvements are necessary for a team with a walking double-double in former forward and first-team All-ACC selection John Mooney, now in the pros.

“When 12 rebounds walk out of the building, and they were just automatic with Johnny Mooney, I think that would be my biggest concern,” Brey said. “How do we defensive rebound? ... [But] again, if you were walking in and had been in practice, I’m just so pleased with where we are physically. And Juwan and Laszewski maybe made the biggest jumps.”

This now makes for not only Laszewski’s third year in the program but Durham’s third year on the court (having sat out as a UConn transfer in 2017-18). Mooney continued a trend of Brey’s big men who have made leaps in their games during their junior years, and Brey seems to expect the same from his two current bigs.

“I’m kind of excited for both of them, quite frankly,” he said. “The one thing that really helps both of them, Johnny Mooney has left the building. And we’ve had that happen when [former Irish forwards] Zach Auguste then blossomed or Bonzie [Colson] or whoever. Somebody leaves the building who’s a main guy, as in Mooney, and then that junior who’s been in the program has an opportunity. And now, from my point of view, I have to play him 28 to 30 minutes; I don’t have another choice.”

Brey said that if the season started Monday his lineup would include junior guards Cormac Ryan, Dane Goodwin and Prentiss Hubb, plus Laszewski and Durham. But another big who is pushing for time off the bench is freshman Matt Zona out of Blauvelt, New York. According to Brey, the 6-foot-9 forward has reshaped his body out of high school and has been displaying great aggressiveness and savvy on the court, so much so that it’s caught the eye of his teammates.

“What I always look for after a week of practice,” Brey said, “I like to ask my old guards, ‘Which one of the young guys can I put in the game and you'd be confident?’ And [junior guards] Cormac and Prentiss and Dane unanimously said, ‘We need Zona. We need Zona.’ That’s the greatest endorsement, when your senior captains and old guys go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we need him to win.’”

Another new addition that Brey wants to see in action this season is Santa Clara transfer Trey Wertz. The junior was expected to redshirt this season — which Brey said is customary whenever bringing in a transfer. However, with freshman forward Elijah Taylor out for the season with an ankle injury requiring surgery and junior guard Robby Carmody out until at least Christmas according to Brey, plus the uncertainty of the pandemic and the increased weight of every coronavirus-induced absence, the Irish need all the help they can get on the roster.

“My theory was this should be an all-hands-on-deck season, to get through the season,” Brey said. “I don’t know why anyone on my roster would be ineligible in a COVID season. Trey Wertz could be my seventh man one night if we’re going to play NC State, and we wouldn’t have to cancel the game. If he’s ineligible under the residency rules of sitting out, I may have to cancel the game if I have some guys who test positive that are in quarantine.”

Brey also cited the fact that the NCAA will soon be allowing a universal one-time waiver to any athlete who elects to transfer as a reason for granting one to Wertz. Another veteran presence certainly wouldn’t hurt an Irish group looking to break a three-year Big Dance hiatus.

Brey is in a strange position. He’s coming off a year with increased pressure following a losing season and back-to-back NCAA Tournament misses, and he’s now going into one rife with uncertainty. Even so, he’s still flashing his trademark optimism about the group he’ll be throwing out on the court.

“I was very proud of, after being 2-6 coming out of Tallahassee [against then-No. 5 Florida State last season], that we went 9-4 down the stretch,” he said. “And we would have been an NIT team last year, most likely, and that would have been good for our group. Nobody wants to miss the NCAA tournament, certainly not us. We’ve been in a lot since I’ve been here. But there was a kind of build-back, kind of, an opportunity there, or phase, that we had to go through.

“I’m really excited about our group,” Brey said. “They know how we play, they’re older, they get it.”