Situational Analysisposted by Mike Coffey
Notre Dame finds its basketball team sitting on a 15-5 overall record, 4-3 in the Big East. Its poor non-conference schedule won’t impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Of the 11 remaining games, all in the conference, six are on the road; and the Irish will be the clear underdog in six games. As a result, a second consecutive NIT season is likely.
Head coach Mike Brey is in his 10th season at Notre Dame. Brey started the season with a 188-101 (.650) record at Notre Dame, 88-60 (.595) in Big East games.
Even the worst conference teams have a few good players, and conference road games are a challenge for the best programs, so Big East record is one good way to measure a coach’s and his program’s success. Brey’s best teams have finished first (2000-01), second (2001-02), and third (2002-03) in the West when the Big East played a division format, and fourth (2006-07) and second (2007-08) in the 16-team non-division format. His worst teams finished 6-10 (2005-06) and 8-10 (2008-09). Seven of his nine teams have completed conference play with winning records.
The other good barometer for the program is success in the NCAA Tournament. Five of Brey’s nine teams have participated. One lost in the first round. Three lost in the second round. One lost in the third round. One team lost to a lower seed, one team beat a higher seed, and all other games held form according to seeding.
Most Notre Dame fans are not happy with the state of the basketball program. The most common complaints are that the team should be better defensively and on the boards, and that Brey hasn’t recruited the talent to finish near the top of the Big East every year, to be a perennial NCAA Tournament team, and to advance in the tournament. The number of players in Brey’s playing rotation and his management of players’ eligibility also draw criticism at times.
Notre Dame’s administration has imposed three main constraints on its basketball program over the years:
1) Notre Dame has the most stringent admissions standards for basketball players in the Big East.
Admissions standards limit the pool of highly rated recruits available to Notre Dame. Urban public school players dominate the top 50 in recruiting rankings, and Notre Dame will not admit all but one or two of them in any given year. In addition, a large percentage of Catholic and/or suburban high school basketball stars will not qualify academically for Notre Dame.
Perennial top programs like Connecticut, Louisville, and Syracuse have no such admissions restrictions. They can recruit any athletes who meet the NCAA’s minimum standards. Big East Catholic schools like Marquette, Villanova, Providence, and St. John’s have somewhat stricter standards, but they’re still able to recruit dozens more from the top 100 than Notre Dame can. The only Big East school with admissions standards for athletes that compare to Notre Dame’s is Georgetown, and even Georgetown has a star player on its current roster that ND’s Admissions Department advised the coaches to stop recruiting.
As a result, Notre Dame's men's basketball coach recruits from a pool of mostly three star players from suburban high schools with strong academics. Few of these players are prepared to be Big East level contributors, with an average of about one per year able to earn significant playing time right away. Many become fine players in time, but it takes time to polish skills to compensate for other athletic deficiencies.
Virtually every school in the conference has more height, speed, and quickness than Notre Dame, although not all of them have players as skilled. Brey has said that he has chosen an approach to basketball, primarily on offense, that is based on being able to accumulate players who can handle the ball and shoot well because they are abundant in his pool of recruits who can pass admissions muster. He has also said that his teams go to the NCAA Tournament when they defend well in the lane and rebound, and they go to the NIT when they don’t do those things, so it shows he understands those things are important.
2) Notre Dame has maintained substandard basketball facilities for the last two decades.
Notre Dame’s basketball facilities have been woefully substandard for years. The JACC opened in the late 1960s. It was an outstanding college basketball arena in its day, but it was allowed to go to seed over the years. We joke about the duct tape all the time, but it literally was the maintenance solution for an inordinate amount of the wear and tear in the arena. The lack of effort and attention was both obvious and embarrassing.
The newly remodeled arena is a major step in the right direction, but there is no plan in place to upgrade practice space. The men's basketball team practices on the arena floor as often as possible, but it shares the arena with the women's basketball and volleyball teams. Therefore, they have to practice regularly in The Pit, an auxiliary gym in the Joyce Center basement. The Pit has a good wooden floor, but that’s the only nice thing I have to say about it. It looks like a junior high gym without the stage, and like many junior high gyms, the end of the court is close to the wall on one end, and it has padded building support posts just out of bounds on one sideline.
The players’ locker room and lounge was updated when Matt Doherty was hired 11 years ago. The space is functional, comfortable, and nice looking. It is not lavish, but it is not what I’d call substandard. It’s fine.
Facilities affect recruiting. The common theme used by opposing coaches on players Notre Dame recruits is the university is not serious about basketball ... that basketball is an afterthought to football. When the recruits visited South Bend, saw the arena in disrepair and the practice space as it was, they often decided the opposing coaches were right, especially when they compared what they saw to what was provided to the football team. Many recruits came for unofficial visits early in the process, got a load of the facilities, compared them to what they saw at other schools, and never gave Notre Dame serious consideration.
When the pool of great basketball players available to Notre Dame is limited in the first place, it makes no sense to disadvantage the basketball experience itself, but that's what Notre Dame does. The few great players who qualify academically for Notre Dame can get a great education and have top notch facilities at any number of schools. Off-putting facilities hurt the cause.
The Joyce Center renovation is a major step forward for presenting the program to recruits, not to mention how much better it is for fans. It shows a commitment to basketball success with the vote that counts most – investment dollars. When -- if? -- Notre Dame adds a center court scoreboard before next season, it will have completed a remake of the arena into one of, if not the, best on-campus game facility in the Big East.
However, that renovation happened nine years after it was promised, and comes at a time when most major programs have opened state-of-the-art practice facilities or have them under construction. Notre Dame ran out of money for a scoreboard in the arena, so I don’t guess that it’s flush enough to announce plans for a practice facility any time soon. I’m certainly not counting on it.
3) Notre Dame has one of the lowest annual operating budgets in the Big East.
According to published reports, Notre Dame’s men's basketball operating budget has been ranked 13th and 12th in the Big East the last two years. I have not been able to find line item comparisons, so it’s difficult to assess the effect of differences such as the rent for off campus arenas vs. maintenance of those owned and operated on campus, tuition charges to the program for private schools vs. public schools, etc. However, 12th isn’t close to the top, and I can’t envision what circumstantial adjustments will bring ND’s budget into the upper echelon of the conference. At the same time (thanks to the football brand), ND athletics creates twice the revenue of the next closest athletic department in the Big East.
While specific data is not available, I can think of three significant line items in the operating budget completely under the control of Notre Dame:
Coaches' salaries. I have no way of knowing if salary has driven Brey’s choice of assistants, but it isn’t an exceptionally credentialed staff. Comfort with people he has known for a long time is an equally plausible explanation.
Travel expenses. Notre Dame moved from commercial flights to charters for its East Coast games several years ago, so the team doesn’t seem to be traveling on the cheap. But I remember reading that the team flew to its recent game in Cincinnati but returned on a bus -- a bad idea when the next game is on a short turnaround to Monday. It’s entirely possible that a unique circumstance caused the change, not an opportunity to save a few bucks.
Non-conference scheduling. This, on the other hand, very much looks like it is being done on the cheap. In comparison to teams from the major conferences and second-tier leagues like the A-10 and C-USA, teams from the lowest level D-1 conferences get paid a lot less to come to South Bend and lack the bargaining power to require a return date. As a result, Notre Dame gets to create an 11-game home non-conference schedule and collect full price for each of them from its season ticket holders. Except for the recent home-and-home series with UCLA and LMU -- the latter scheduled because the away game was a convenient stop on the way to the Maui Classic a year ago -- Notre Dame plays non-conference games against major teams only when it can make a profitable appearance in an early season tournament or a specially arranged game like the opening of Lucas Oil Stadium vs. Ohio State last year.
Does the Notre Dame basketball program have any built-in advantages? I can only think of the willingness to accommodate transfers, and they still have to be compelling academic cases. Notre Dame manages its basketball program as if it isn’t trying to excel.
Mike Brey’s Performance
First, let's look at some comparative statistics:
As noted above, Brey's Big East record is 88-60 through nine years, a .595 winning percentage. It's important to not that, due to ESPN's influence over conference scheduling, ND more often than not gets a disproportionate number of games against that season's high-level in-conference competition. He has been to five NCAA Tournaments and four NIT's.
Over that same time frame and through the end of the 2008-09 season, Wikipedia says:
- Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun is 104-44 (.703). He went to one NIT, missed the postseason once, and won one national championship.
- Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim is 91-57 (.615) with 3 NIT appearances and one national championship.
- Jay Wright is 77-55 (.583) in eight seasons. He went to the NIT his first three years and has been in the NCAA Tournament ever since.
No other accomplished coach has been in the conference for all of Brey’s tenure (or in Wright's case, all but one year). However, several other excellent coaches have logged several years in that time frame:
- Ben Howland was 38-26 (.594) in four Big East seasons. He missed the postseason once and went to the NIT once.
- Tom Crean was 31-19 (.620) in three Big East seasons. He was in the NCAA Tournament each season.
- John Beilein was 40-40 (.500) in five Big East seasons. He went to the NIT twice and missed the postseason once.
- Rick Pitino is 48-20 (.706) in four Big East seasons. He has one NIT appearance.
- Jamie Dixon is 75-31 (.708) in seven Big East seasons. He has not missed the NCAA Tournament.
- John Thompson III is 53-33 (.616) in five Big East seasons. He has two NIT appearances and one Final Four appearance.
Finally, there is a long list of failed coaches who were either in the Big East when Brey arrived or have come and gone since he started at Notre Dame. All had losing records in the Big East. Unless I'm missing someone, Brey and those listed above are the only coaches with .500 records or better over the last decade.
Quantitatively, Brey lags Calhoun, Boeheim, and Dixon over his nine years at Notre Dame. I’d add Wright as a fourth because his program seems to be well established and on an upward trajectory after the first three NIT seasons. Of the newer coaches, Thompson is a close call, but the Final Four is a pretty good trump card, and Pitino has won a lot of games since joining the conference to go with his distinguished career.
Maybe I’m forgetting someone important, but of the 35 coaches, give or take a few, who have been in the Big East since Brey came to Notre Dame, I can list eight or nine who I think are better than Brey, and only Thompson has anywhere near the constraints that Brey’s administration has imposed. For example, as much as I loathe Jim Boeheim, I think he’s an excellent head coach. However, I’ll bet he hasn’t recruited three guys who could have been admitted to Notre Dame since Brey started. The same goes for Calhoun, and Dixon. Wright might have 10-12 guys over eight years who ND would have admitted, but Pitino probably doesn’t have any.
How would those guys do with such a limited recruiting pool? How would they do with rosters of mostly three star recruits? We saw what happened to Boeheim after he lost one-and-done Carmelo Anthony one year and Hakim Warrick the next without recruiting replacement talent –- 1st round NCAA loss, 1st round NCAA loss, NIT, and NIT in the following four years. We saw what happened to Calhoun when he unexpectedly lost several players to early draft entry a few years ago –- 17-14 overall, 6-10 in the conference, and no postseason the next year.
I submit that almost every excellent coach in the Big East would be unable to cope with the constraints Brey has at Notre Dame. When I see UConn run top-ranked Texas out of the gym (54-32 in the second half) with all of those elite athletes on the floor, or when I see West Virginia do the same thing to finally-healthy Ohio State (43-25 in the second half) with the great athletes those two teams have, or when I see long-and-fast Syracuse manhandle the likes of Pac-10 leader California and national powerhouse North Carolina, I wonder how Notre Dame stays on the floor with those teams. Yet ND beat West Virginia and stayed in the games with the other two until the end, despite being smaller, slower, and not as quick at every position. Given the almost overwhelming talent differential in those match-ups, how bad is the coaching?
Notre Dame is consistently competitive in spite of its constraints because is does a handful of things exceptionally well, mostly on offense. Brey’s teams are near or at the top of Division 1 in assists per game every year. They understand spacing, limit turnovers, and keep the ball moving. They have good shooters, and they get them open shots. They execute their offense better than every team in the conference except Georgetown, and the Hoyas execute their offense as well, not better. ND’s offense achieves that efficiency mostly with one-dimensional scorers, and not many of them, runs perhaps the only 75-80 points per game half-court offense in Division 1, and they accomplish that just about every year.
So what about defense? It isn’t good enough; and while it will have some limitations as long as ND isn’t as athletic as its conference opponents, it should be better than it is. Athleticism is tied to blocks, steals, and deflections; but any good athlete can have good footwork, use positioning to his advantage, and challenge shots. Notre Dame lacks in those areas far too often. In ND's NCAA tournament years under Brey, their excellent execution on offense has been coupled with solid to very-good interior defense and rebounding. I have never known ND to have an exceptional perimeter defense -- although, oddly, this is the one year that has opponents making a low percentage of their three point shots – just 32.9% in seven conference games to date. Excellent shooters are in shorter supply in this year’s Big East.
I'm left wondering what Brey could do if he had just two more outstanding athletes in the program every year, if the academic constraint weren't so severe and if it looked like ND was more committed to basketball success over the years. Imagine how good this offense would be with two more guys as talented as Luke Harangody in the lineup. Put a real college center like Greg Monroe and a multi-dimensional scorer like Austin Freeman in the lineup, and this offense would be unstoppable.
Constraints have made accumulating great athletes difficult although the new arena should solve part of that problem. However, constraints aren’t Brey's only recruiting issue.
When the team relies on so many three-star guys who take time to become contributors, being thin in one of the upper classes hurts the team. On the heels of Brey’s early success, including a trip to the NCAA Tournament round of sixteen, he recruited a one man class (Rob Kurz); and the current sophomore class, also recruited on the heels of two very good seasons, has no scholarship players. Transfers and redshirts have redistributed the classes on the current roster a little, but a complete recruiting whiff is inexplicably and inexcusably bad.
In addition to the recruiting class gaps, position gaps have stalled the program. Last year, for example, Luke Harangody was essentially an undersized center playing with four guards in the rough-and-tumble Big East. The only other active guys with big man size and any chance to have big man styles of play were Ty Nash, who apparently wasn’t ready to play in Brey’s eyes, and Luke Zeller, who seemed inclined to play up to his size no more than a couple of games each year.
If a coach knows and says that his teams go to the NCAA Tournament when they defend well in the lane and rebound well, how does he have three big men total, one he has known to shy from the lane for the first three years of his career? How can he not find three three-star big men every two years who are inclined to mix it up on defense and on the boards?
When Brey should have been able to parlay some on-court success into solid recruiting classes at the very least, his recruiting has been at its worst. The gaps have set the program back when it had a chance to establish itself as a perennial NCAA Tournament team, and being there every tear is a big key to tournament success. The constraints are real, but they don’t account for the gaps. This is, in my estimation, Mike Brey’s biggest problem; and whatever is the second biggest problem pales in comparison.
My evaluation of Mike Brey:
- An outstanding offensive coach
- Wanting as a defensive coach
- Inexplicable recruiting gaps stall his program every time it seems to have some momentum
- One of the better coaches in the Big East over the last decade
- Has done pretty well despite his constraints
- Probably would do better with relaxed constraints, but I can't prove it
- I don’t know that other coaches would do better with the constraints, either
What I Would Do
The way I see it, senior management is the biggest problem, but many fans think the solution is to fire middle management. Middle management has actually done pretty well considering senior management’s incompetence ... or senior management’s intentional decision to be no better than okay.
I would not invest in a business whose leaders think like that. I’d rather invest in a business that gives its middle managers the tools they need to succeed and then holds them accountable for using them well. I see neither when it comes to Notre Dame basketball.
I’m certain that, short of a scandal, Notre Dame will not be changing coaches after this year, and a change is unlikely next year unless the program has a complete collapse. I’m equally certain that Notre Dame is in no position to attract a new coach who has much of a track record because Notre Dame would have to promise changes, and its failures to deliver on past promises are well known. If and when a change is to be made, I’d like to be fishing the best hole.
I know ND will have tougher academic standards than anyone else. I know it isn’t going to start on a practice facility any time soon, certainly not before it puts the last expensive piece into the arena. I know its budget won’t jump to the top of the conference in one year. I’m not expecting a lot, but I don’t think it will take much to get much better performance from Mike Brey at Notre Dame.
I have three recommendations:
Target at least one admissions break every two years with one in each of the first two years to prime the pump. I am not talking about poor students. I’m talking about average to good students with solid high school curricula, ability to do the work Notre Dame requires, and the desire to earn a degree. This will probably triple the pool of top-100 guys Notre Dame can recruit. Expect Mike Brey to meet the quota, and don’t feel bad about firing him if he doesn’t.
Alter the budget for assistant coaches. Commit the budget dollars necessary to hire one of the top assistants in Division 1, instruct Mike Brey to hire one who specializes in defense, and insist that the guy get free reign to improve the team’s performance on that end of the court. If Brey doesn’t get someone and/or the team doesn’t improve on defense, don’t feel bad about firing him.
Modify the budget to accommodate a better non-conference schedule. A woeful schedule doesn’t prepare the team well for the Big East schedule, makes it more difficult for ND to get NCAA tournament bids when it's on the bubble, results in lower seeding when the team does make the tournament which makes runs there less likely, and is boring as hell for us season ticket holders. Book some decent home-and-home series. Play a neutral site game where you have a fan base but near the opponent so our team can have a taste of tournament atmosphere. If you loosen the purse strings and Mike Brey doesn’t do anything with it, fire him for insubordination.
I’m not suggesting anything radical or unduly expensive, and I believe Mike Brey would be ecstatic to have even that little bit of extra support. As I said above, imagine Brey’s offense with two more excellent scorers that we accustomed to seeing; and imagine improving the defense by five points better per game. The only other thing standing between Brey and a .700 Big East winning percentage and a consistent top four finish would be the recruiting gaps, and only Brey himself can fix those.
The best case is that Brey will succeed. The second worst case is that Notre Dame will be much better positioned to hire a really good replacement. All they’ll have to do for the new guy is promise a practice facility; and who knows, maybe that will be on the board by then.
The worst case is that Notre Dame isn’t willing to bend even the little bit I recommended; and if that’s the case, there is neither much reason to change coaches nor much reason for me to renew my season tickets.