Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Cleansing the Palette | by Teds

If you'll humor me for a moment, it's time to take the Pepsi Challenge with a couple of current college basketball coaches. And please, for the sanctity of the exercise -- no peeking...

Records over first five seasons:

Coach A - 17-13, 10-17, 11-17, 24-10, 23-8 (total: 85-65, .567)

Coach B - 20-10, 22-11, 24-10, 19-13, 16-8 (total: 101-52, .660)

Conference record during first five seasons:

Coach A - 6-8, 4-10, 3-11, 7-7, 8-6 (total: 28-42, .400)

Coach B - 11-5, 10-6, 10-6, 9-7, 8-6 (total: 48-30, .615)

NCAA appearances during first five seasons:

Coach A - 2

Coach B - 3 (on the verge of number 4)

NCAA tournament wins during first five seasons:

Coach A - 1

Coach B - 4 (with perhaps more coming)

NCAA "Sweet Sixteen" appearances:

Coach A - 0

Coach B - 1

Team records in the three seasons preceding the respective coach's arrival:

Team A - 24-9, 22-8, 27-7 (total: 73-24, .753)

Team B - 22-15, 14-16, 13-14 (total: 49-45, .521)

Team appearances in NCAA tournament in the same three seasons:

Team A - 3 (including one appearance in the finals and another in "Elite Eight")

Team B - 0

Given that data, I put it to you, Greg -- which mystery coach would you rather have leading your program into the future?

You might have figured out by now that "Coach B" is none other than Notre Dame's own Mike Brey. What might not be quite as obvious is that the less-successful "Coach A" is one of Brey's old bosses and, coincidentally enough, the most successful college coach of the past generation, Mike Krzyzewski.

Obviously, the way in which I've framed the illustration gives Brey the benefit of the doubt. In his sixth year on the job (1986), Krzyzewski's Duke team took off, recording a 37-3 record and advancing to the NCAA finals before losing to Louisville. From that point on, his Blue Devil teams were regularly ranked among the best in the nation and were annual threats to win national championships.

At the same time, Krzyzewski inherited a significantly more prosperous foundation at Duke than Brey did at ND, which is probably news to a lot of college basketball fans who assume that Coach K built the Duke empire from scratch. But Krzyzewski stumbled along as something of a mediocrity for several seasons in replacement of Bill Foster, leading the Blue Devils to an NIT appearance in his inaugural season before falling off the table in 1982 and 1983. Anyone care to hazard a guess as to the response Coach K's successor might someday receive if he emulates the master's first three seasons on the job (.447 winning percentage)? My suspicion is that it would make North Carolina's "handling" (*cough*) of ex-coach Matt Doherty look like a tickertape parade and honarary-key-to-Chapel-Hill ceremony by comparison.

I included the season-by-season records because I think it's important to recognize the stability that Brey has brought to Notre Dame basketball. His teams will have won an average of over 20 games a season when the current campaign closes out, and it's very likely that they will have produced five consecutive winning conference records while playing in perhaps the most challenging league in the nation during that stretch.

Just look at the records as listed above. That kind of consistency can get boring for fans and lead the antsier among us to wonder when the program will turn the proverbial Corner. While everyone is anxious to see Brey lead this team to the next level, it cannot be overstated how important that consistent winning performance has been to the image of a program that was stripped bare over a decade ago by neglect and an indefensible resistence to the conference movement. Even a single clunker year like those suffered by Krzyzewski at Duke would have compromised Notre Dame's rehabilitation.

The other noteworthy point from Krzyzewski's dossier at Duke is that, although his team became a top ten fixture during his sixth season, they didn't actually cash in and win a championship until his eleventh year on the job (1991). And the point I'd make here is that very few programs are going to progress in a natural and completely predictable fashion, as I'm sure that Duke fans wondered for a number of very successful seasons if their coach might just be another Bud Grant (remember, we didn't have Marv Levy to kick around at that point).

So when Brey led ND to the tournament and a first-round victory in year one, followed by another tournament appearance and a near-slaying of #1 seed Duke to advance to the Regionals in year two, followed by another tournament appearance and a Sweet Sixteen berth in year three...well, Irish fans likely became set in their ways about expecting continued baby steps up the ladder. Unfortunately, things rarely work out in such a rigid manner, and the purported underperformance of the team this year on the heels of missing the NCAAs completely last season has more than a few ND supporters openly wondering if Brey is capable of greater things here.

However, given what he's accomplished, the consistency with which he's done it, the instability and general mediocrity of the team prior to his arrival, and the impeccable character that he has exhibited in all facets throughout his five seasons on the job, there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that Mike Brey deserves the unqualified support of the entire Notre Dame community. Anyone holding back in this respect should have their eyes checked or their brain flushed.

On a more detailed front, there are team- and player-specific issues that deserve to be discussed and, yes, questioned. This season obviously hasn't unfolded quite as smoothly as most expected it would, and a certain amount of criticism is warranted here. But it's not over, either, and I don't think that this team's headstone has exactly been chiseled out yet. We can devote more time to the dissection of such items in future missives.

In the meantime, try to enjoy watching a team that's in the midst of sewing up yet another NCAA tournament at-large invitation while playing fiercely-contested games regularly on national television against opponents from the toughest and deepest conference in all of college basketball. It may not be your daddy's ND basketball team, but it's not your big brother's toothless edition, either. And there's a hell of a lot to be said for that.