An interview with Joey Dwyer of Breaking Down Brey’s Boys.
Based on the University of Notre Dame’s brand, it is only natural to assume that I am a football fan first, with all other athletic programs falling behind as a distant afterthought. My strongest sports allegiance, however, is to Notre Dame men’s basketball.
This dedicated fandom is a combination of my upbringing in the Syracuse area, home to a university that is as much a Basketball School as Notre Dame is a Football School, the dominance of the recently retired Muffet McGraw’s women’s program, and the intoxicating appeal of rooting for a perennial underdog. When Notre Dame football loses by 27 to Clemson, not a single soul feels pity for Fighting Irish fans. Notre Dame basketball, on the other hand, competes in the Atlantic Coast Conference, dueling regularly with the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world. If Notre Dame men’s basketball has a strong year, chances are the team is led by plucky three stars from Indiana who will never sniff the National Basketball Association. Simply put, the men’s basketball program is lovable.
Finding other members of the Fighting Irish family who care equally about the basketball program, either men’s or women’s, is a challenge unto itself. As a student, I frequently attended half-empty men’s games (the women’s team is a regular sellout and holds 150 or so first-come first-serve seats for students, while students must reserve a ticket to men’s games ahead of time) on dark, below-freezing December evenings alone, unable to wrangle up another fan to make the ten minute walk across campus to Purcell Pavilion. Fighting Irish athletic reporting sites such as Blue & Gold Illustrated and IrishIllustrated, the 247Sports page for Notre Dame, don’t even have specific messaging boards for basketball.
A quick note: I lightly edited the interview for clarity and readability. Our conversation took place on December 23rd, a week before Notre Dame’s fifth agonizing loss at the hands of Virginia.
Do you come from a Notre Dame family?
I became a Notre Dame fan because of my dad. I used to live in Illinois, so Notre Dame was the only good team around, shade at Northwestern, Illinois, and DePaul intended.
No one in my family went to Notre Dame. I don’t think they could afford it, nor did they have the grades. I’ve always just been a fan. I started out with football, and then I remember the first Notre Dame basketball game I watched was the five overtime game against Louisville. The Jerian Grant game.
We were listening to Jack Nolan call that game on the radio. It was the third overtime when we turned it on and everyone else was going crazy in my family group chat. I remember guys like Jack Cooley, Eric Atkins. I think that’s how I got started.
And now I like Notre Dame basketball more than football.
What are some challenges that come with covering basketball at a Football School?
Mostly, to be honest, just numbers. It’s not hard to get content. There’s always stuff I can think of or that’s happening, but the numbers are just frustrating. Sometimes, I’ll see a football article with 150 likes on Twitter, and my basketball article will have seven. That’s kind of a problem for every Notre Dame writer. No matter how big the writer is, their basketball articles don’t do as well as football.
There’s benefits to covering basketball also, like with the interviews. John Mooney, probably the best player we’ve had in the last few years, I can DM him and he’ll most likely respond. I don’t think that would happen with [football players] Ian Book or Kyle Hamilton. They have about a bajillion followers on Instagram and Twitter. Stuff like that, I’d say it’s an advantage.
Something else I love about the basketball program is that the kind of people they have in the program is second to none. Coach Mike Brey gets a lot of flack for his recruiting, but the kind of people they have in the program is what keeps it special, even if they are not winning games, which is what I love about it. Pretty cool at times, but the numbers are deflating every once in a while.
What do you think the Notre Dame men need to do to get back to being March Madness regulars?
It’s interesting because since the Elite Eight runs, you could argue that the recruiting has gotten better. So it’s interesting that they’ve fallen off. It’s not necessarily the stars that they are recruiting, but that the type of players they are getting aren’t taking the program to the next level.
Like next year’s team is going to be really good, but I don’t know if the front line guys are the guys you need to make a deep run in March. It starts with getting guys who can create their own shot. Maybe the main reason that these teams in the past few years haven’t been good is that, while I love TJ Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, love what they brought to the program, love that they were good ambassadors on and off the court, they both had skill sets that, at times, would send the whole offense into ruts because they couldn’t get to the basket. Prentiss Hubb and Mooney were running the show and the team didn’t have much to compliment them outside of catch-and-shoot threes.
It starts there. You need guys to manufacture offense. I also think you need players who are different from each other. The program has done a good job getting that in recent years. Like the 2018 class, and recent years before that, it’s kind of all sharpshooters. You look at Gibbs, Dane Goodwin, they’re all kind of catch-and-shoot players. Goodwin doesn’t play a lot of defense, Gibbs played OK defense.
But the coaches have done a good job mixing it up recently. Like you look at the 2020 class – [Matt] Zona, [Tony] Sanders, [Elijah] Taylor – they are all really different from each other, which is what I think the coaches need to keep doing.
I think their guard development recently had been really poor under [former assistant coach] Ryan Ayers, so I’m really excited to see [new assistant coach] Scott Martin. Like, if you look at Gibbs, he never really developed into that number one option that we were hoping he could be. He was kind of like a sharpshooter that played decent defense. Couldn’t really create his own shot. I think development of guards is a huge issue with the program.
To be there every year, I don’t know how. It’s so hard to predict injuries. After the back to back Elite Eights, we thought “We got Bonzie [Colson] coming back, [Matt] Farrell, Mooney, the 2018 class,” but it just hasn’t worked out. I think it starts with getting a certain type of player which can help you compete in the ACC, kick-start your offense, and make you an explosive team at both ends.
Speaking of the ACC, do you prefer the current ACC or the old Big East?
I would say the current ACC. I watched like two years of the old Big East, so it’s really tough for me to put it over the ACC.
I think if you get a chance to play against Duke, UNC – the best basketball schools for my entire life – and to go in and beat them a couple times, that’s a great opportunity. You’re not seeing guys like Zion Williamson, or even Cole Anthony, in the Big East today. I know a lot of people would disagree with that, just based on the age range of my followers, but that’s what I’ve got to say.
Who would you put on your Mount Rushmore of guys who have played for Coach Brey?
I made two lists. The best I’ve seen in my lifetime and the best overall.
For my lifetime, far and away the number one is Jerian Grant. He’s done stuff that no other ND guard could ever do. So he’s on both my lists, and a clear-cut number one on my lifetime list.
Number two, Bonzie. Such a unique guy. Six-foot-six and he can do everything. Create his own shot off the dribble, handle the ball like a guard, take you down the post the next play for a nice dunk to pump the crowd up, I don’t think we’ve seen many players like him at Notre Dame ever.
Three, Pat Connaughton, really versatile, with the best NBA career of the ND guys of my lifetime. So I have to put him on there even though his stats weren’t insane, 12-13 points per game in his last couple years.
The last one is Demetrius Jackson. He’s so quick. He was probably my favorite ND player before I started the podcast. Just the way he’s so quick, he could go up and get his own shot. Decent defender. He could get shots, get breakaways, get the energy up. So that’s the best four I’ve seen in my life.
A lot of these other guys, I’ve only seen limited highlights for. The so-called olden days, with less film available. Number one is still Jerian. And then two, Luke Harangody. I watched the tail end of his NBA career, and I can’t find that much film of him at ND, but everyone hypes him up. He had really good numbers at Notre Dame. Have to put him on there.
These aren’t in any particular order, but next is still Bonzie. I had a really hard time with number four. I didn’t want to trigger anyone, but I figured Troy Murphy was kind of a safe bet. Some people I’ve talked to who were around when he was playing say he was maybe the most talented player they’ve ever seen come through ND. He had really good stats too.My personal Rushmore: Grant, Jackson, Connaughton & Jack Cooley. Honorable mentions to Ben Hansbrough, Murphy, Eric Atkins, Harangody, Colson, and Mooney.
I wasn’t alive to see Allen Iverson in college, so I have to go with Derrick Rose.
I talk to people who don’t even watch college basketball but are like “Do you remember that Derrick Rose Memphis team?”
If that was Notre Dame, it would have been huge to have people still bring the program up like that. And Derrick Rose was so explosive and everything like that. I don’t know how grades would’ve worked, whether he would’ve got in with his big scandal at Memphis. I don’t know how that would’ve worked.
Are there any other recruiting near-misses that haunt you?
Jack Nolan told us that someone within Kobe Bryant’s camp told him that if Kobe would’ve gone to college, he would’ve come to Notre Dame. That’s pretty cool. I definitely would’ve taken Kobe, one of the best NBA players of all-time.
Klay Thompson also considered Notre Dame, but he wanted to play in the Pac-12 for some reason. He might have changed the program more than any of these other guys because he wouldn’t have been a one-and-done, or even a two-and-out. He would’ve been in the program for three years, developed, and gone on to become an NBA star. It would have shown recruits “Hey, you can come here and have a successful NBA career if you come here and put in the work.”
We can bring guys to the next level, which I think has been a missed selling point in the last few years. Two others, definitely not on that level – Cole Anthony and Thon Maker. But Maker led to Nik Djogo, so there is some consolation. They wouldn’t have been as big but I wanted to include them.
Any thoughts on who might replace Coach Brey when he moves on?
Ryan Humphrey I think would be an intriguing candidate, to be like the Niele Ivey to Brey’s Muffet McGraw. I think Brey thinks Humphrey is his best recruiter because he put Humphrey on Blake Wesley, who is a guard. Humphrey is typically the one contacting forwards.
Wesley said that Humphrey was his main recruiter, his main contact at Notre Dame, and I think Brey put his best guy on the recruit he really wanted, which shows the trust he had in him. Also, if you look at Humphrey’s track record since he got to Notre Dame, he’s had Martin Geben take a huge leap in his last year, Nate Laszewski, who has looked like a completely different player this year, Mooney made a huge leap, Juwan Durham, at times, we’ve seen flashes from him.
Humphrey is a proponent of working on defense, which we’ve seen. He’s a good recruiter and a good guy, from when I’ve talked to him. He can make connections well. Big fan of Humphrey.
I’ve also heard Chris Quinn, a guy who’s currently with the Miami Heat. I’ve heard he wants to stay in the NBA, but he could be an option. This might be three or four years down the road, so who knows? Brey said Humphrey is one of the hottest head coaching candidates out there in one of his pressers. Humphrey could be coaching in the ACC by the time Brey leaves. Quinn could be an elite NBA assistant or even a head coach.
What are you hopes for the rest of the season as we start conference play?
I think the goal this year is to be a tournament team. I like to think of it as ‘17-‘18 was the Bonzie injury, ‘18-‘19 they had the young guy excuse, last year was the stepping stone. We had excuses all of those years. This year, we have to get back. The highly touted 2018 recruiting class, they are all upperclassmen now. My expectation is that the team should make the tournament.
I think, talent wise, they are a top seven team in the ACC. They have to rebound well, which they haven’t so far. Notre Dame has to find a way to score down low so they aren’t living and dying off the three. We have to defend, which we haven’t done well. Holding Bellarmine to 70 was a step in the right direction. I think [Trey] Wertz is really going to help.
I wouldn’t panic right now. I’ve seen a lot of panicking. I’d say I’m way more optimistic than the average ND fan.
With the schedule we have and its reputation around the country, we almost only need thirteen or fourteen wins to get into the tournament if we get some big ones. My expectation is that they make the tournament, they just have to beat a ranked team. I think this year’s team is better than the past two years’ teams.
|↑1||My personal Rushmore: Grant, Jackson, Connaughton & Jack Cooley. Honorable mentions to Ben Hansbrough, Murphy, Eric Atkins, Harangody, Colson, and Mooney.|