CLEVELAND (AP) — The blessing of being the son of an Olympic athlete meant Mike Brey grew up in a house where excellence wasn’t requested from his mother, but required.
It brought its own sense of pressure, one that Brey says fueled his rise from gym rat to Notre Dame head coach.
“To be around that intensity every day, maybe it wasn’t the healthiest,” Brey said with a laugh. “I’ll probably need therapy later in life because of it, but I’ll tell you one thing: she made me think about competing every day.”
That drive is what kept him from telling his players about her death last Saturday at age 84 until after the Irish had held off Butler in overtime to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. No need to burden his players with his grief. Betty Brey didn’t do self-pity anyway. Not her style.
“She always made me feel like I could be special because she was,” Brey said. “(It) gave me a lot of confidence.”
Something Brey has passed on to his overachieving team. The third-seeded Irish (31-5) will try to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979 when they face seventh-seeded Wichita State (30-4) in the Midwest Regional semifinal. It’s a dizzying precipice for a program that lost 17 games a year ago, one that has roared back much like its resilient coach.
Brey didn’t share the news of his mother’s passing until after the 67-64 win against the Bulldogs. Sunday morning, he told the Irish about his mother’s remarkable life, from her spot on the 1956 U.S. Olympic swimming team to her role as the swim coach at George Washington University and her spot in the Indiana swimming Hall of Fame. Then it was a short trip to Florida, where he smoked a cigar with his father and celebrated his mother’s memory.
By Monday, Brey was back on campus in the safe cocoon basketball has always provided from the time he first slipped off to camp with his brother at age 9.
“I think coaches are the greatest compartmentalizers in the history of the world and have to be to survive this thing,” Brey said. “There is such a good vibe and positive energy coming off this team, it’s really good for me to be around it this week and get back and be busy and teach.”
There are plenty of lessons to impart. The biggest might be to not get lost in the moment. This is rarified air for a program that’s spent decades in the shadow of the football team. That’s not the way it is at Wichita State. Listen to coach Gregg Marshall rattle off the teams the Shockers have faced in the tournament over the last three years is akin to listening to a financial adviser rattle off blue chip stocks in their portfolio.
Ohio State. Louisville. Kentucky. Indiana. Kansas. That last one, by the way, may have been the most important. Spoiling for a fight against their unwilling in-state rivals for more than 20 years, Wichita State blew Kansas off the floor in the round of 32. The celebration could have gotten out of control. Three or four years ago, it might have. Not anymore.
Calling them the Shockers these days is a bit of a misnomer. Nothing Wichita State does anymore is surprising, including getting caught up in its own hype. Beating the Jayhawks was great and all, it’s only one stop on a journey the Shockers believe is far from complete.
“You realize cloud nine can be replaced by cloud 10 if you win these two games this week,” junior guard Ron Baker said.
Wichita State can get halfway there on Thursday night. Standing in its way will be another marquee name, one guided by a man still processing a great loss by relying on the toughness his mother instilled in him long ago.
“Coach is a leader,” senior guard Jerian Grant said. “We hurt for him. We want to play for him.”
STYLE POINTS: The Shockers have one of college basketball’s most suffocating defenses, but they insist they can get up and down the floor too. Notre Dame has built a reputation on its free-flowing offense but has gotten every stop it needed down the stretch during a seven-game winning streak that includes the ACC Tournament title.
“We can run and we will run,” Wichita State guard Tekele Cotton said. “We can switch it up. That’s one of the reasons we’re successful.”
UNDERDOGS NO MORE: Despite being the lower seed, the Shockers are a slight favorite. Just consider it another motivating tool at Brey’s disposal the Irish try to spoil a potential rematch between the Shockers and the Wildcats, who met in a thrilling round of 32 game last spring in which Kentucky ended Wichita State’s perfect season.
“They’ve been machine-like in March,” he said. “But we do feel a little bit like odd man out.”
STORY TIME: Baker admitted he was stunned when the Shockers and Jayhawks were thrown into the same region with the Wildcats looming down the road. Of course, that wasn’t intentional or anything to set up certain storylines, right?
“No comment on that,” Baker said with a laugh.
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