NOTRE DAME — With 11 wins during the 13 games of his pre-conference schedule, Irish men's basketball coach Mike Brey was asked to grade his team before the heavy lifting of the Atlantic Coast Conference season begins with a New Year's Eve matchup at Pittsburgh against a familiar but difficult opponent.
"I'd give us a B+," satisfactorily explained Brey, citing consecutive losses earlier this month to No. 1 Villanova and No. 15 Purdue as the two reasons for staying below the A-range. "If you would have told me 11-2 in the non-league with what we lost and after my first practice in the summer, I think I would have signed up for that."
Brey is correct in that filling the leadership and production void after last season's Elite Eight team lost point guard Demetrius Jackson and power forward Zach Auguste created one of the most difficult coaching challenges during his 17 years on the job here.
And so far so good with only two losses and a No. 24 ranking heading into the conference grind. But while victories over Chicago State, North Carolina A&T, Colgate and others may help to pile up the win count, back-to-back games in the next five days against Pittsburgh (11-2) and No. 6 Louisville (11-2) will serve as a better measure of this Irish team, a challenge that Brey embraces.
"This is going to be the hardest thing we ever did with the depth of this league, but I like the group that we have doing it," Brey explained. "My old theme of one-game winning streaks, it would be a heckuva New Year's Eve if we were on a one-game winning streak. Let's just say that."
Brey's greatest strength as a coach isn't necessarily compiling lots of one-game winning streaks – often times strung together – but avoiding the extended losing streaks that undermine a team and eventually its postseason hopes.
"Bouncing back," Brey shared as the secret to conference success.
During his last two seasons playing in the ACC, Brey has only lost consecutive games once – and never more than two straight – while putting together winning streaks of five, four, three and three during those previous two years, a testament to his team's ability to focus on the future and not dwell on the past. It's a winning formula never more emphasized than it will be this season.
With North Carolina (2), Virginia (3), Duke (4) and Louisville (9) all ranked in the top 10 of the Sagarin Power rankings heading into weekend play, the 15-team ACC is clearly the premier power conference in college hoops this season.
In fact, with 13 ACC teams all ranked in the top 62 of the power rankings, Brey believes this conference can secure as many as 10 bids to the NCAA Tournament after the 18-game grind shakes out, and he expects his team to be one of the chosen ones.
"Here's the thing," Brey explained, "9-9 in this league, this year, will have you strongly on the board, in my opinion, because of just how deep the league is."
Notre Dame – which is ranked No. 23 in the Sagarin rankings – will play its first eight games of the conference season against one of those top 62 teams.
"I'm excited about going through this gauntlet with them," Brey said, "because I think they are going to be able to handle all the hard stuff and the knocks pretty well."
It's a resilience that Brey's teams consistently demonstrate under his care, especially when the deck is stacked against them. Keep in mind, this Irish team was picked this preseason to finish only seventh in the conference by the ACC coaches.
"They do everything we ask of them and then some, they need to be rewarded," Brey of his players, as he begins the journey to become the only coach in the country to lead his team to three straight appearances to the Elite Eight. "I feel the heat. I got to get them there. We got to really help get them to Selection Sunday, and have a good regular season, and play in that darn tournament again."