Toughness marks best start in Mike Brey's tenure coaching Notre Dame men's basketball

 Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger (0) passes around IPFW's Racine Talla (34) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, at Notre Dame.

NOTRE DAME — There is a sliver of irony in the fact that such an all-around nice guy and a self-proclaimed players' coach has developed a basketball team with a toughness that sort of defies the everyday demeanor of Mike Brey.

When Notre Dame disposed of North Carolina A&T and Fort Wayne earlier this week, the Irish moved to 9-0, marking the best start during Brey's 17 years as the Irish head coach and the program's best start since opening 12-0 in 1973-74.

Much of the anatomy of this undefeated run so far is typical of a Brey team: unselfishness, efficiency, smarts, ball security and good shooting.

But there is something different about this team, something that has been developed during the last two years when Notre Dame won an ACC championship and advanced to consecutive Elite Eights in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

This team has a toughness and an assuredness about it no matter the quality of the opponent and no matter how dire the game situation.

Three times already this season — against Northwestern, Iowa and Fort Wayne — the No. 22 Irish have found themselves either trailing or in a difficult spot where each of these games could've gotten away. Every time, they regrouped and won.

"How we have won games with this nucleus (of players), coming back and stealing wins, they always believe they have a chance," Brey said. "We maybe have had more of a collection of mentally tough guys in this group than we have had in the past."

Brey calls his team's toughness the "I-95 edge," because of the large number of players he has recruited along that blue-collar East Coast corridor. Six Irish players hail from the Northeast, including tough guys Steve Vasturia, Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell.

"When you've been part of back-to-back Elite Eights, that gets you really to believe. I love that about them," Brey said. "There's a great belief and that is 90 percent of it. There's never any panic."

And while team toughness has been part of its secret to success, an atypical interest in playing defense is also helping. Brey's teams have forever demonstrated an indifference to defense but that hasn't been the case this year.

Notre Dame ranks 30th nationally in field-goal defense (37.8 percent) and 45th in scoring defense (63.7 ppg.), not exactly the stuff of legend, but a marked improvement for a team that finished last season 156th in field-goal defense (43.2 percent) and 144th in scoring defense (70.6 ppg.).

Opposing coaches are taking notice.

"That Notre Dame team is going to be something special," Fort Wayne coach Jon Coffman said Tuesday after his team was beaten by the Irish. "They're undervalued in the country right now."

And the numbers bear that out. Notre Dame ranks at or near the top nationally in several important categories.

* 1st assist/turnover ratio (2.34)

* 1st free-throw percentage (85.9)

* 8th fewest turnovers (8.1 per game)

* 10th points per game (88.9)

* 12th turnover margin (+5.9)

* 13th assists per game (19.0)

The Irish will again need to excel in each of these areas Saturday when they face top-ranked and defending national champion Villanova in Newark, N.J., as part of the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic.

Impressively, Brey has a terrific 7-4 record in his 11 games against the defending national champion, including four straight wins — two over Duke last season, one against 2012 champion Kentucky, and the other over 2011 champ Connecticut.

The Irish have actually won three straight in this series with Villanova. A victory in this game would likely catapult Notre Dame into the top 10 and showcase more of the swagger that has defined this team so far this season.

"Our team has been kind of built around our mental toughness," explained sophomore guard Rex Pflueger. "If you're going to hit us in the mouth, we're going to hit you back in the mouth."

Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.

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