SOUTH BEND, Ind Maybe coach Mike Breys biggest surprise during Notre Dames nine-game winning streak was picking up a technical foul.
Unhappy with a call as the Irish were negotiating their way through a physical stretch of play against West Virginia, Brey nearly lost his seat on the bench.
I dont get many (technicals), Brey said. I was close to getting thrown out.
Breys cool during a season that appeared ready to slip away in the first month has helped his team produce a turnaround that has college basketball shaking its collective head. The Irish lost three starters from last years 27-7 team, and their top returning player, Tim Abromaitis, appeared in only two games before his season was ended by a knee injury.
The Irish were 5-4, including a 20-point loss to Gonzaga, in early December, just hanging on. They went into Louisville on Jan. 7 and won a double-overtime game against the then-No. 11 Cardinals.
And then came the victory that swung the season, a nine-point win over then-No. 1 and unbeaten Syracuse on Jan. 21. The Irish hadnt lost since, until Saturday.
Road wins at Seton Hall, Connecticut, West Virginia and Villanova after trailing by 20 and a rout of a good Marquette team at home were part of the school-best, nine-game Big East winning streak.
The Irish now are 20-9 (12-4 Big East), and Brey has his sixth consecutive 20-victory season.
To have nine wins in the Big East, let alone nine of them in a row, its really unbelievable, center Jack Cooley said. Its never been done here before.
So, what happened?
No one quit. We were bound and determined to figure it out, and we did, senior forward Scott Martin said.
Guards Eric Atkins, who started six games ago, and Jerian Grant, the son of former NBA player Horace Grant, give the Irish the speed and quickness out front, especially on defense.
Martin, the lone starter from last season, provided leadership; a slimmed-down Cooley, at 6-9, became a major force inside (11 double-doubles this season) and could be the Big Easts most improved player; and freshman Pat Connaughton has been a sharpshooter at times from the 3-point line, hitting seven in the comeback win against Villanova.
Sophomore Alex Dragicevich also has been a key contributor.
Translated: The Irish listened to Brey, got comfortable with one another, started playing better defense and began to make more shots, especially from the 3-point line where they were 9-for-16 in a 71-44 rout of the Mountaineers on Wednesday night.
Weve always had really coachable guys here. I dont know if Ive had more fun with a group, and thats saying a lot after last year, Brey recently said.
They let us teach back in November and December when we werent very good, and that was really a key. It started with guys who wanted to be good, leadership that kept selling the message even when youre losing, saying Hey we got to get better at this. Thats probably the most gratifying thing.
Brey was voted the national coach of the year after the Irishs remarkable season a year ago, one that ended with a second-round loss to Florida State in the NCAA Tournament.
The argument can be made that hes done an even better job this season.
Breys background and influences are high end. He played and coached under the legendary DeMatha High School coach Morgan Wooten and also was an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke before becoming head coach at Delaware. He came to Notre Dame for the 2000-01 season after Matt Dohertys departure after just one seasonfor North Carolina.
At the beginning of the year there was a lot more teaching and going over things, Martin said of Breys approach this time around. As a season goes, you hit rough stretches, and hes been very encouraging and optimistic, giving us the confidence that we should believe in ourselves and go for it.
And thats what the Irish will do the rest of the season as they try to wrap up a double bye in the conference tournament.
They have a challenging three days ahead, with a loss against St. Johns at Madison Square Garden on Saturday where they hoped to become acclimated with the same building that will host the Big East tournament next month. Then its off to Georgetown. The regular season wraps at home against Providence on March 2.
The Irish are 15-1 at home this season and 34-1 in their last 35 at the Purcell Pavilion, making it one of the toughest homecourts in the country. The student section often waves oversized cutouts of Brey, whos sartorial preference is for mock turtlenecks when hes working the bench.
Brey tries to make sure his demeanor also stays the same.
Even though inside you may be doing backflips, when your guys look over, they dont see a maniac, they see a calming influence, Brey said. Im going to be loose the rest of my career because I can be.