HAMPTON — The buzz of returning to the league of his childhood, not to mention the source of his two national championship rings, remains with Mike Brey. But now comes the hard part:
Can the Fighting Irish sustain, even exceed, the success they enjoyed in the Big East? Can Brey and his staff fast-track intel on the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia? And perhaps most important, can Brey and Co., sell the ACC to prospects?
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The hunch here is yes. Brey, Notre Dame and the ACC should mesh as well as barbecue, beans and hushpuppies.
"I told our guys, we have no cachet in this league," Brey said Saturday as he evaluated players in Nike's Elite Youth League at the Boo Williams Sportsplex. "We had big cache in the Big East. We've got to earn our stripes, man. Can we earn a (NCAA tournament) bid this first year and kind of set a precedent? … We had it down to a science in the Big East."
Indeed, they did. Notre Dame has reached six of the last seven NCAAs, including the past four. The Fighting Irish won at least 10 Big East games six times in that same stretch.
Care to guess how many ACC programs have enjoyed six winning conference records in the last seven seasons?
Two.The usual suspects: Duke and North Carolina.
"We've been so good in the regular season in the Big East, amazingly consistent," Brey said. "Can we develop that in the ACC? That's what's got me thinking every day. What's our niche? Do we tweak our style of play? To be determined. I think we have to learn that on the fly."
As Brey freely acknowledges, his shortcoming at Notre Dame is NCAA tournament performance. The Irish have advanced to the Sweet 16 only once in nine appearances since 2001 and were bounced quickly and convincingly last month by Iowa State.
"We were horrible in the NCAA tournament," Brey said of the 76-58 loss to the Cyclones.
But Brey has two considerable assets as he steers the Irish toward their ACC debut in 2013-14: He and his assistants are eminently familiar with the conference, and they return four starters from a 25-10 team that reached the Big East tournament semifinals but flopped in the NCAAs against Iowa State.
Brey grew up a Maryland fan in suburban Washington, D.C., attended then-Terps coach Lefty Driesell's summer camp and spent eight seasons working for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. There he was part of the Blue Devils' 1991 and '92 national titles.
Assistant coaches Anthony Solomon and Rod Balanis hail from Newport News and Williamsburg, respectively, and played in the ACC at Virginia and Georgia Tech. Solomon has coached at Clemson and Virginia.
Notre Dame announced in September its decision to join the ACC in sports other than football, with a 2014-15 target date. But the Big East's subsequent splintering accelerated the timetable.
"My current team is really excited," Brey said, "and I'm thrilled we're going a year earlier than we first thought because of (our) experience. I have senior guards (Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins), I have fifth-year senior big guys (Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman), (forward Pat) Connaughton's a junior.
"I've got some men. So as we try and figure this thing out, I'm glad I'm doing it with some older guys."
Brey and Solomon outlined two distinct style differences to which the Irish will have to adjust.
Solomon said ACC post players are better outside shooters than their Big East counterparts, which causes defensive headaches and could prompt more zone from Notre Dame if its bigs aren't capable of guarding the perimeter. Brey said Big East guards are far more aggressive about penetrating the lane, even to the extent of declining open jump shots.
"We'd call them the I-95 guards in the Big East," Brey said. "Guys will turn down open 15-footers to jam it down your throat and get to the lane. And even though your scouting report says to give them a cushion, they still try and get there. In the ACC, I think they take that jump shot a little bit more.