Mike Brey’s success at Notre Dame has been built on success and loyalty

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Last March, for the second straight year, Notre Dame saw their NCAA tournament run come to an end in the Elite 8.

Three months later – again, for the second straight season – the Irish watch the two best players from that Elite 8 team matriculate to the NBA. In 2015, it was Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. In 2016, it was Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste. The Fighting Irish are coming off of back-to-back Elite Eight appearances after not making it that far since 1979. Nobody expected either of those teams to get to the Elite 8, and no one is predicting that this year’s Notre Dame team can make a similar run, either.

“We’ve lost four NBA players in two years, which is a major drain on talent,” head coach Mike Brey said. Notre Dame doesn’t recruit the way Duke does or Kentucky does. The Irish don’t reload with a handful of McDonald’s All-American and projected lottery picks. They don’t plan rebuilding their roster on an annual basis, but here we are.

And Brey?

He believes that he has built a program that will have sustained success because of the experience and leadership built into the roster.

“What [we] always hang [our] hat on, is we’ve been able to stay old and experienced. And we’ll start, in our exhibition game, two seniors, three juniors,” Brey said to NBCSports.com. “The guys have been a part of great runs in March and big wins. So it’s a pretty confident group. They know who they are. They know what’s worked for them before. I’ve been impressed by our progress.”

The recent stretch of success started because of the veteran leadership of Grant and Connaughton – two seniors who willed the Irish to the Elite Eight in 2015 after a run to win the ACC conference tournament.

“We had fabulous leadership with Connaughton and Grant when we won the ACC championship. That was a breakthrough group,” Brey said. “I give so much credit in the leadership of making us believe that we could do more than we’ve done in the past.”

That strong leadership continued last season with Jackson and Auguste as the Fighting Irish made the Elite Eight even after finishing 11-7 in the ACC and only being a No. 6 seed.

Since Notre Dame has lost so many NBA-caliber talents, expectations are down for the Irish this season, but Brey is seeing positive signs from his new trio of veterans.

SOUTH BEND, IN - DECEMBER 21: V.J. Beachem #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish jumps through the air for a dunk against the Youngstown State Penguins at Purcell Pavilion on December 21, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Youngstown State 87-78. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
V.J. Beachem (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s 2016-17 roster is headlined by V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson and Steve Vasturia, three upperclassmen who had to be patient and wait their turn before thriving. This season’s likely starting center, Martinas Geben, only played sparingly the last two seasons behind Auguste. New point guard Matt Farrell is a junior who only started four games last season. Brey expects his new starters to log big minutes and be a factor because of their last few years of development.

This is the typical path of a Notre Dame basketball player. Grant, Connaughton, Jackson and Auguste were all touted recruits coming out of high school but none of them were go-to guys in their first year, even though Jackson was a McDonald’s All-American.

“You feel you have good momentum and I have a good climate,” Brey said. “Beachem and Vasturia and Colson have done a good job of leading. They rotate into the spots.”

The leadership of the older Notre Dame players every season has also been the key to keeping the roster mostly in place. For a school that doesn’t recruit one-and-done types of freshmen and rarely gets McDonald’s All-Americans, Notre Dame’s back-to-back Elite Eight appearances came as a pleasant surprise. Brey sees the success as a byproduct of what the program has been building over the last decade.

“The Elite 8s probably put our recognition and respect at yet another level,” Brey said. “There’s no question these returning guys think about getting past a regional final and getting to a Final Four. I think it’s my job to remind them on a weekly basis that you can’t make a run again in March unless you get access to March.”

Brey is expecting this new roster to have plenty of stability since the team is only adding three new pieces to the equation, but he also realizes that this is a tougher ACC to get through this season.

Since Notre Dame played in the old Big East that used to put double-digit teams in the NCAA tournament before the program transitioned into the ACC, Brey knows a little bit of what to expect from such a deep conference.

“I think playing in the Big East — playing through the buzzsaw that it was with 10 tournament teams — that’s helped my mindset of dealing with what the ACC has become,” Brey said.

“Getting access to March will be harder than it was for the two previous teams to get access to March. I’ve tried to let them know that so our day-to-day preparation matches that.”

While Notre Dame’s roster is filled with veterans who want to take the next step and make a Final Four, the team’s new coaching staff has also brought new energy to the program.

Ryan Humphrey and Ryan Ayers were brought on as assistant coaches while Eric Atkins was hired to be the team’s video coordinator. All three played for Brey at Notre Dame but the three never played with each other in college.

“I’ve been waiting for an opening to bring my guys back that played for me. And that’s so powerful,” Brey said.

“They’ve got great energy, they can certainly sell Notre Dame and talk about what it’s like to play for me. They’ve kept me energized.”

Notre Dame’s new coaching staff is fairly unique. Four of the five guys on staff played for Brey at Notre Dame. The only one who didn’t is associate head coach Rod Balanis, who has been on the Notre Dame staff for all 16 years Brey has been the head coach.

And given that all of the new additions were college athletes, all of them can still hoop at a very high level. Humphrey ended a successful European pro career in 2013 and went into coaching. Ayers graduated in 2009 and spent time playing in the D League and in Europe before turning to coaching and Atkins also played professionally and graduated recently enough to still be in very good basketball shape.

There was an added value as well: They could play against, and beat, the team’s most experienced players. They could push them as hard as any player on the current Notre Dame roster.

“I was telling Martinas Geben, ‘[Ryan Humphrey] is the only big man coach that can pin your shot on the board,'” Brey said. “Ryan Ayers can demonstrate the footwork of what we need from the perimeter.”

Once the new members of the staff were settled in, the pickup wars started happening. Atkins, Ayers and Humphrey were soon playing Beachem, Colson and Vasturia in intense games that still cause dispute around the Notre Dame basketball offices.

“I don’t know the result, but there’s a lot of junk being talked between both groups. We may have to get that game going one day and let the rest of the team and staff watch it,” Brey said.

Brey was able to replace trusted, long-time assistants with former players who could re-hash old drills and routines that had worked for Notre Dame in the past. Some of the drills brought up by the new staff were forgotten by Brey, who enthusiastically put them back into the rotation.

But more than that, it was proof that Brey’s methods work. One high school coach that has had multiple players sign with Brey told NBCSports.com that he’s the most loyal college coach he’s dealt with. Brey going to give his guys the shot he promises them on the recruiting trail. Veterans are going to play over the freshmen until the freshmen earn their minutes.

That commitment to the Notre Dame family is why Brey has former players coming back to coach with him.

And it’s why he’s able to, as he puts it, “stay old.”

Notre Dame basketball players are willing to accept a role, a redshirt and limited minutes early in their career because they know it will pay off at the end of it.

That payoff?

Back-to-back Elite 8s.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.