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The ACC’s rising stars: Mike Brey and Notre Dame

Georgia Tech last played for an ACC basketball championship in 2010. We can bat around the reasons for this — bad coaching, bad recruiting — but some of Tech’s decline is because of external forces. The league simply grew too good for the Yellow Jackets. (Though Josh Pastner, as we know, has had an encouraging first season.)

When you add Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame to a conference that already boasted North Carolina, Duke, Virginia and Florida State, you get a rising tide that might well sink some boats. Under Bobby Cremins, Tech went to the NCAA tournament 10 times in 12 years. It made the Big Dance four times in Paul Hewitt’s first seven seasons. Should Pastner’s first Tech squad not make this year’s cut, the Jackets will have gone once in a decade.

Of the latest crop of ex-Big Easters, Louisville and Syracuse have held strong in their new environs. (Both programs have also had a season in which they were ineligible for postseason play.) Pitt has slipped from its Big East eminence; it finished next-to-last in the 15-team league. Notre Dame has used its ACC admission as a launch pad.

“We were good in the Big East and very consistent,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Thursday after his Fighting Irish dissected Virginia in the quarterfinals. “We’ve been really, really good in this league. The league has been great for us.”

Notre Dame under Brey in the Big East: Eight NCAA appearances in 12 seasons, one trip to the Sweet 16, never a conference title.

Notre Dame under Brey in the ACC: Two NCAA appearances in three years with a fourth upcoming, two runs to the Elite Eight, one conference title.

A list of teams Notre Dame has beaten in the three most recent ACC tournaments and the 2015 and 2016 NCAAs: Miami, Duke (twice), North Carolina, Butler, Wichita State, Michigan, Wisconsin and now Virginia. The Fighting Irish came close to felling then-unbeaten Kentucky in the Elite Eight two years ago in Cleveland. Last year they gave Carolina a go in a regional final in Philadelphia.

Notre Dame was to play towering Florida State in Friday’s semifinals here, and towering is something the Irish aren’t. Their starting center is Bonzie Colson, who’s 6-foot-5. This team isn’t nearly as gifted as the 2015 bunch, which won the ACC title in Greensboro and featured point guard Jerian Grant and high-bounding Pat Connaughton and a passable center in Zach Auguste, but it was this tournament’s No. 3 seed, ahead of Louisville and Duke.

Full disclosure: Brey is my favorite coach now working. That’s not to say he’s the best — can’t put anybody ahead of Mike Krzyzewski — but he’s not far off. Brey’s background is much the same as Danny Ferry’s: He played for (and later coached with) the Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten at DeMatha. He worked with the Hall of Famer Coach K as a Duke assistant. Brey left Durham to coach the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens, which he took to the NCAA twice in five years.

He nearly left Delaware for Georgia. After Ron Jirsa was summarily dismissed in March 1999, Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley put Brey atop his wish list. Dooley was ready to offer the job, even though Brey wasn’t sure he cared to work under president Michael Adams. Speaking of whom: Adams suggested that Dooley speak with Jim Harrick, then rehabilitating his image at Rhode Island after being fired by UCLA. (Adams and Harrick had worked together at Pepperdine.)

Dooley did, and he found he liked Harrick, too. (Say what you will, but the guy’s a charmer.) Georgia wound up hiring Harrick, which looked like a splendid move until Tony Cole showed up on ESPN’s air, whereupon everything went ka-blooey.

Lest we forget, Harrick spent a day waffling after being introduced as Georgia’s coach. In Athens, this would soon be known as pulling a Glen Mason. Dooley was touring a Civil War battlefield when he got word that a re-hire might be required. After marching up one last hill, he made plans to charter a plane for a second run at Brey. That flight never left, Harrick eventually choosing to honor his commitment. Just another Georgia what-if.

I think of Brey as Coach K minus the arrogance. Brey shows up on the sideline — he never wears a tie, opting for the casually chic unbuttoned dress shirt — and goes to work. He likes to speak about “game situations,” in which coaches whose teams aren’t stocked with one-and-done talent must excel. He’s tremendous at those. In alphabetical order, your five best bench coaches: Brey, Krzyzewski, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Villanova’s Jay Wright.

Note that three work in the ACC. Note that Brey’s best work has come in the ACC. “We’re kind of in a new rhythm and a new area,” he said of the Irish ascent, and he’s the reason. He’s really good.

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