Perhaps the most notable distinction in Rod Balanis’ time at Georgia Tech is that he wore jersey No. 15 immediately before Matt Harpring, whose decorated career led the school to retire the number.
“I warmed it up nice for him,” said Balanis, an assistant coach at Notre Dame.
Both the Tech great (Harpring, that is) and Balanis enjoyed Friday night at the Barclays Center. Harpring was honored as an ACC legend at halftime of the ACC Tournament semifinal between Duke and North Carolina. In the second semifinal, the Fighting Irish took care of Florida State to earn the right to play for its second ACC championship since joining the league for the 2013-14 season. Notre Dame was to play Duke late Saturday for the title.
“I think we’re playing our best basketball right now,” Balanis said. “I really do.”
Balanis has been with Notre Dame coach Mike Brey since his hire in the summer of 2000, first as basketball operations coordinator for three seasons and as an assistant since 2003. He has contributed to a team that has won consistently — Notre Dame has had a .673 winning percentage with Brey. The Irish are the only team that has reached the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons.
“It’s been an unbelievable run,” said Balanis, who was a backup guard for coach Bobby Cremins between 1990 and 1994.
While Notre Dame’s highly efficient offense has been its identity with Brey, Balanis has taken pride in the way that the Irish have defended this season. The Irish went into Saturday’s game ranking 54th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (KenPom), their highest ranking since the 2007-08 season. They were north of 100 the past three seasons.
“I don’t know if we have better individual defenders, so to speak,” Balanis said. “We’ve had some, but we have a lot of guys that are really attention to detail about the scouting report and guys that want to get better.”
In their quarterfinal win over Virginia on Thursday, the Irish held the Cavaliers to 38.6 percent shooting from the field to break a five-game losing streak to Virginia since joining the ACC.
Notre Dame’s improving play “gives me hope that we can really do some damage here in March and maybe into April,” Balanis said. “Who knows?”
Balanis has interviewed for head coaching jobs in the past, but is still waiting. Having grown up in the Washington, D.C., area and gone to Tech, he would seem a potential fit for a school at the level of the Patriot League or Ivy League in the Northeast or the Southern Conference in the Southeast. As a head coach, he would be joining the company of former Tech players Mark Price (Charlotte) and Craig Neal (New Mexico).
“You keep putting yourself out there, so hopefully something will stick,” he said.
“He deserves to be a head coach, and I think he will be one day,” Brey told a South Bend, Ind., TV station earlier in March.
Balanis’ recruiting successes include Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, both of whom are in the NBA, and 2014 All-ACC guard Eric Atkins, now on the Notre Dame staff. He also recruited guard Matt Farrell, who was one of the ACC’s more improved players this season.
Notre Dame has had particular success with underrecruited players such as Farrell, whom ESPN rated a two-star prospect and the 16th best prospect in New Jersey. Balanis also helped sell power forward Bonzie Colson, a first-team All-ACC selection, on Brey. While Colson’s 6-foot-5 stature as a big man scared off college coaches, Balanis saw that Colson still was highly effective against the best prospects in the country and, despite playing on an average AAU team, didn’t hog the shots.
The Irish have won with such pieces — smart players who can score, want to play in an offensive-oriented system and recognize the value of a Notre Dame degree.
“That’s the guys we kind of attract,” he said. “We don’t trick anybody into coming to Notre Dame.”
The template has lifted Notre Dame into powerhouse status. The Irish had not made the NCAA tournaments in the 10 seasons before Brey’s hire in the summer of 2000. This season will be the 12th in Brey’s 18-season tenure.
It stands to reason that Tech coach Josh Pastner wants to model his team after Notre Dame and Brey .
“I think the key thing, too, is, no matter about who gets credit — I feel like we’ve evaluated right guys,” Balanis said.
Balanis continues to keep in touch with Cremins, benefiting from his former coach’s participation on ACC broadcasts. He remains grateful for Cremins for what transpired after Balanis was involved in a car accident in 1988, shortly before he was to enroll. Balanis broke his arm and leg and wasn’t sure if he would ever play again.
“He called me at the hospital and said, ‘Listen, I don’t care if you can never play basketball again or not,’” Balanis said. “’Your scholarship at Georgia Tech is going to be good no matter what.’”
Balanis took the year off to rehabilitate and enrolled in 1989. He didn’t play much, but didn’t consider transferring out of loyalty to Cremins.
“He treated his players like a million bucks,” Balanis said.
He sees a similar trait in Brey, calling him a “great confidence giver. He really instills confidence in guys. He wants guys to feel they can do it.”
Balanis is hopeful to apply those lessons to a team of his own.