SOUTH BEND, Ind – Maybe coach Mike Brey's biggest surprise during Notre Dame's 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 don't get many (technicals)," Brey said. "I was close to getting thrown out."
Brey's 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 year's 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 haven't lost since.
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 are now 20-8 (12-3 Big East) and Brey has his sixth straight 20-victory season.
"To have nine wins in the Big East, let alone nine of them in a row, it's really unbelievable," center Jack Cooley said. "It's 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 and could be the Big East's most improved player. He has 10 double-doubles this season; 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 has also 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.
"We've always had really coachable guys here. I don't know if I've had more fun with a group and that's saying a lot after last year," Brey said recently.
"They let us teach back in November and December when we weren't 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 you're losing, saying 'Hey we got to get better at this.' That's probably the most gratifying thing."
Brey was voted the national coach of the year after the Irish's 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 he's done an ever better job this season.
Brey's background and influences are high end. He played and coached under the legendary DeMatha High School coach Morgan Wooten and was also an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke before becoming head coach at Delaware. He came to Notre Dame for the 2000-01 season following Matt Doherty's departure after one season for North Carolina.
"At the beginning of the year there was a lot more teaching and going over things," Martin said of Brey's approach this time around. "As a season goes, you hit rough stretches and he's been very encouraging and optimistic, giving us the confidence that we should believe in ourselves and go for it."
And that's 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 game against St. John's at Madison Square Garden on Saturday where they hope to become acclimated with the same building that will host the Big East tournament next month. Then it's 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 features the waving of oversized cutouts of Brey, who's sartorial preference is for mock turtlenecks when he's working the bench.
Brey tries to make sure his demeanor also stays the same.
"Even though inside you may be doing back flips, when your guys look over they don't see a maniac, they see a calming influence," Brey said. "I'm going to be loose the rest of my career because I can be."