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January 21, 2009

Fine line between tinkering, relying on veterans

Mike Brey, since taking over as the Notre Dame head coach nine years ago, has never been one to dip too far into his bench. He's tightened that bench up even more in recent weeks as the Big East wars have reached a fever pitch.

Brey basically is using seven players, one of which-Jonathan Peoples-has played just 27 minutes the last four games combined.

Sophomore Tyrone Nash hasn't played more than a minute in three of the last four games. Carleton Scott has not played in three of six conference games with only brief mop-up time coming in the other three games.

Why won't Brey go deeper into his bench? Why can't Brey go deeper into his bench?

"Generally, because of how we've been set offensively and with a nucleus that learns how to play together well, we don't turn it over and that really helps us be efficient," Brey explained. "Sometimes when you play too many guys, you're not as good with the ball because they're not accustomed to playing with each other."

Brey also doesn't want his frontline players looking over their shoulders if they make a mistake.

"We've had very talented offensive guys who need to know (they) can go for it and can play confidently because there's not going to be a quick hook or (their) minutes aren't going to be cut," Brey said.

But even a guy who can be awfully stingy when doling out playing time must give consideration to making a few alterations when you lose by a combined 33 points on back-to-back road trips to Louisville and Syracuse.

"Anytime you lose two in a row, you re-think your patterns," Brey said. "So I always have an open mind after that. We're always looking at coming at it a different way, especially when you lose two in a row and with the bodies in this league. That's something we looked at Monday and throughout this week."

Because the Irish run a free-flowing, unstructured offense, substitution patterns don't have to be rigid. For example, Brey wouldn't hesitate to put 6-foot-11 Luke Zeller in the game for 5-foot-11 Tory Jackson. Kyle McAlarney would simply take over point guard duties.

By the same token, Tyrone Nash's best position is the one occupied by Luke Harangody, the junior All-American who has led the Irish in scoring and rebounding in each of the last 10 games. About the only time Harangody comes out of the game is when he gets in foul trouble, and even then Brey won't hesitate to put him back in the game.

When the Irish had trouble running their offense and scoring against Louisville and Syracuse, Harangody was the natural fallback guy. You seldom can go wrong getting the basketball to the bruising 6-foot-7 , 255-pounder. Yet Nash needs to play, as does willowy, rangy sophomore Carleton Scott.

Brey is loyal to his soldiers who have produced in the past, such as Zeller, who has played some of his best basketball the last four games. He has averaged 21 minutes per game over the last two weeks.

"Zeller has been giving us some good stuff," Brey said. "You want to invest in Zeller because you feel like that ceiling hasn't been reached yet in his career. Can we get even more out of him than ever before?

"For guys who are in the nucleus who haven't played as well, my initial thing is-especially with guys who have delivered before-how do I push their buttons to get them going?"

Scott is the ninth man in the rotation, which is very difficult to get to in Brey's system.

"He can come in for one of the bigs and he can even come in on the perimeter," said Brey of Scott. "One thing Scott can do is make an open shot. He's a different offensive guy than Nash. Nash has been there from day one physically."

Brey is always cognizant of the psyche of his players, particularly those he knows he'll have to rely upon at crunch time.

"It's hard on those two guys," added Brey, referring to Nash and Scott. "They practice well and their attitudes have been great.

"Now, do you have to sub one of them a little bit? Yeah, but I've never been a believer in yanking a guy and taking his minutes (away). It's been more (about) teaching, coaching, confronting in practice, confronting one on one, and trying to squeeze more or get it back on the tracks."

Similarly, Brey is trying to get Zach Hillesland back to the scrappy, disruptive, productive player that he has been for the better part of the last two-and-a-half seasons.

"I spent a lot of time with Zach the past couple of days," Brey said. "It's almost like talking to one of my assistant coaches, like, 'How can I help you? What can I do?' He's a real key for us. He has not played as well as he can, but God we need him.

"I watched the Connecticut game (at Notre Dame) last year, and he was fabulous. He was a warrior. He was flying all over the place. We need that."

The last thing Brey wants to do is panic one-third of the way through the Big East season. Victories over Connecticut and Marquette at home this Saturday and Monday-where the Irish have won 45 straight-would get the Irish back in the groove.

"It's an important weekend, but there's still a lot of season," Brey said. "I told them, 'Fellas, just hang in there because I think teams will crack under this pressure.'

"Our challenge is to be mentally tough and stay together. Next year's team will be different, but this group has done it."

At least the group that plays on a regular basis has done it, which is exactly who Brey predominately will lean on down the stretch.



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