Friedlander: Notre Dame's Mike Brey, Louisville's Kenny Payne go down swinging on ACC Tourney opening night
GREENSBORO, N.C. – The 70th ACC Tournament is only just beginning. And yet, the prevailing theme of Tuesday’s opening session at Greensboro Coliseum centered around a pair of endings.
One was merciful. The other was nostalgic.
First Louisville was put out of its misery by Boston College with an 80-62 setback that ended the losingest season in conference history at 4-28.
Then, following an uncomfortable postgame media session in which 1st-year Cardinals coach Kenny Payne took exception to questions about his job status and the confidence he has in his staff, Notre Dame took the court for what turned out to be the final game of coach Mike Brey’s tenure with the Irish.
Although the air of inevitably was just as strong, Notre Dame’s 67-64 loss to Virginia Tech felt much more like a wake than a funeral.
One reason is that the Irish were in it until the bitter end before a rimmed out 3-pointer by Nate Laszewski put the wraps on their disappointing season at 11-21. Another is that Brey has already been through a long goodbye process after announcing on Valentine’s Day his decision to step down after 23 seasons.
He was emotional as could be expected because of the closeness of the game and the finality of the result. But that didn’t stop him from taking his newly minted status as a former coach out for a spin.
With the shackles of repercussions no longer holding him back, Brey used the opportunity to take a parting shot at officials Lee Cassell, A.J. Desai and Jef Pon over a pivotal call with 42.5 seconds remaining.
Tech led by 1 when Hokies guard Sean Pedulla was called for a foul. But after a lengthy review, it was ruled that Notre Dame’s Matt Zona would also be assessed a dead ball technical for hitting Pedulla in the nose.
Both teams were awarded 2 free throws. Not only that, but Tech ended up with possession of the ball. It turned opportunity into the eventual winning basket on a dunk by Justyn Mutts.
And Brey wasn’t happy about it.
“I’ll be very honest now that I’m not in the league anymore,” he said. “I think that last play, if you have an ‘A’ officiating crew, and that was not an A crew, you say ‘basketball play,’ we shoot the free throws and we play basketball.
“I think we got a little over-analyzation on that part of it. Look, Virginia Tech made plays, but I don’t think that was handled right.”
Once he got that rant out of his system, Brey flipped right back into character.
“Relax, fellas,” the witty, usually good-natured 63-year-old said. “We’re all good.”
Brey has insisted from the start that his decision to leave is his own and he implied that again Tuesday. He’s said that he’s simply reached his “shelf life” with the Irish and that the program is ready for “a new voice.”
The fact that he isn’t ruling out coaching again someplace else, perhaps after only a year away, suggests that there might be more to his departure than meets the eye.
For now, though, his plan is to lay low.
Instead of partying like a rock star, as he did at a local South Bend watering hole last Wednesday after beating Pittsburgh for what proved to be his school-record 482nd and final victory, he said he would retreat to his hotel room, smoke a cigar, hang out with his family and staff, and perhaps a sip from 1 of the bottles of Irish Whiskey he’s received as going away gifts.
“You need time to decompress,” Brey said. “When you’re in the season, you’re just grinding every day. We’ll take a couple deep breaths and tonight we’re just going to lay low.”
Louisville’s Payne got a head start on the decompression process earlier in the evening after his forgettable 1st season came to an end.
Unlike Brey, he doesn’t have the luxury of taking his time regrouping.
He’s giving himself 2 days. Then its back to the drawing board and the recruiting trail in an effort to avoid another nightmare similar to the one he and his Cardinals have just been through.
He’s hoping that the task of building a roster, and by extension a program, will be less taxing this offseason now that the cloud of NCAA sanctions from the transgressions of a previous regime has dissipated.
“It’s unfortunate that when I got the job, the timing of the job, I didn’t have a choice in a lot of things,” he said. “Everybody was saying that we would get the death penalty, that they would do away with basketball. When you’re out recruiting, you’re hearing kids are apprehensive and nervous about coming to you.
“Then the ruling came out at the end of October or November. So for me, it’s probably the first real chance I have to equal the playing field without preconceived notions.”
As if the pressure of rebuilding a once-proud program wasn’t enough, Payne has the added burden of having been a player at Louisville. One that won a national championship for the school.
“When you go back to your school, your alma mater, the place you love, where you had your foundation built, there’s an uncomfortable feeling you have every single day,” he said. “I’m responsible for the joy to bring it back to a community that loves the University of Louisville basketball program.”
It’s a job he had no plans of leaving anytime soon, a point he made emphatically clear when asked if he’d had any conversations with athletic director Josh Heird about his future with the Cardinals.
“I don’t think that’s a good question, my friend,” Payne replied. “I have not had 1 conversation with Josh Heird about my future. I don’t know if there’s a reason to have a conversation with Josh Heird about my future. There’s nothing to talk about. I’ve got a job to do.”
Considering the circumstances and his history with the program, Payne will get some time in order to get that job. But he better not wait too long if he has any designs on staying at Louisville even half as long as Brey was at Nore Dame.
If nothing else, Payne has at least 1 thing going for him.
After this season, just about anything will be an improvement.