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Mike Lopresti | | March 25, 2015

Mike Brey returns focus to basketball

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey Mike Brey's Irish are a win away from their first Elite Eight appearance since 1979.

CLEVELAND – They sat together by a swimming pool in Florida last Sunday, Mike Brey and his father, smoking cigars and sharing stories of the mother and wife who had so suddenly left them.

Then they watched the Kansas-Wichita State game. The winner would be next for Brey’s Notre Dame team, so he made scouting a group effort. "I turned to my brother and said, 'You’ve got Kansas.' My sister and my dad, 'You’ve got Wichita State. Give me the notes afterward.'

"It was more of a tone of family together, stories about my mom, celebrating her life. ... Thoroughly exhausted by the time I got back on the plane to come home."

He didn’t get back to South Bend from his one-day trip to Florida until 1 a.m., but it had been the day he so badly needed. Family and basketball. This was how a coach mourned.

It is part of NCAA tournament folklore now, how Brey lost mother Betty to a heart attack Saturday morning, and kept it secret from his players and the public until after the Irish beat Butler in overtime, that night, breaking down the Sweet 16 wall he had bashed his head against for so long. A terrible and wonderful day, all in the same 24 hours.

"One of the most powerful parts," Irish senior Pat Connaughton was saying Wednesday, "was the fact we were able to at least give Coach something back, no matter the fact that it couldn’t make up for what he lost."

This Midwest Regional is about so much.

It is about Wichita State, a nouveau riche national power trying to climb back off the Cloud 9 of beating Kansas, in time to play Notre Dame. "You realize Cloud 9 can be replaced by Cloud 10 if you can win two games this weekend," junior Ron Baker said.

It is about the West Virginia press, uniquely fierce and relentless, now aimed at Kentucky with the hopes the Mountaineers can cause problems. "It’s going to be a long day for us if we can’t," coach Bob Huggins said. "I mean, I have no idea if we can turn them over or not."

It is about Kentucky, chasing history.  And the delicious possibility of a Kentucky-Wichita State championship game, when the Shockers would have a chance to do unto the Wildcats – ruin an unbeaten season – what Kentucky did unto them last March. "Kind of an ironic deal," Baker said.

It is about old buddies John Calipari and Huggins coaching against each other Thursday night, nd the story Huggins told of the time he had a heart attack at the Pittsburgh airport. He was in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital when one of the medical people said to him, "Coach, listen, I can’t let you die. I’m John Calipari’s cousin, and you can’t die until we beat you at least once."

Said Calipari of Huggins, "He and I used to be the young coaches, we were the young guys, and we turn around and now we’re the old guys. I don’t understand what happened.

"He’s older than me, by the way."

And it is about the two worlds of Mike Brey.

In one world, he is coming to terms with the loss of Betty Brey, a former Olympic swimmer who died of a heart attack Saturday at the age of 84.

He mentioned Wednesday how none of his family – his father Paul, brother Shane, sister Brenda – would be coming here for the games, but he had flown his parents to the ACC tournament, and how precious that memory was now.

He mentioned his father has Alzheimer’s and now would need care. "He does know what happened, but I think we’re going to have to deal with that.

"My mom took care of him, did everything for him, so that’s what we talked about Sunday, and we’ll continue to after the season."

And he mentioned his mother.

"She was the cruelest of competitors. Even swimming Masters in her 60s, she would be mad she would win three golds and a silver, and talk about why she didn't win that fourth gold. And to be around that intensity every day, maybe it wasn't the healthiest, and I'll probably need therapy later in life because of it, but I'll tell you one thing, she made me think about competing every day.

"She always made me feel like I could be special because she was, and gave me a lot of confidence. But that day to day -- there were times I didn't want to take her phone call because I knew she would want to talk about the game or the next game, and what's wrong with Zach [Auguste], we've got to get Zach going. I was like, I can't take it tonight."

In his other world, Notre Dame faces Wichita State on Thursday night with a chance to go to its first Elite Eight in 36 years. The last time the Irish got that far, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were headed for their national championship collision.

It can’t be easy for him this week. But he’s a coach. And this is the Sweet 16.

"I think coaches are the greatest compartmentalizers in the history of the world, and have to be to survive in this thing.

"There is such a good vibe and positive energy coming off this team, it's really good for me to be around it this week and get back and be busy and teach."

Brey has noticed all the buzz about a possible Kentucky-Wichita State rematch. He has made sure his players have noticed, too. "We do feel a little like odd man out," he said.

It’s part of the challenge. "They’ve been machine-like in March," he said of the Shockers. He then took off on the Wichita State offense. The mourning son was back in basketball world.

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