They have been close friends for years, the offensive guru and the defensive wizard trading tips and quips.
Notre Dame’s Mike Brey once sized up one of Mick Cronin’s early Cincinnati teams when they faced one another in the Big East Conference and told his coaching counterpart that the Bearcats were going to be really good.
“Really?” Cronin asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” Brey responded, “but not ‘til next year.”
It might seem like old times when Cronin brings his first UCLA team into Purcell Pavilion on Saturday to face Brey’s Fighting Irish in the 50th meeting between the longtime rivals.
The young Bruins (7-3) possess tantalizing upside as well as a litany of issues, and their coach fully realizes that the only surefire solution for their problems is to keep traveling this bumpy road.
“Until the Tyger Campbells and Jalen Hills get minutes played in real games and learn how to play through it and learn how to play 40 minutes, it’s hard,” Cronin said. “There is no magic potion.”
Brey said he already sees Cronin’s imprint on his new team in the way the Bruins have bludgeoned opponents with their physicality while prioritizing defense and easy scoring opportunities near the basket.
“He’s back to his old tricks with guarding you and beating you up in the lane,” Brey said with a laugh.
This will be UCLA’s first chance under Cronin to learn about the resilience it takes to win on the road, even if the Bruins aren’t facing a vintage version of Brey’s Fighting Irish (7-3). Cronin said he spent an entire practice this week teaching players about not allowing adversity to compound itself the way it did last season when Cronin’s Bearcats beat the Bruins by 29 points in Cincinnati.
“You can’t let a snowball effect occur, which you saw last year,” Cronin said. “So we’ve got to practice staying together. I’ve got to keep these guys’ heads up, we’ve got to keep our arms around each other, we’ve got to stay together on the road.”
It was Notre Dame that persevered last season after finding itself down by as many as 14 against the Bruins inside Pauley Pavilion. The Fighting Irish had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds before Hill materialized from behind to block a shot by Prentiss Hubb off the backboard.
UCLA’s Kris Wilkes, hobbled by leg cramps, then rose for a three-pointer with less than a second left to give the Bruins a 65-62 victory.
Brey took responsibility for the loss, telling guard Rex Pflueger that he should have been involved in the Irish’s final offensive play on a night he scored a team-leading 14 points and made all four of his three-pointers.
“I told Rex on the bus, ‘That’s on me, man,’ ” Brey said. “ ‘You should have had the ball. You were making every play.’ ”
The resumption of the rivalry last season after a nearly decade-long hiatus was a pledge fulfilled from Brey to Pflueger, the former Santa Ana Mater Dei High standout from Dana Point. Brey told Pflueger on a recruiting visit that if he came to South Bend, the Irish would play at UCLA before the end of his career.
That’s how Pflueger came to find himself playing before about 120 friends and family a little more than an hour from home.
“They made it happen,” Pflueger said of the promise kept. “That was super special.”
This is the last scheduled game between the teams. Cronin and Brey both said they would like to resume the series with another home-and-home every few years but acknowledged the difficulties involved with both teams moving to 20-game conference schedules while fulfilling other obligations.
The crowd Saturday is expected to include former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, who figures to absorb a few verbal jabs when he joins Bruins legend Bill Walton on the national broadcast.
“I’m going to tell Mick, between Walton and coach Phelps doing the broadcast,” Brey said, “[viewers] won’t even know what’s going on in the game. No one may know who won if those guys pontificate on the history for so long.”
A Bruins win might put Cronin’s team slightly ahead of schedule in its quest to be really good once more.
AT NOTRE DAME
When: Saturday, Noon PST.
Where: Purcell Pavilion, South Bend, Ind.
On the air: TV: Channel 7; Radio: 570.
Update: Brey said UCLA reached out to him through intermediaries to gauge his interest in the Bruins’ coaching vacancy that Cronin filled earlier this year. “They did a little bit indirectly, but I just really have not been interested in doing anything else,” said Brey, who is in his 20th season with the Fighting Irish. “I really think I’ve found my niche here. We kind of have a contract now that runs through 2025 and I’m figuring you know what, I’ll be 66 [at that point] and that may be a good time to go do some TV or go hide in Florida.”