Back on the Notre Dame campus for a college basketball game for the first time in more than six years, former assistant coach Lewis Preston knows memories of many special moments will surface.
A member of Mike Brey's first Irish staff, Preston helped rekindle the flame of sustained success that still burns. He helped steer Notre Dame back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years. He helped Notre Dame win the 2001 Big East West Division regular season championship and was part of three consecutive visits to the NCAA tournament. He had a front-row seat in 2003 for the first Irish ride to the Sweet 16 in 16 years.
Preston tutored big men Ryan Humphrey and Troy Murphy, both of whom went on to become first-round NBA draft picks. He helped recruit Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson. He helped coach Matt Carroll, David Graves and Chris Thomas, all of whom ended their collegiate careers inside the Top 10 of the school's all-time leading scorers. He still admires the toughness of Dan Miller and Chris Quinn, the perseverance of Torin Francis and Luke Zeller.
Part of the program when the home arena featured multi-colored seats bound by duct tape and bleachers around the upper concourse, Preston is anxious for his first glance at since-renovated and renamed Purcell Pavilion.
But everything Irish in his past will stay there, or he hopes it will, Wednesday when Preston returns as the coach of Kennesaw (Ga.) State. Now in his second season as a head coach, Preston is programmed to dwell not on the good times he had at Notre Dame, only on how his team can be good enough to give the nation's No. 22 team a game.
Likely easier said than done for a team that has lost seven straight and relies on five freshmen.
"It's a new adventure, but we're getting better," the 42-year-old Preston said last week by phone from Niceville, Fla., as he scouted a junior college game. "I'm learning patience more than ever.
"When it's all said and done, I can look back on these first two seasons as the beginning of something special."
Until then, the struggles continue. Preston's first team staggered through his first year 3-28 and 0-18 in the Atlantic Sun. As trials have outnumbered the triumphs, Preston often finds himself repeating some of the same phrases he heard so often during his six seasons with Brey.
It happens in the huddles of close games. It happens during film study. It happens in the optimistic locker room before tip and again while picking up the pieces after another tough loss.
Minimize your weaknesses.
Play to your strengths.
Move on to the next play.
Preston often doesn't realize he's channeling his inner Brey until after the words have been released. Once they are, he remembers a moment or two of those days in South Bend.
"Mike has stayed true to who he's been and the continued success he's had," Preston said.
"Some things aren't going right now, but you have to look at the overall process and stay true to who you are.
"This thing is a process and we just have to continue to stick to the process."
Wednesday marks the first time during Brey's tenure at Notre Dame that he will coach a game against a former assistant who's now a head coach. Preston left Notre Dame in 2006 for Florida. He helped coach Billy Donovan win a second NCAA national championship in 2007. He was on the Penn State staff when it won the 2009 postseason National Invitation Tournament championship, a run that featured a semifinal win over Notre Dame.
Preston was hired at Kennesaw State in April 2011 after 13 seasons and four stops as an assistant coach.
"He was very ready; he was hungry to be a head coach," said Brey, who still stays in contact. "He did a great job for us."
Preston's players knew well of Wednesday's task even before attention turned Monday to the Irish scouting report. Last month, he had his guys gather to watch Notre Dame's victory over defending national champion Kentucky. Preston used the evening as a time to bond and to teach. Watch how the Irish spread the floor, he stressed. See how they play so unselfishly and are always on the lookout to make the extra pass, he counseled. Notice that they don't let any offensive shortcoming distract them from defending.
"They are who they are," Preston said. "They all stayed in character."
As for the Owls, the quest for consistency continues. When the body language in practice wasn't good recently, Preston returned to his Irish roots to share a pick-me-up story of a player with whom he still shares a special bond.
"Ryan Humphrey was 6-foot-6, 220 pounds and averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Big East and the guy ended up being the 18th pick of the NBA draft, so don't tell me you can't get there," Preston said. "You have to have the hard work and the belief in yourself and the belief in what the coaches are telling you.
"We're going through our growing up phase right now."
Staff writer Tom Noie:
___ (c)2012 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.) Visit the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.) at www.southbendtribune.com Distributed by MCT Information Services Editor's note: Game No. 10 Kennesaw State (1-8) vs. No. 22/22 Notre Dame (10-1) DATE: Dec. 19 TIME: 7:00 p.m. SITE: Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center (9,149) LOCATION: Notre Dame, Ind. LIVE VIDEO: ESPN3.com SATELITE RADIO: Sirius 92, XM 190 LIVE AUDIO: www.und.com LIVE STATS: www.und.com SERIES RECORD: Notre Dame leads, 1-0 LAST MEETING: Nov. 24, 2009; Notre Dame, 83-62