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Hoops Notebook: Notre Dame Preps For NCAA Opener

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Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem participates in Wednesday's practice at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
USA Today Sports Images

Notre Dame’s day at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., is over. The fifth-seeded Irish will return to the arena Thursday for a 12:15 p.m. matchup against 12th-seeded Princeton, a game that can be seen on CBS.

Even with Winter Storm Stella ravaging the Northeast, all eight teams in the pod arrived safe and on time in Buffalo, going through their media duties and 40-minute practice.

For Notre Dame seniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, this is their third NCAA Tournament experience. The duo, which is 6-2 in tourney games the past two years with back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, is at ease in this setting now.

“They’ve had the same demeanor, which has really helped them throughout their career,” associate head coach Rod Balanis said of the senior captains. “They’re not too high or too low. They feel very confident because they know how to do this thing.”

Notre Dame junior forward Bonzie Colson was limited at practice Wednesday with an ankle injury. Head coach Mike Brey and Colson updated the All-ACC first-teamer’s status during media availability.

VIDEOS FROM WEDNESDAY: Mike Brey | Bonzie Colson | Notre Dame players | Irish practice | Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson

Here are other notes, quotes, observations and stats from Notre Dame’s day in Buffalo:

MIRROR IMAGE

The more Notre Dame’s players and coaches watch film of Princeton, the champions of the 10-team Ivy League conference, the more they see themselves.

Yes, the Tigers still have “Princeton Offense” principles in their offense set — back cutting, slow tempo, careful with the ball — but the system under sixth-year head coach Mitch Henderson has evolved.

“We’re going to be guarding ourselves a lot,” Balanis said. “Coach Henderson kind of refers to his team as Princeton 2.0. We’ll see some of the Princeton movements that they’ve had in the past, the back cuts and all that stuff. But similar to guarding ourselves, they get to a lot of five-out motion and they get isolation stuff for certain guys that they want to take advantage of.”

Notre Dame’s offense has excelled since Brey went to a four-guard, five-out offense full time. Both the Irish and Tigers are deadly 3-point shooting teams — Notre Dame attempts a 3-pointer on 38.6 percent of its possessions; Princeton 38.1 — and rank in the top-five in fewest turnovers.

Sophomore guard Rex Pflueger it’s in many ways like guarding themselves.

“I’ve definitely learned that they’re very similar to us like a lot of people have been saying,” Pflueger said. “Great shooting, tough-playing Ivy League teams. Guarding them is a lot like guarding us in practice. I don’t think we’re going to have any type of style-changing before the game.”

The Tigers swept the Ivy League, going 14-0 and winning the inaugural league tournament. In total, Princeton has won 19 straight games dating back to Dec. 22.

“The way we play is fun, it’s a great way to play basketball,” Vasturia said. “They play similar to us, so we know it’s going to be a tough matchup. Obviously it’s successful.”

Brey expanded on how the teams are alike.

“They don't turn it over; we don't turn it over,” Brey said. “They don't miss free throws; we don't miss free throws. They can shoot it from the arc, and they know how to play and know who they are. It's very, very similar. A coach very familiar with them said to me, ‘They're smart and they're tough, like you.’ And it really is.

“They've gotten away from just the pure Princeton offense. They're flowing a little bit more, which is how we played at Notre Dame. They still have Princeton tendencies, but they are a little more — they are not married to the predictable movement every time down.”

FAVORITE VS. UNDERDOG

Notre Dame opened as a seven-point favorite according to Las Vegas. The line has shifted slightly this week, with the Irish now 6.5-point favorites as of Wednesday evening.

That’s certainly a change from last week’s ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, where Notre Dame was the underdog in all three matchups. The Irish, of course, went 2-1 in those games, falling as 4.5-point underdogs against Duke in the title game.

“We don’t want to think of it as a change, but obviously it’ll have some impact,” Pflueger said. “We definitely need to just get back into our role of playing our game and doing what we do naturally.”

Notre Dame lost two games during the regular season as Vegas favorites: Jan. 24 vs. Virginia (-2) and Jan. 28 at Georgia Tech (-7).

EARLY RISERS

Unlike last week at Barclays Center, Notre Dame won’t have to wait all day to play.

In fact, the Irish will be the first NCAA Tournament game Thursday, tipping off at 12:15 p.m. During the ACC Tournament, Notre Dame did not start any of its three games until after 9 p.m.

“It’s pretty much the total opposite. You wake up and you’re playing,” Vasturia said. “That can be an advantage for us. It’s kind of fun, you just wake up and you play. You’re not waiting around all day.”

The Irish played five noon games this season, going 3-2 in those matchups. The losses came against No. 1 Villanova (Dec. 10) and at Georgia Tech (Jan. 28).

Beachem said to compensate, Notre Dame has held practices earlier in the day to acclimate to the time. Wednesday, the Irish workout began at 1:30 p.m.

“It’s a little different playing at 9 o’clock at night versus playing at noon,” Pflueger said. “We’ve performed well in both situations throughout the year and we’ll be ready to go when the ball is tipped

“It’s definitely extra motivation for kids to get to bed early. Other than that we just treat every basketball game the same.”

PRINCETON HAS TIES TO NORTHERN INDIANA

Princeton sophomore guard Devin Cannady, a graduate of Mishawaka Marian High School just outside South Bend, is extremely familiar with tomorrow’s opponent.

Cannady is averaging 13.7 points per game for the Tigers, tied for the most on the team. He’s also averaging 3.6 rebounds a game for the Ivy League champions.

“I'm looking forward to playing against some of my friends, you know, V.J. Beachem and I have a close relationship,” Cannady said. “I play summer basketball with these guys, so, I live right down the road. So it will be interesting. It will be really fun for me.

Cannady said there are some emotions that go into tomorrow’s game, but doesn’t envision those impacting his performance.

“When we get on the court tomorrow, there's going to be high emotions, but my teammates and I are going to be looking forward to tipping off and playing some good basketball,” he said.

Sixth-year Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson was a 12-time varsity letter winner at Culver Military Academy in football, basketball and baseball. Culver is where the Irish football team holds several preseason practices each season.

Henderson was asked about Cannady's psyche heading into the game against Notre Dame.

“A year ago, I would have been — had maybe a high level of concern, but Devin's grown so much with the loss of the two seniors in a leadership position, and he's going to have to maintain a level head,” Henderson said. “There's always a game within the game and Devin has — he's a light bulb of a kid. He comes into the gym and I always tell everybody, right before he takes the floor, he says Mishawaka, as loud as he can, which is where he went to high school and it's right next to Notre Dame.

“Whatever you need to use to get motivated, you should use it. Devin, he doesn't need much.”

MISC.

• Notre Dame’s pep band and cheerleading team was in attendance at practice. The band played the fight song during down periods.

• Thursday’s game against Princeton will be followed by No. 4 West Virginia and No. 13 Bucknell. At 7:10 p.m., No. 1 Villanova will play No. 16 Mount Saint Mary’s, followed by No. 8 Wisconsin against No. 9 Virginia Tech.

• Should Notre Dame win, it would face the winner of WVU-Bucknell on Saturday.

• Junior forward Martinas Geben on facing a lower-seeded team: “Absolutely we have to approach it very seriously because every team in the NCAA Tournament is really good and deserving to be here. It’s better for us because we’re familiar with that style of play because we play it and we have to guard it every day in practice. We have an advantage in that aspect.”

• Brey had high praise for junior point guard Matt Farrell, claiming that the Bridgewater, N.J., native, — in his first year as a starter — is better than former Duke star Bobby Hurley.

"Well, the demeanor and the edge are the same," Brey said. "It's that I-95, New Jersey edge that both of them have. Actually, obviously, I know Bobby well, recruited him. He tried to recruit him for her at U.B., I believe, at the time and knew him and called me, actually the day I was going down to watch him. He said Coach, I usually don't get involved. He said, I just love him. He kind of made a comment, he reminds me of myself. I said, well this evaluation is now over, I know what to do.

"He's better than Hurley because he shoots it better. He shoots it better than Hurley."

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