BUFFALO, N.Y. — Something will have to give in Saturday’s second-round matchup between Notre Dame and West Virginia.
The fundamentally strong fifth-seeded Irish — the lower seed and the road team in the 12:10 p.m. game on CBS — refuse to turn the ball over. Head coach Mike Brey’s team gives the ball away on just 13.8 percent of their possessions, No. 1 among 351 Division I teams.
On the other side, the fourth-seeded Mountaineers are a terror for opposing offenses, forcing a nation-best 20.3 turnovers on average. This season, 27.9 percent of defensive possessions for WVU had ended with a turnover.
Strength meets strength.
“We just need to stay poised with the ball,” junior point guard Matt Farrell said. “We need guys to be receivers. Everybody that's on the floor needs to be a receiver. We need to be strong with the ball.”
The Irish go from slow-it-down Princeton, which they narrowly beat 60-58 Thursday, to heat-it-up West Virginia with just one day to prepare. The Mountaineers will throw their full-court press defense at Notre Dame all game. Should the Irish break it, West Virginia has gone to a 1-3-1 zone in recent weeks.
Brey compared WVU’s depth and activity on the defensive end with that of Florida State. The Seminoles forced 18 turnovers against the Irish in January, while Notre Dame was much better in that category in wins in South Bend and in last week’s ACC Tournament.
“We tried to make a comparison and get back to that kind of prep,” Brey said. “I don't want to over-coach it. We have press offense that you work on back in October. You don't want to overanalyze it too much.
“We need guys to be receivers. I think we can prepare in a day.”
West Virginia, a three-point Vegas favorite Saturday, wasn’t its usual defensive beast in its first-round win over 13th-seeded Bucknell on Thursday. The Mountaineers won 86-80, but forced just 13 turnovers.
On paper, the Irish are built to handle the stress of the WVU defense. The Irish would have drawn the Mountaineers in the second round last year if not for an upset by Stephen F. Austin in the first round.
“They don't let us pick. I mean, if you're asking me, would we have picked them, absolutely not,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said of the unfavorable matchup with the Irish. “I don't know if it is or it isn't. I guess that's why you play. We're going to try to do the same thing to them that they do to us. We're going to try to create numbers in the half court, and we're going to try to take transition when it's there. I don't know whether is or it isn't. Probably about 2:00 tomorrow, I'll have an answer for you.”
Because of its pressure defense, West Virginia typically does not guard for long stretches. It’s average defensive possession lasts just 15.8 seconds, second-lowest in the country.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, takes 18.7 seconds per average offensive trip, ranked 301st in the country. Balancing whether to attack the rim out of the press or pull back into the half court offense is a fine line.
“If we’re knocking in shots and we’re getting open looks, we’ve got to continue to do that,” Farrell said. “Other times we want to make them guard us when we get the ball over half court. We want to put them through our motion, put them in ball screens and make them guard us. It’s just determining the tempo of the game.”
Notre Dame freshman guard T.J. Gibbs said he faced full-court presses like the one West Virginia will employ during his prep career at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey.
But the Irish reserve won’t have seen a defense at the college level like he’ll face Saturday afternoon.
“They’re a really athletic team and you match that with how hard they play and the intensity and just how well they’re coached,” Gibbs said. “They’re just a tough team to play against, but we know how we play, too.”
Gibbs plays 14.9 minutes a game on average, taking over control of the offense when Farrell needs rest. Brey has sometimes put both Gibbs and Farrell on the floor at the same time, which could benefit Notre Dame against the Mountaineers.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder made one start this season, a Feb. 11 win over FSU. Brey wanted another ball-handler on the floor against the Seminoles for that matchup, a strategy that could get more use Saturday.
“We have 100 percent confidence in all our young guys and especially T.J.,” senior wing V.J. Beachem said. “Everybody understands that you cannot dribble through the press, that’s really when they turn guys over.
“Just knowing when you’re attacking it, do you want to attack to score or do you want to bring it back out? That’s really what the game will come down to for us offensively.”
Beachem finished with just two points on 1-of-9 shooting in Thursday’s win over Princeton, a frustrating tournament debut after he helped carry the Irish to the Elite Eight last year.
The 6-foot-8 Fort Wayne native did grab six rebounds and finish with three assists and one steal, but offensively he was a non-factor for Notre Dame.
“Just taking my time offensively,” Beachem said of the key to his offense. “Sometimes I let the game come to myself, but when I do get the ball, not rushing that. I might have been in a little bit of a rush yesterday, especially in the second half.”
Beachem said when he goes through a scoring drought, he tends to overanalyze himself. Has he got a shot in a while, has he got a touch? Not worrying about that is something he fought in the second half.
Steve Vasturia, Notre Dame’s other senior, also had just 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting against Princeton.
“When individuals on this team are not making shots or having a good offensive night, they’ve not let it carry over on the defensive end,” Brey said. “That’s where V.J. has made great growth, Steve. Our guys did that yesterday.”
ODDS & ENDS
• Brey wore a green Notre Dame pullover for St. Patrick’s Day on Friday, joking with the media that he was set to the grand marshal at the parade in Buffalo.
“If I can get out of here, I've got to kiss babies, and wave to people,” Brey said. “The float I'm on, they say, is awesome.”
That calming influence rubs off on the team.
“He comes into the locker room right after he gets off the court and puts on a green hoodie and said he has to get into St. Patrick's mode for the media,” Farrell said. “We've got a game tomorrow, we got to the Sweet 16 game, and this guy is worried about what he's wearing for the media.
“It's an atmosphere and he creates an environment, where you're having fun and you've got guys that want to win and want to play for each other and the coaches, and that's really powerful.”
• Farrell and West Virginia junior guard Jevon Carter both played on the East Coast All-Stars this past summer, traveling to play in Italy. The two went after each other in practice, Brey said, and it makes for a good one-on-one matchup.
“He's pretty aggressive,” Carter said of Farrell. “He can pass, he can score. He's a good point guard. It's just our job to do a good job and stop him from being comfortable.”
• Notre Dame and West Virginia were both members of the Big East from 1996 through 2012. WVU left prior to the 2012-13 season for the Big 12, while Notre Dame joined the ACC in 2013-14.
“Well, we had some great games,” Huggins said. “We hard a hard time winning in South Bend. They had a hard time winning in Morgantown.