Getting to Phoenix is the goal for all 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament, yet only four of them will end up making the trip. For Notre Dame, their presence in the West bracket is one that will present a series of challenges that require four wins just to reach the Final Four. Each of the teams that they’d have to face present different issues that have to be addressed.
Of course, the only guaranteed game that the Irish will play takes place Thursday afternoon in Buffalo, when they face Ivy League champion Princeton. Here’s a look at that game and three other potential contests:
The Tigers are known for their slowdown approach when facing major teams, so injecting some athleticism and keeping close tabs on Princeton’s penchant for three-pointers figure to be important in this contest. Should the Irish emerge victorious, they’ll most likely play Bob Huggins’ West Virginia Mountaineers, who first have to get past Bucknell on Thursday.
Huggins’ intensity on the sidelines is legendary and he’s instilled his defense with the same mindset. Thus, Notre Dame can expect to be harassed throughout the game by West Virginia’s full-court press, with Mike Brey’s squad also needing to be aware of the Mountaineers’ success at forcing turnovers.
West Virginia leads the country in steals, with more 10 per game and brings an emotional component to the court. In the latter case, keeping cool can pay dividends against the Mountaineers, which was best represented by the miracle comeback of Kansas on February 13. That was when the Jayhawks applied their own level of defensive pressure to come back from 14 points down with 2:58 left and then win in overtime.
Winning on Saturday means a trip to San Jose, where the likely opponent is Gonzaga, the region’s top seed. Having lost just once this year, the Zags no longer have the pressure of maintaining a perfect record. Przemek Karnowski will more than fill the paint at 7-1, 300 pounds, with Karnowski often team with Zach Collins, another seven-footer. That offers an intimidating presence that could require the Irish to get their outside shooting rolling early in order to win the game.
Matt Farrell will definitely have his hands full in this potential game at point guard, facing off against one of the best in the country in Nigel Williams-Goss. One lingering issue that perennial contender Gonzaga needs to deal with in this case is avoiding yet another near-miss, something that could increase the pressure on them.
While a past Cinderella in Florida Gulf Coast, a fellow ACC team in Florida State and a potentially dangerous team like Maryland is in this bracket, Arizona may not end up being Notre Dame’s would-be opponent in the regional final. However, as second seed, they’re likely to be the team that takes the court.
The Wildcats have the duo of Lauri Markkanen at center and guard Allonzo Trier to make life difficult, and the motivation of virtually playing the Final Four in their backyard . Yet Arizona head coach Sean Miller has taken three teams to the Elite Eight and never reached the Final Four, so they’re also dealing with their own pressure.
Can Notre Dame Make it to Phoenix?
Six previous fifth-seeds have won their region, with the Irish hoping to mimic another Indiana team. Back in 2010, Butler made it to the title game and put a huge scare into Duke, something Notre Dame wouldn’t mind trying themselves.