Notre Dame fans weren’t too thrilled that Thursday’s 1st round win over Princeton came down to the buzzer and nearly ended the Irish’s pursuit of a third straight Elite 8 berth before it began. The 5th seeded Irish held a comfortable lead through much of the game but allowed Princeton to stay in and chip away until the Tigers had the ball in the final seconds down one. Close 1st round calls for Notre Dame are not new during their recent run of Tournament success. Rather, they have been the norm.
Last year Notre Dame trailed 11th seeded Michigan by 12 points at half time before rallying for the seven point win. Notre Dame didn’t take the lead until there were less than four minutes remaining on the clock and the Wolverines were within three points at 63-66 with 0:11 on the 2nd half clock before the Irish made four straight free throws to lock it up.
In the second round Notre Dame needed even more theatrics against #14 seed Stephen F. Austin. It took a Rex Pflueger tip in with just 1.5 seconds remaining to push the Irish into the Sweet Sixteen. Two games, two down to the wire wins over double digit seeded teams.
Two years ago the 3rd seeded Irish again struggled in the 1st round with a double digit seed. #14 Northeastern battled Notre Dame down to the wire with the Irish holding on for the 69-65 victory. That came on the heels of Notre Dame winning its first ACC Tournament with back to back wins over Duke and North Carolina.
The second round brought more indigestion for Notre Dame fans as well when it took Notre Dame overtime to dispose of 6th seeded Butler on the way to the Sweet 16. Notre Dame then won comfortably by 11 over Wichita State to advance to the Elite 8 where they battled Kentucky down to the wire. Still, the first two rounds produced a four point win over a #13 seed and an overtime victory over a 6 seed for the 3rd seeded Irish.
Thursday’s struggles with Princeton won’t faze this Notre Dame team. They’ve been here before and are a battle tested team in close Tournament games at this point. Close calls are not exclusive to the Tournament for this team either. The Irish made a living this season on holding on for close victories in league play enroute to winning 23 games in the regular season and then a couple more in the ACC Tournament before finally losing to Duke in the title game.
The 5/12 matchup as everyone knows is prone to producing upsets. In the 22 prior meetings between 5 and 12 seeds, the teams had split the games 11-11 (tip of the hat to long time reader McSweeney for that stat). So the struggles Notre Dame experienced really shouldn’t have surprised anyone and really shouldn’t temper expectations for this weekend’s showdown with 4th seeded West Virginia.
West Virginia, meanwhile, didn’t exactly make short order of #13 seed Bucknell in their 86-80 win. The Mountaineers never pulled away from the Bison and while their game didn’t come down to the very last second, it was not an easy victory for them by any means.
No doubt Notre Dame will have to play much, much better this weekend if they want to make it to another Sweet 16. The Irish were uncharacteristically sloppy and a rare miss from the free throw line from Matt Farrell in the final seconds nearly proved catastrophic. That said, Notre Dame still did the most important thing they had to do on Thursday. Win.
Style points don’t matter this time of year. No one is in resume building mode anymore and the only thing that matters is surviving and advancing. Notre Dame did that on Thursday and they did so without playing their best game. They shot 66.7 % from the free throw line, they only made four three pointers the entire game, and they had just 10 assists as a team. They have a “1” in the only stat that matters in March though – the win column.
The 1st round has not been easy for Notre Dame in either of the last two seasons and this year was no different. First round struggles didn’t stop the Irish from marching to the Elite 8 in either season, however, and they are still very capable of doing the same again this year if they get back to what has gotten them this far: sound fundamentals, good free throw shooting, and knocking down their threes. If they do those things on Saturday we could still have meaningful basketball to watch when the football team returns to practice following spring break. Recent history suggests, however, that even if that is the case, it won’t necessarily be easy.