Taking two steps forward before going one step back is an apt description of the Notre Dame weekend at the ACC Tournament. Wins against Virginia and Florida State were followed by a tough loss in the conference title game against Duke, results that send the 25-9 Irish into the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The stakes now require a win-or-go-home mentality for Mike Brey’s squad, which means that the margins for error are even slimmer. Notre Dame is competing as a fifth-seed in the West Region, yet NCAA geography dictates that their Thursday game against the Ivy League champion Princeton Tigers will take place in Buffalo. The Tigers enter the tourney with a 23-6 mark.
Tipoff for Thursday’s game is scheduled to start the day at 12:15 p.m. ET. The two teams have only met twice before in their lengthy histories: on December 7, 1974, the Irish won at home, 80-66; on January 3, 1977, the Tigers won by the same margin, 76-62, on their home court.
Dangers to Consider
The past two years, the Irish have reached the Midwest and East finals, respectively, both runs being stopped by the region’s top seed. Notre Dame is in something of a gray area when it comes to this year’s seeding, since it’s high enough to be in strong contention but vulnerable enough to be a potential opening round victim.
Their opponent is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, though this marks their first visit to the Big Dance in six years. That last visit by the Tigers should give Brey and his team ample reason for not looking ahead of an Ivy League team. That was when Kentucky needed a last-second layup to avoid an overtime session with then-13th-seeded Princeton.
The Tigers haven’t lost since December 20, entering this contest with a 20-game winning streak. While the bulk of those wins came against fellow Ivy League teams, the fact that they’ve thrived after a rough 4-6 start means that confidence won’t be in short supply on a Princeton bench that offers a balanced scoring attack.
Taking Away the Three
One way for Brey and his team to short-circuit such enthusiasm is to clamp down on the Tigers’ penchant for long-range shooting. Princeton connected on an average of 10 three-pointers per game this season and are just behind the Irish when it comes to their success rate of 38 percent. The two key players to harass in this area will be forward Steven Cook and guard Devin Cannady, both of whom serve as deadly shooters who need to be neutralized.
Notre Dame has prided itself on mistake-free basketball to win games, which is why they’re the sixth-best team when it comes to fewest turnovers. The problem here is that they’re playing the top team in this category, so combining a tenacious defense with their edge in athleticism are the best ways to take care of that problem.
An Irish Key
For the most part, the Irish have thrived since adopting the small-ball approach, with Bonzie Colson a model of consistency. He’s had plenty of success in the paint and with the Tigers’ overall lack of height, this could be an area ripe for exploitation.
Should Notre Dame get past Princeton, they’ll face the winner of the West Virginia-Bucknell game on Saturday. A victory there would send them to San Jose, where they could meet the region’s top seed, Gonzaga.