Preview: No. 14 Northeastern vs. No. 3 ND

PITTSBURGH – Mike Brey is acutely aware of what a hot-shooting Northeastern team from beyond the arc can do in a No. 3 seed vs. No. 14 seed NCAA tournament game. Look for the Irish to staunchly defend the arc, and then turn things over to one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

PITTSBURGH – For just the eighth time in its history and the first time since 1991, Northeastern (23-11) of the Colonial Athletic Association returns to the NCAA tournament as the No. 14 seed, taking on Notre Dame (29-5), the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional in Pittsburgh.

• Game 35: No. 14 Northeastern (23-11) vs. No. 3  Notre Dame (29-5)
• Place: CONSOL Energy Center; Pittsburgh, Pa.
• Time: 12:15 p.m. ET
• Conference: Colonial Athletic Association
• Location: Boston, Mass.
• Nickname: Huskies
• 2013-14 record: 11-21 (7-9 in CAA)

The NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In the 120 games between a No. 3 seed and a No. 14 seed, the higher-seeded team has won 102 times and lost 18. Some of the greatest names in college basketball have lost their first game of the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed, including Digger Phelps’ Notre Dame squad in 1986 against Arkansas-Little Rock.

Other No. 3 seeds that have lost to No. 14 seeds include: Duke vs. Mercer last season, Kansas vs. Bucknell in 2005, North Carolina vs. Weber State in 1999, Villanova vs. Old Dominion in 1995, and Arizona vs. East Tennessee State in 1992.

Like the Irish, the Huskies had a down year in 2013-14, finishing fifth out of nine teams in the CAA before rebounding in big fashion this season to land an NCAA tournament berth.

While the Irish have been to five NCAA tournaments in the last six years and 10 out of 15 during the tenure of Mike Brey, this is the first trip to the Big Dance by Northeastern since 1991 – before any of the current Husky players were born.

This is Northeastern’s eighth NCAA tournament appearance. The Huskies are 3-7 in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies’ last victory came in 1984 when they defeated Long Island to land a spot as the No. 11 seed. All three of Northeastern’s NCAA tournament victories have come as the No. 11 seed.

The late, great Reggie Lewis (1983-87 at Northeastern) ranks 21st in the history of NCAA basketball scoring with 2,708 points, a 22.2 scoring average and a 7.9 rebounding average. The 6-foot-7, 195-pounder was the No. 22 overall pick of the first round by the Boston Celtics in 1987, where he would score 7,902 points, grab 1,938 rebounds and dish out 1,153 assists. He was an NBA all-star in 1992. He died tragically of cardiac arrest during an off-season practice in July at the age of 27.

Bill Coen, 53, is a disciple of former Rhode Island and Boston College head coach Al Skinner. Coen coached for Skinner at both places before landing the Northeastern job prior to the 2006-07 season.

In nine seasons at Northeastern, Coen is 144-142 with his best years coming in 2009-10 (20-13), 2012-13 (20-11) and this season (23-11). He’s had a losing mark in five of his nine seasons, including an 11-21 record in 2013-14.

Notre Dame was 3-1 with Mike Brey as head coach when Coen was serving as an assistant at Boston College (1997-2006).

Notre Dame has four players with NCAA tournament experience – senior Pat Connaughton, fifth-year senior Jerian Grant, junior Zach Auguste and junior Austin Burgett. .

Connaughton had 10 points as a freshman against Xavier, and three points and five rebounds against Iowa State as a sophomore. Grant scored 11 points and had seven assists against Xavier as a red-shirt freshman, and nine points and five rebounds against Iowa State as a red-shirt sophomore. Auguste scored six points and grabbed seven rebounds as a freshman against Iowa State. Burgett played seven minutes as a freshman against Iowa State, but is not part of the current rotation.

No current Irish player has participated in an NCAA tournament victory. (Grant red-shirted as a freshman in 2010-11.) No Northeastern player has participated in an NCAA tournament game.

“We play a heckuva basketball team in Northeastern from a league I’m very familiar with. When I was coaching at Delaware, I ran into Northeastern a bunch. I have a lot of respect for their coach, Bill Coen, and how they play, especially on the offensive end.

“This is your typical mid-major team. I had a couple of them at Delaware. They have older guys that know how to play together and have won together for a while. I told our guys that we have to prepare like it’s an ACC game.”

“Simply stated, you have to play mistake-free basketball. You have to play the perfect game. You have to have a really good game plan. You have to execute that game plan and you have to catch a break. You have to get a little lucky. You have to catch a bounce, something during the game has to go your way, a shift in momentum. You have to have the confidence and the courage to seize the moment.

“We’ll lean on our experience. We have multiple guys that have played more than (95 college) basketball games. Obviously, not at this stage, but if they can stay focused, they’ve won close games, they’ve hit game-winners, they’ve made clutch free throws, they’ve gotten that big rebound or stop. We have an experienced club, and if we can draw upon that, it will serve us well.

“(Notre Dame) is comprised of a team of really good basketball players. They dribble, pass and shoot, rebound and defend, and they know what and how to do each of those skills and execute them brilliantly. They’re a very unselfish team, maybe the best passing team in college basketball. Their spacing, their movement, their ability to shoot the three, the ability of their guards to penetrate the lane and cause rotations…They are an elite offensive team. All their numbers are off the charts.”

Notre Dame and Northeastern played three common opponents prior to the new year – Florida State, Navy and Massachusetts. The Irish were 3-0 against those teams while the Huskies were 2-1.

Notre Dame defeated Navy at home, 92-53, Massachusetts in Connecticut, 81-68, and Florida State at home, 83-63. Northeastern defeated Navy in Connecticut, 68-44, lost at Massachusetts, 79-54, and defeated Florida State in Tallahassee, 76-73.

The Huskies were the No. 3 seed heading into the CAA tournament after finishing in a four-way tie atop the conference with a 12-6 record. Northeastern defeated No. 6 seed Delaware (67-64), No. 2 seed North Carolina-Wilmington (78-71) and No. 1 seed William & Mary (72-61) to claim the conference crown. The Huskies avenged their two losses to North Carolina-Wilmington to advance to the championship game, winning the rubber match against William & Mary.

The Huskies shot 55.3 from three-point range in the CAA tournament – 7-of-13 vs. Delaware (.538), 7-of-14 vs. North Carolina-Wilmington (.500) and 12-of-20 vs. William & Mary (.600). They also received strong bench scoring to win the tournament and secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.

The Huskies are led by 6-foot-8, 234-pound senior Scott Eatherton (No. 43), who averages 14.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 59.4 percent from the field. He leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots while ranking second on the squad in offensive caroms (60). He shot 15-of-22 (.681) from the field and 16-of-20 (.800) from the free-throw line in the CAA tournament. He was 10-of-10 from the field in a regular-season game against Towson.

Northeastern’s three-point shooting comes mainly from 6-foot-6, 196-pound junior David Walker (No. 4), who averages 13.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Playing a team-high 37.0 minutes per game, Walker has scored in double figures in each of the last 11 games and is averaging 16.8 points per game during that time with 21-of-47 shooting accuracy (.446) from three-point range (.394 on season). Walker also is an 86.5 percent free-throw shooter. He made all 12 of his free-throw attempts in a regular-season game against Drexel.

If it’s not Walker taking the key outside shot, it likely will be 6-foot-8, 224-pound junior Quincy Ford (No. 12), who is Northeastern’s third player in double figures at 10.4 points per game. Ford has converted 54-of-145 three-pointers (.372). He also average 5.4 rebounds per game. Walker and Ford have combined for 121 of Northeastern’s 200 three-pointers (60.5 percent).

Providing muscle up front is 6-foot-5, 215-pound junior Zach Stahl (No. 33), who looks bigger and stronger in person than his measurables indicate. Averaging 8.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, he leads the Huskies in offensive rebounds with 64. Stahl does virtually all of his work in the paint, which helps explain the 56.9 field-goal percentage. He has not attempted a three-pointer.

T.J. Williams (No. 10), a 6-foot-3, 201-pound sophomore, logs the second most minutes (33.1) behind Walker. He scores at a 9.7 pace with 3.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He’s shooting just 59.5 percent from the free-throw line, but will launch from three-point range (28-of-81, .346), although he’s made just 1-of-9 in the last six games.

Reggie Spencer (No. 44) sees the most action off the bench (18.9 minutes) and scores at an efficient 5.8 clip. He’s shooting 52.3 percent from the field. He scored 11 points off the bench against North Carolina-Wilmington in the CAA tournament.

The Huskies also received clutch play off the bench in the CAA tournament from 6-foot-4, 186-pound freshman Devon Begley (No. 20) and 6-foot-1, 181-pound senior Caleb Donnelly (No. 15).

Begley made all four of his field-goal attempts – and both of his three-pointers – to finish with 11 points against UNCW. Donnelly has the hot hand right now with 13 points in the CAA championship game against William & Mary and 11 points against UNCW in the semifinals. He comes into the NCAA tournament having made 6-of-9 from three-point range in the last two games.

Northeastern is a solid, well-coached basketball team, or so it appears this season. Like Notre Dame, the Huskies really struggled a year ago, finishing 10 games under .500 and likely causing consternation among Northeastern followers as Bill Coen suffered his fifth losing season in eight years.

Whatever those issues were, Northeastern has turned it around with a strong presence on the defensive backboards, an efficient shooting percentage from two- and three-point range, and a solid effort from the free-throw line (.725). The Huskies are No. 22 nationally in “effective field-goal percentage,” which is a combination of two- and three-pointers with the latter weighted.

On one hand, they rely upon the three-point shot as an effective weapon, but just 30.8 percent of their shots come from beyond the arc compared to Notre Dame’s 38.6 percent. In other words, they use it judiciously and to their advantage.

Notre Dame averages a full 10 points more per game than the Huskies, and that didn’t come against the Hofstras, Drexels and Elons of the college basketball world. But never underestimate a hot mid-major, particularly one that plays solid basketball under a veteran coach who has had some success during his tenure.

By the same token, the Huskies have a poor 485-to-467 assist-to-turnover ratio with each of the starters – who, like the Irish, log heavy minutes – committing at least 70 turnovers. Compare that to Notre Dame, which is one of the most efficient teams in the country with a sparkling 514-to-319 assist-to-turnover ratio and only one player – the free-wheeling Jerian Grant – with more than 55 turnovers. (Grant has balanced his 73 turnovers with 226 assists; 6.6 per game.)

Both teams have allowed exactly 34.4 percent of its opponents’ three-pointers to go through the hoop, but the teams are trending hard in the opposite direction in this category. Notre Dame held Miami, Duke and North Carolina to 15-of-61 shooting (.245) from three-point range while North Carolina-Wilmington and William & Mary connected on 18-of-42 three-pointers (.428) to close out the CAA tournament.

If the Irish can duplicate their heady play and fierce enthusiasm for competition that they forced upon their ACC opponents in tournament play, they will advance to the next round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010-11. It may not come easily at first, but a sharp Notre Dame basketball team – provided it continues to translate on the defensive end, particularly from three-point range – will remain in Pittsburgh for a couple more days.

Irish head coach Mike Brey is very wary of Northeastern going off from the three-point line. He also continues to emphasize the importance of a fast start, which is more difficult to replicate in a 12:15 p.m. NCAA tournament lid-lifter.

If Notre Dame plays the kind of defense it did in the ACC tournament, it’s on to the Round of 32, perhaps even with relative ease.

• Pointspread: Notre Dame by 12 ½
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Notre Dame 82, Northeastern 67
• Season record: 22-12 straight up; 14-12 vs. points Top Stories