Tighten up or tap out

Notre Dame’s weekend challenge likely will be the prolific three-point shooting of Michigan on Friday, followed by the full-court pressure defense of No. 3 seed West Virginia.

The 35 turnovers in the last two games won’t cut it, perhaps not so much in Friday’s game against the winner of Michigan-Tulsa, but certainly not Sunday against likely opponent West Virginia.

Continuing the current rate defensively against three-point shooting won’t be enough, particularly if the Wolverines – who are tied for 16th nationally in three-point attempts and 30th in three-point percentage – are Notre Dame’s next opponent.

Notre Dame is not in a happy place with the overall tenor of its game. But with three days of practice at Purcell Pavilion before heading to the East Regional in Brooklyn, Mike Brey intends to change the vibe.

“I think they’ll be confident,” said Brey, who’s always ready to turn a negative tone into an upbeat situation, particularly as the Irish make their 11th NCAA tournament trip in 16 years, eighth in 10, and sixth in seven.

“We got beat good by a heckuva (North Carolina) team (in Washington, D.C.), but we won a thrilling one (vs. Duke), too. I thought we showed some real March grit and then ran into a buzz saw against maybe the best team in the tournament.

“So we’re not going to really dwell on that. Just because we didn’t have a trophy at the selection show like last year doesn’t mean we can’t get going a little bit.”

Brey’s teams are in their best run of post-season play during his 16-year tenure with the Irish. In the last eight seasons, the Irish have won 11 Big East/ACC tournament games, and for the first time in 12 seasons, Notre Dame made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, claimed a third victory and nearly knocked off Kentucky for a trip to the Final Four in ’15.

The Irish say they’re a confident bunch, although with four losses in their last seven games – including a 21-point loss at Florida State, an 18-point home loss to Miami and the 31-point blasting by North Carolina in D.C. – they’re clearly not in the flow they’d like to be.

How out of sorts are the Irish? Brey’s not sure who will answer the call when the starting lineups are announced Friday night at the Barclays Center.

“Who do we start?” Brey said. “I think that’s up for discussion. Do we start the game differently? Those are things we need to think about to find some new energy as we move into this tournament.”

Asked if he was considering more than two combinations of starting lineups, Brey hesitated and said: “I don’t know yet. Let me think about that. (We) don’t play until Friday, so I’ve got a lot of time to screw my team up.”

The Irish clearly need their guards to play a better brand of basketball. The guards have always been the engine that has driven Brey’s basketball bus.

In the 68-50 loss to Miami, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia were a combined 3-of-22 from the field, including 1-of-10 from three-point range with Vasturia missing all nine of his field-goal attempts.

In the 78-47 loss to North Carolina, the backcourt duo combined for 1-of-16, including another 0-for by Vasturia on six attempts while Jackson missed nine out of 10 shots.

“A lot of motivation, especially for me personally, knowing that I need to be better for my team and take better care of the ball,” said Jackson, reflecting on Notre Dame’s 18 turnovers in the victory over Duke and 17 in the North Carolina hammering.

“It starts with our habits. Half the battle is mental. Having the mindset that your next look is going to go in. Having the confidence in each other and yourself so that when you’ve got a good look, it’s going in.”

Where turnovers come into play this weekend applies specifically to a Sunday matchup with West Virginia. The Mountaineers (26-8, 13-5), the No. 3 seed in the East Regional, average 10 steals per game and rank No. 2 nationally in turnovers created at 17.3.

The Irish were at the top of the nation’s leaders in fewest turnovers per game this season. The anomaly came in Washington, D.C.

“There’s no question that our backcourt needs to play better,” Brey said. “Our guys know how important taking care of the ball is historically in our program. It’s not like I have to clip off 30 turnovers from D.C. and show them. If we have a rash of them in practice, then I may have to get excited.

“We’re so reliant on those guys. We’re not a 6-seed without our guards’ body of work this year. For us to advance, our guards are going to have to find that rhythm that they had most of the season.”

The Irish need to build on their recent successes, which starts up front with Zach Auguste. The 6-foot-10 senior was selected to the all-ACC tournament team despite Notre Dame’s one-sided loss in the semifinals.

Auguste scored 19 points and grabbed 22 rebounds in the victory over Duke. North Carolina limited him to six points on 3-of-6 shooting, but he remained resilient on the backboards with 10 rebounds.

“We’ve emphasized picking up the pace and the tempo of the game, but we played faster individually and had some turnovers,” Auguste said.

“So we’ll slow it down and get back to playing our basketball. Not be in a rush too much and focus on making great passes.”

Auguste will need tag-team partner Bonzie Colson who, much like a year ago as a freshman, leveled off down the stretch run of the regular season. But Colson awoke in the ACC tournament with a 12-point, 12-rebound game against the Blue Devils. Colson added 15 points against the Tar Heels in a game in which North Carolina’s length frustrated him at times.

“We lost the North Carolina game and that’s over with,” Colson said. “We’re still a team with all the confidence in the world. We still trust each other.

“We’ve been improving throughout the season defensively. We’ve got to play aggressive, rebound, and play with that heart and energy that we played with in those games.”

The wildcard in the equation could be junior swingman V.J. Beachem, who scored just 14 points in seven post-regular season games a year ago. In Washington D.C., he averaged 15 points per game while converting 11-of-19 field goals, including 7-of-13 three-pointers.

Beachem aggressively took command in the long-range shooting game and even added a drive-to-the-basket facet.

Brey and the Irish will know their first-round opponent late Wednesday night, after they have arrived in Brooklyn. Between now and then, however, Notre Dame’s three practices on their home hardwood will be focused almost entirely on the Irish, not their potential upcoming opponents.

“We have three days of practice to really concentrate on us before we leave,” Brey said. “I was hoping we played Friday. I wanted a little more time to work with us.”

It’s more about Notre Dame’s improvement and getting back to their disciplined brand of basketball than it is the matchups this weekend in Brooklyn.

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