• Game 34: No. 6 Notre Dame (22-11) vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (28-5)
• Date: March 20, 2016
• Place: Barclays Center; Brooklyn, N.Y.
• Time: 2:40 ET
• TV: CBS
• Opponent nickname: Lumberjacks
• Head coach: Brad Underwood (3rd year): 89-13 (53-1 in Southland Conference) -- 32-3 (18-0) in 2013-14; 29-5 (17-1) in 2014; 28-5 (18-0) in 2015-16.
Underwood served as an assistant coach for seven years at Kansas State and one year at South Carolina before landing the Stephen F. Austin job. He had previous head-coaching experience at Dodge City CC and Daytona Beach CC.
• Location: Nacogdoches, Texas
• 2014-15 record (29-5, 17-1))
LUMBERJACKS IN NCAA TOURNAMENT
Stephen F. Austin’s victory over No. 3 seed West Virginia Friday may have shocked the nation, but it was just business as usual for the Lumberjacks.
Two years ago, in Brad Underwood’s first season in Nacogdoches, the Lumberjacks – as a No. 12 seed – defeated Shaka Smart’s No. 5-seeded Virginia Commonwealth squad in overtime, 77-75, before falling 77-60 to No. 4 seed UCLA in the Round of 32.
As a No. 12 seed last year, Stephen F. Austin lost to No. 5 seed Utah, 57-50, in the opening round.
LUMBERJACKS VS. BIG BOYS
When the fall semester at Stephen F. Austin began, its 2015-16 basketball schedule wasn’t finalized. It’s difficult getting the big boys to play a team that has lost just 13 times in its last 102 games, let alone get anyone to travel to Nacogdoches, Texas for a game.
“Scheduling is hard,” Underwood said. “That’s why we’re a 14 seed. This is my best basketball team that I’ve brought to the NCAA tournament. Probably the most frustrating thing I’ve been through as a coach is scheduling.
“We were at the 13th of September and didn’t have our schedule complete. We played one Division I home game. Scheduling is very difficult.”
And yet when Underwood did convince a handful of schools to play the Lumberjacks – on the road of course – they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.
• Baylor won by 42 in the season-opener.
• Northern Iowa won by 10.
• Tulane, which finished last in the American Conference with a 12-22 overall record, defeated the Lumberjacks by a point.
• Arizona State, which finished last in the Pac 12 with a 15-17 overall record, defeated SFA by seven in Tempe.
• Alabama-Birmingham, which won the Conference USA regular-season and finished 26-6 overall, defeated SAF by 10.
Stephen F. Austin’s most impressive victories – pre-conference – came against Appalachian State, which finished second-to-last in the Sun Belt Conference with a 9-22 overall record, and Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference, which finished last in the MAC West with a 13-19 mark.
The Lumberjacks have slapped around the Southland Conference competition the last three years. They’re 53-1 while earning three straight bids to the NCAA tournament. They won 13 of their 18 conference games by at least 20 points this year, including eight by at least 26. In the conference tournament, they won by 36 and 22.
The Lumberbacks’ last loss came on Dec. 29 versus UAB.
Yet SFA has showed well against the big boys come tournament time. They have defeated VCU and now West Virginia in the NCAA tournament while playing Utah tough and taking on UCLA.
“People are afraid to play (Underwood’s) program,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, who readily admits he’s avoided playing the Lumberjacks. “They haven’t lost in a while. It’s a group that believes it can win no matter what.
“They’ve got a great psyche, they’re confident, they have a system…They have great will, great mental toughness, and foot and hand speed. They’re not the biggest of guys, but man, can they react to the ball. If you drive in the lane against them, you better hold on to the ball because there are about eight hands stripping.”
BREY VS. LUMBERJACKS
Brey has never matched wits as a head coach with Stephen F. Austin, but he did do battle against the Lumberjacks when he was a point guard for Northwest Louisiana (now Northwestern State) in 1979.
Brey scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field and 8-of-9 from the free-throw line in a 63-60 victory over the Lumberjacks.
Brey had some fun with the visual evidence put out by Notre Dame’s sports information department. A copy of the box score was circulated among the masses when the matchup with Stephen F. Austin was determined.
“On a winter night, in Nacogdoches, Texas, I was un-guardable,” Brey deadpanned. “Quite frankly, I was un-guardable.
“Now, I’ll give you a little trivia. Look at the box score. There’s a guy by the name of Godine on there. He had 29 and I was guarding him. I had no answers. But I said, ‘At least I’m going to try to score tonight.’”
Brey would love to be known as the coach who beat Stephen F. Austin more than the one who slayed them as a player.
“I’ll take that,” Brey smiled. “It’ll be a hard-fought, hard-earned one if we can get it, just like the Michigan game.”
BREY ON WALKUP
Stephen F. Austin has a unique talent in 6-foot-4, 195-pound Thomas Walkup, the two-time Southland Conference player of the year who averages 17.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. He paces the Lumberjacks in all three categories.
Walkup also improved to 81.1 percent from the free-throw line with a remarkable 19-of-20 performance from the charity stripe against West Virginia.
Physically defined with a beard that he hasn’t cut since Nov. 1, Walkup stands out in a crowd both in appearance and performance. Heck, he even looks like the Lumberjacks’ mascot.
“I think it just comes with experience,” said Walkup, who overcame two torn left ACLs and a broken foot in high school to emerge as the Southland’s best player two years running.
“This being the third year, it’s much easier to step up and just kind of let the game come to me and let the nerves relax a little bit.”
Brey knows it’s going to take a village to contain Walkup.
“A number of different guys are going to have to guard him,” Brey said. “We’ve got to do it by community. Certainly Steve (Vasturia) is a guy that we put on guys like that. Rex (Pflueger) could be on him. Demetrius (Jackson) could be on him. V.J. (Beachem) could be.
“I’m really impressed with him. We’ve not prepared for a guy in a while that has that high of a basketball IQ. He has an amazing feel. He’s involved in everything they do. If he’s not scoring it, he’s assisting on it. Lot of respect for him.”
THE SUPPORTING CAST
Other than Walkup, who himself is undersized for a power forward, but is strong and skilled, there’s little that Stephen F. Austin offers physically that will impress.
But Brad Underwood has created a team with an identity, which likely will take him beyond the parameters of Nacogdoches, Texas very soon.
“His intensity, the culture that he’s built at SFA, is incredible,” Walkup said. “It’s fun. It’s energetic. Every day of practice is a huge competition among 15 guys. Ultimately, that’s where the successes come from and why we go 10 guys deep.”
Trey Pinkney, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound senior, has 117 assists on the season, just 3.5 per game, which isn’t very impressive when you consider that he’s started all 33 games, averages 26 minutes of playing time and a mere 2.7 points.
Consider, however, that he has just 28 turnovers in nearly 850 minutes, minutes in which he’s handling the basketball the vast a majority of the time.
Demetrious Floyd, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior, is second to Walkup in scoring at 13.8 points per game. He is shooting a sizzling 42.9 percent on 227 three-point attempts.
Clide Geffrard, a 6-foot-5 senior, is third on the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game despite starting just two contests and ranking fourth on the team in playing time.
SFA forces 18.6 turnovers per game. The Lumberjacks stopped pressing West Virginia about a quarter of the way through the game when Underwood determined that that wasn’t the best course of action against the long, deep Mountaineers.
They’ll keep up the heat on the Irish until Notre Dame proves it has the capability to consistently beat the press.
“It’s a great challenge for us handling the ball and not letting that defensive pressure make us play out of character,” Brey said. “We made a decision to play a little quicker. With that, you’re going to absorb some turnovers. When we get into the half court, we must be better being receivers for each other.
“This is a little bit of a North Carolina pressure – in the passing lanes, pressuring the ball – and we had no answers (for the Tar Heels). We get another chance to move and execute and help each other in the half-court against pressure defense.”
UNDERWOOD ON BREY, NOTRE DAME
Stephen F. Austin head coach Brad Underwood knows Mike Brey as a fellow Under Armour outfit. He also knows him by the efficiency with which his teams execute their offense.
“Notre Dame poses a lot of problems,” Underwood said. “They’re different ones from the ones we faced (vs. West Virginia). Mike does as good of a job as anybody in the country in creating flow for his offense, and their numbers show that.
“They’re one of the best 32 teams in the country. There’s no question. That’s why we’re playing them. They’re a quality basketball team (from) a quality conference. We’re going to have to perform at our best.”
• Line: Notre Dame by 1 ½
• Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 76, Stephen F. Austin 71