Game 35: No. 5 seed Notre Dame (25-9) vs. No. 12 seed Princeton (23-6)
-- Date: March 16, 2017
-- Place: KeyBank Center; Buffalo, N.Y.
-- Time: 12:15 p.m. ET
-- TV: CBS
-- Nickname: Tigers
-- Head coach: Mitch Henderson (119-59 overall in 6th year at Princeton)
-- Location: Princeton, N.J.
-- 2015-16 record: 22-7, 12-2 (2nd in Ivy League)
-- 2016 Postseason: NIT
-- Point spread: Notre Dame by 6½
The Tigers enter the NCAA tournament with a 19-game winning streak after opening the season 4-6 with losses to Brigham Young, Lehigh, VCU, Cal, St. Joseph’s and Monmouth by an average of nine points per game.
Princeton hasn’t lost since Dec. 20, ripping through the Ivy League slate unscathed (14-0) and then claiming an overtime victory against Penn in the first game of the first-ever Ivy League tournament and Yale in the championship game.
Three seniors – 6-foot-5 Steven Cook (13.7 ppg., 5.1 rpg.), 6-foot-4 Spencer Weisz (10.4 ppg., 5.4 rpg., 4.1 apg.) and 6-foot-11 Pete Miller (2.9 ppg., 3.5 rpg.) – dot the starting lineup, giving the Tigers an older feel.
But it’s 6-foot-5 sophomore Myles Stephens (12.6 ppg., 4.6 rpg.) and 6-foot-1 sophomore Devin Cannady (13.7 ppg., 3.6 rpg.) that provide the spark with Cook in an offense that no longer takes on the form of the “old Princeton offense.”
Cook scored 30 points on 13-of-16 shooting against Harvard at the end of the regular season and Stephens averaged 22 points per game in the Ivy League tournament.
Cannady, a high school teammate of former Irish point guard Demetrius Jackson, has converted 42 percent of his three-point attempts (79-of-188) while making an incredible 93.8 percent of his free throws (75-of-80), including 10-of-10 (with 11 rebounds) in the overtime victory over Penn.
He also tossed in 26 points against Cornell in a late-February game on 6-of-10 shooting from three-point range.
The Tigers are a significant three-point threat. The trio of Cannady, Cook (42.2 percent) and Stephens (41.0 percent) has combined for 162 three-pointers and a 41.8 percent conversion rate.
Potential pitfalls for a team like Princeton unaccustomed to playing against Power 5 programs are a) a lack of interior productivity and b) free-throw shooting (beyond Cannady).
A season-ending knee injury to 6-foot-9, 235-pound Hans Brase in December removed size and another three-point shooting threat. Within the same week, the Tigers lost 6-foot-4 senior Henry Caruso (toe) – a first-team all-Ivy League selection last year who averaged 15.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Outside of Cannady, the Tigers are a 68.4 percent free-throw shooting team with Cook (66.3), Stephens (64.3) and Weisz (69.6) all under the 70 percent mark.
Bench production comes from bouncy 6-foot-4 junior Amir Bell (6.6 ppg., 24 three-pointers), 6-foot-11 junior Alec Brennan (2.4 ppg., 1.5 rpg.), and 6-foot-10 freshman Will Gladson (2.3 ppg., 1.1 rpg.), although the two big men play sparingly.
Of course, the Irish are more talented than the Tigers. But contrary to popular belief, the “Princeton offense” – elbow entry passes, highly-structured sets and a steady flow of backdoor cuts – has been replaced by, well, pretty much what Notre Dame does.
“We’re kind of playing ourselves,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “A coach that’s very familiar with them told me, ‘They’re smart and they’re tough…just like you guys.’
“They shoot the three and they space the floor, just like us. They don’t turn it over. They don’t miss free throws. They know who they are. They’re older. It’s really very similar styles of play.”
Notre Dame turns the ball over 9.4 times per game; Princeton 10.0. But a big difference is at the free-throw line where the Irish are converting 79.9 percent to the Tigers’ 73.4 percent.
The disparity is even greater when you consider that Cannady is shooting 93.8 percent from the line. The rest of the Tigers are making just 68.4 percent. But the style of play is very similar.
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson – who hit the game-winning shot in 1996 as the No. 13-seeded Tigers knocked off No. 4-seeded UCLA, 43-41 -- saw how Butler played when the Bulldogs made back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament championship game in 2010-11.
“If we were going to prepare to beat the very best teams on our schedule, we needed to be a little less guardable, less predictable, more flowing,” said Henderson, now in his sixth season at Princeton. “That started with recruiting.
“Locally and within the league, we fought the stigma of Princeton offense. It’s gone for us. Nationally, people are going to find out that we don’t play like that. The principles are good spacing, good players and take good shots.
“We don’t have an aversion to the three-point line. It’s a valuable shot. It stretches the defense. (We) put five guys on the floor that can make a shot. Everybody is playing with a pick-and-pop five or a four, including Notre Dame, and it’s very hard to guard. We’ve been playing like that forever.”
THE POST-SEASON ADVANTAGE
Notre Dame enters the 2017 NCAA tournament with six victories the past two seasons (back-to-back Elite Eights), not to mention an ACC tournament championship in 2015 and last week’s march to the conference championship game against Duke.
None of the players on the Princeton roster have tasted the NCAA tournament until this year as Henderson claimed his first Ivy League championship in six seasons.
“I hope it’s an advantage,” Brey said. “They’ve got a group of older guys that have dreamed about playing in the tournament, and now as seniors they’re in.”
Brey, ever the diplomat, chose to focus on Princeton’s veteran club.
“I don’t think they’ll be affected,” he added. “They’re a senior-laden team that has won and has won close games. They’ve been beaten and dead in the water in the (Ivy League) tournament and at Harvard, and they’ve stolen wins.
“They haven’t lost a game since Dec. 20. No wonder their coach looks so healthy! God, he looks good! What would it be like to not lose for two months? That doesn’t happen in the ACC.”
Brey also knows he has a team that expects to win every time they take the court in March.
“When you have a nucleus of guys that have had success in the tournament for two years with back-to-back Elite Eights, there’s a part of them that really feels it’s their time,” Brey said. “This group feels like this is what they’ve been waiting on to play their best.”
More of the same from the ACC tournament would be just fine with Brey.
“I hope we can package how we played in Brooklyn because I thought our focus and concentration on both ends of the floor was fabulous,” Brey said. “We’re going to need that again to stay alive.
“We can’t be playing afraid to lose. We’ve got to attack. We’ve got to let it rip, and that’s going to be my message.”
Irish double-double machine and first-team all-ACC selection Bonzie Colson is trying to rebound from a right ankle twist suffered with eight minutes to go in the ACC championship game.
“It feels a lot better,” said Colson Wednesday. “When it happened, I felt like I couldn’t really move or walk on it. Now I can move, I can walk on my toes, everything is progressing.”
Colson missed a few minutes of the game after suffering the injury, but then returned and played the rest of the way. He finished with 29 points, although only three of those points came after the injury.
“I’d say maybe a little ahead of where I thought he’d be,” said Brey of Colson’s status. “He’s made great progress.
“It’s about what we thought when we got to the hotel early Sunday morning. Our trainers and doctors said, ‘He’s going to be sore; he’s going to be swollen. But by Thursday, we’ll be ready to cut him loose.’”
Colson practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, but it’s all part of the plan with morning, afternoon and evening therapy sessions.
“He’s one of those guys who we tape up and he’ll play like the man that he is,” Brey said. “You give him a couple of Advil and turn him loose.”
“I’ll be ready to play,” Colson flatly stated. “I’ll do anything I can to help the team win.
“We have a great opportunity to do what we do and to be successful in this tournament. When it comes time for the tip, I’ll be out there.”
BETTER THAN HURLEY?
Bobby Hurley, the tenacious point guard who, along with Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, led Duke to three Final Four appearances and a pair of national titles, is a well-respected former player and coach in western New York.
The current head coach at Arizona State, Hurley led the Buffalo Bulls of the Mid-American Conference to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2015.
So when Mike Brey said what he said during Wednesday’s media day at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, it prompted a few raised eyebrows.
Hurley’s name was mentioned in the same breath as Irish point guard Matt Farrell, who was recruited by Hurley and recommended to Brey/Notre Dame when it became obvious that Farrell would not be playing his college ball under Hurley.
“I think he’s better than Hurley because he shoots it better,” Brey said.
Gasp followed by a brief silence.
Hurley was a first-team All-American in 1993 and was named the most outstanding player of the 1992 NCAA championship game.
“Better overall?” the reporter countered.
“I think he’s a better player than Hurley because he shoots it better,” Brey reiterated.
Farrell enters today’s game shooing 41.3 percent from three-point range on the season, including 45.3 percent in ACC play.
LIKE ONE OF OUR OWN
In many respects, Princeton sophomore guard Devin Cannady is like the little brother of the Notre Dame basketball program.
He was a high school teammate of Demetrius Jackson’s at Mishawaka Marian High School, a sophomore for the Knights when Jackson was a senior.
Cannady hung around the program, played pick-up games with the Irish, and became friends with V.J. Beachem and Austin Torres, among others.
Cannady’s all grown up now. The kid can play.
“He’s in the midst of a great career,” Brey said. “I love him. He’s kind of grown up in our gym. He’s a heckuva young player and I’m sure he’ll be really ready for us. He’s really dangerous, so we have to be aware of him.”
Ready, but too ready? Emotions will run high for Cannady Thursday.
“I’ve wanted to play against them, and back in the day, I wanted to play for them,” Cannady said. “When I saw our (team) names pop up together, it was exhilarating.”
Henderson believes Cannady will handle the emotions of the moment well.
“A year ago I might have had a level of concern,” Henderson said. “But Devin has grown so much with the loss of two seniors in a leadership position. He’ll be level-headed. He’s a light-bulb of a kid.”
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 72, Princeton 63