BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Three years ago, when Bob Huggins decided it was time to explore playing a full-court pressure defense from start to finish, he wasn’t sure how it would work or if he wanted to make a full commitment to it.
Ultimately, the results did all the convincing necessary.
West Virginia – Huggins’ alma mater – had missed out on post-season play in 2013 and landed an NIT bid in 2014 after five straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
Drastic measures were in order. Playing a full-time, full-court press was about as drastic as it gets.
The Mountaineers made the NCAA tournament in 2015…and 2016…and now 2017. From a 30-35 record in two years to an 82-27 mark in the last three.
Yeah, this pressing thing should work out just fine.
Saturday in the second round of the West Regional in Buffalo, Notre Dame (26-9) – which turns the basketball over a mere 9.3 times per game – will take on “Press Virginia,” which forces 20.3 turnovers per game.
The winner advances to the Sweet 16 in San Jose, Calif.
“I use the phrase I learned from Coach Morgan Wootten when I played for him when I was 15-years-old – be greedy receivers,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey.
“That’s our theme. We’ve got to be receivers. Then you’ve got to know when to attack it to score and when you don’t have a numbers advantage. Then you have to back it off and run some half-court offense.”
When the Irish committed just six turnovers in Thursday’s 60-58 opening-round NCAA tournament victory over Princeton, it marked the ninth straight game with fewer than 10 turnovers, and the 12th in the last 13.
West Virginia, meanwhile, has forced as many as 20 turnovers in 15 of 35 games, and at least 18 in another six games.
“The overriding thing is we want to make you really uncomfortable,” Huggins said. “Where we set our traps is the most important thing. We want to force you into an area that puts you in a bad position.”
Somewhere in between likely lies reality for Notre Dame, which has committed more than 14 turnovers in a game a mere one time this season.
“We’ve got to be mentally tough and strong with the ball,” said Irish point guard Matt Farrell, who will be most responsible for handling the basketball for the Irish Saturday.
“We’re going to turn the ball over. We’re not perfect and that’s what they do. They’re good at it. We’ve got to be able to look up the floor and have five guys as receivers and just be mentally tough, which is something we’ve been able to do in the past.”
On the rare occasion the Irish haven’t been mentally tough – most notably at Florida State in a mid-January road game – the Seminoles turned Notre Dame over 18 times. Since then, spanning 16 games, the Irish have turned it over more than 11 times in a game just once.
“We try to compare (West Virginia) to Florida State, which we played three times,” Brey said. “They played 11, 12 guys and got up into you.
“The game in Tallahassee we lost, we turned it over 18 times. We did not take care of the basketball. The other two times (a combined 22 turnovers), we did. So we try to make a comparison.”
The Irish players are well-versed in the philosophy and the way to handle “Press Virginia” – in theory. They also know words and knowledge won’t add up to much without the actions to back it up.
“Our main priority is to be great receivers of the ball,” said sophomore Rex Pflueger, who will join Farrell and Steve Vasturia as Notre Dame’s primary ball handlers against the Mountaineers.
“The people that don’t have the ball have to make themselves available. Like with any great press, you have to be able to dribble the ball while dealing with pressure. Two guys are going to come at you all the time and we need to find those open areas.”
West Virginia runs two basic presses – a man-to-man and a 2-2-1. The initiator of the press is, on the surface, an unlikely candidate -- 6-foot-9, 235-pound senior Nathan Adrian – who plays more like a bruiser than a back-court thief.
“We’ve focused on not fouling a lot more and we’re sliding our feet better,” Adrian said. “We’re getting in front of people more instead of reaching out and fouling like we used to. We used to run beside guys too much instead of getting in front of them.”
There are certain key areas in the backcourt where Huggins is looking to set a trap between Adrian, who offers size, and one of the guards -- Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., Teyvon Myers and Tarik Phillip.
Once the Irish defeat the press, now it’s a matter of deciding to push the envelope further and look for a quick score, or pull it back out and take your chances against West Virginia’s half-court offense, which could take the form of a man-to-man or even a relatively rare 1-3-1 zone.
“We’re going to attack,” Farrell said. “If we get good shots, we’re going to take it. That’s what we do. We’re going to have to adjust throughout the game, change tempos and have them guard us in the half-court sometimes.”
“They get back well, but we’re a good enough offensive team to get our shots in transition,” Pflueger said. “We have one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios and we do a good job of handling the ball and handling pressure.”
Like most things in Brey’s coaching philosophy, the last thing he wants to do is stress his players over the “scary prospect” of handling West Virginia’s press. Somewhere between preparedness/attention to detail and handling it like any other aspect of the game is Brey’s desired goal.
“I think we can prepare in a day,” Brey said. “I’ve got pretty sharp guys with high basketball IQs. Our thing is when we get through it, are we looking to attack or are we looking to run offense?
“The last thing I want to do is over-coach it. We just need guys to be smart, be good receivers, and then make good decisions in the half-court.”
If the Irish do that, chances are they’ll be packing their bags for the West Coast and the Sweet 16.