Game 36: No. 5 seed Notre Dame (26-9) vs. No. 4 seed West Virginia (27-8)
-- Date: March 18, 2017
-- Place: KeyBank Center; Buffalo, N.Y.
-- Time: 12:10 p.m. ET
-- TV: CBS
-- Nickname: Mountaineers
-- Head coach: Bob Huggins (814-329 overall; 228-118 in 10th year at West Virginia)
-- Location: Morgantown, W.Va.
-- 2015-16 record: 26-9, 13-5 (2nd in Big 12)
-- 2016 Postseason: NCAA (lost first round to Stephen F. Austin)
-- Point spread: West Virginia by 2½
SCOUTING WEST VIRGINIA
The Mountaineers, led by head coach Bob Huggins, will bring waves of players off the bench to run its “Press Virginia” defensive attack, which has led to 710 turnovers forced for an average of 20.3 per game.
Only two players average more than 24 minutes per game – 6-foot-2 junior guard Jevon Carter and 6-foot-9, 235-pound senior forward Nathan Adrian -- with 10 players averaging 11 minutes-plus.
The Mountaineers use their defense to create offense with 10.3 steals per game and an impressive 16.7 assists per outing.
Carter paces the deep West Virginia team at 13.0 points per game while 6-foot-8 sophomore Esa Ahmad (11.3 ppg.) highlights the athleticism in the frontcourt.
Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior, is just sixth on the team in scoring at 6.2 while collecting 4.1 rebounds per game. But in the last nine games, he’s averaging 10.5 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Adrian, averaging 9.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, is Huggins’ “coach on the court,” which accounts for his 30 minutes per game. He helps spearhead West Virginia’s press and stabilizes an offense that averages 82 points per game. He’s also resourceful around the basket with a team-leading 92 offensive rebounds.
Joining Carter in the backcourt is 6-foot-3 junior Daxter Miles Jr., who averages 8.5 points per game. Huggins liberally uses 6-foot-3 senior guard Tarik Phillip – fourth on the team in scoring at 9.5 – and 6-foot-2 senior guard Teyvon Myers (6.0 ppg.) to help apply full-court pressure.
Carter leads the Mountaineers with 90 steals while Adrian, who sits along the front wall of the press, has 47. Phillip and Miles Jr. have combined for another 102 steals. West Virginia has 112 more steals than Notre Dame.
West Virginia is a middle-of-the-road three-point shooting team at 36.3 percent. None of the primary three-point shooters – Carter, Adrian, Phillip or Miles Jr. – shoot above 39 percent from beyond the arc.
The Mountaineers are vulnerable at the free-throw line with a 68.0 percent mark. Players the Irish would like to have at the stripe with the game on the line include Ahmad (66.0), Macon (62.5), Miles Jr. (57.6) and even Adrian (71.7).
BIG EAST BATTLES
Mike Brey owns a 5-4 advantage in head-to-head competition with Bob Huggins – 1-0 when Huggins was with Cincinnati and 4-4 after Huggins took over at West Virginia 10 years ago.
“We had some great games with Notre Dame when we were in the Big East,” Huggins said. “We had a hard time winning in South Bend and they had a hard time winning in Morgantown.”
Brey is 3-0 head-to-head with Huggins at Purcell Pavilion and 1-2 in Morgantown. Huggins got the best of Brey in two Big East tournament games, winning both times in Madison Square Garden in 2009-10.
“Who doesn’t miss New York?” said Huggins when asked about his days in the Big East. “Who doesn’t miss the Garden?”
“The old Big East,” Brey mused. “When Bob got there, we had great battles. It was always tough playing in Morgantown. They were on our butts more than any team that came through there. We had great games with them.”
Huggins has great admiration for what Brey has done at Notre Dame.
“I think Mike is one of the better coaches in the game,” Huggins said. “Mike’s a guy who can pretty much take anybody and make him pretty good.”
Huggins is impressed with Brey’s versatility and adjustments to the changes within the evolution of the game.
“You know, they didn’t always play the way they’re playing now,” Huggins said. “(Brey) does a great job of adapting style of play to personnel.
“They’ve got great ball movement. They’ve got great spacing. They can score it at the goal, which is imperative in our game.”
STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH
Huggins obviously is happy to be in the second-round of the NCAA tournament after last year’s inglorious exit as the No. 3 seed to No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin.
When asked about the match-up with Notre Dame – it was suggested that Notre Dame’s ball-handling and limited turnovers made for a bad pairing for the Mountaineers – Huggins was amused.
“They don’t let us pick,” Huggins said. “I mean, would we have picked (Notre Dame)? Absolutely not.”
It’s certainly an interesting matchup of West Virginia’s pressure defense, which forces 20.3 turnovers per game, to Notre Dame’s protection of the basketball at just 9.3 turnovers per game. (Note: Notre Dame has forced just 444 turnovers compared to West Virginia’s 710.)
Notre Dame hasn’t had double-digit turnovers in the last nine games. The Irish have had single-digit turnovers in 22-of-37 games. West Virginia has forced double-digit turnovers in all 35 of its games.
“We don’t turn the ball over much against a team that turns the ball over,” Brey said. “Something’s got to give. We’re going to kick it around a little bit more than usual. But we have to be great with it overall to win.”
For the Irish to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, they’ll need more productivity and consistency out of V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia.
Against Princeton, the two seniors shot a combined 4-of-21. That left most of the scoring burden on Bonzie Colson (18 points) and Matt Farrell (16). Vasturia and Beachem did combine for 14 rebounds and four assists. But this isn’t Northeastern, Stephen F. Austin or Princeton.
“We need those guys to be who they’ve been most of their careers,” Brey admitted.
Brey, however, sees his seniors contributing in more subtle ways.
“One thing I was pleased about, and this is where this team is different, was that when individuals on this team are not making shots or having a good offensive night, they don’t let it carry over on the defensive end,” Brey said.
“That’s where V.J. has made great growth. Steve has always done that. I’ve talked to the team about defending and rebounding to get to the next weekend.”
With Beachem struggling against the Tigers, Brey was tempted to re-insert sophomore Matt Ryan, who contributed six valuable first-half points. Ryan never got off the bench in the second half.
“We ride those guys,” said Brey of Beachem and Vasturia. “I like what Matt Ryan gave us. The reason I didn’t go back to him was because I loved the defensive chemistry we had in the second half and I didn’t want to mess with that too much.”
The Irish held Princeton to 10-of-25 shooting (40.0 percent) in the second half and 22-of-57 (38.6 percent) for the game.
Against West Virginia’s 10-man rotation, Notre Dame will need more from its bench.
“Matt (Ryan) could play more,” Brey said. “Our bench needs to be ready to give us more, maybe playing two big guys with the physicality of their front line.”
MORE FARRELL TALK
As much as Bonzie Colson has been the aircraft carrier that has guided the Irish to the brink of another Sweet 16 appearance, junior point guard Matt Farrell is the center of most journalists’ stories wherever the Irish go.
It was true in New York last week and it’s been true again in Buffalo this week, particularly after Brey’s statement Wednesday that Farrell is a better all-around player than former Duke great Bobby Hurley, who played in three Final Fours and won two national titles.
“My comparison (to Hurley) is skillset, not honors,” Brey clarified.
Brey then elaborated on the many ways Farrell has boosted the 2016-17 Notre Dame team.
“His ability to play fearlessly and make plays off the ball screen -- and then his ability to score and make shots -- makes him unbelievably valuable to us,” Brey said.
“He shoots it and he shoots it deep. He can make the runner in the lane. He can get to the hole with his speed and get fouled. He’s pretty much automatic from the foul line….That’s why we’ve got a chance to get to the second weekend.”
With the losses the Irish have incurred in the backcourt the last two years, Farrell has been a godsend in Act III of Notre Dame’s national surge.
“We lose (Jerian) Grant and (Demetrius) Jackson to the NBA,” Brey said. “The big question was: Who’s going to handle the ball for us?
“For him to do what he’s done, it’s just a great story. I’m glad he’s coming back for another year.”
POINTS IN THE PAINT
• Vasturia (1,389 points) and Beachem (1,206) enter Saturday’s game ranked 22nd and 39th respectively on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring chart.
• Farrell has connected on at least one three-pointer in 25 straight games. Only Duke’s Luke Kennard (38) has a longer streak among ACC players.
• In games decided by five points or less, West Virginia is 4-5; Notre Dame is 8-3.
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: West Virginia 74, Notre Dame 70