Notre Dame men shuffle off to Buffalo for NCAA Tournament date with Princeton

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Behind the wheel of his Chevy Suburban on the road somewhere between his Fort Wayne home and the Notre Dame campus three springs ago, Irish swingman V.J. Beachem completely missed watching Selection Sunday.

There really was no reason.

Notre Dame had just finished a 15-17 season that saw it miss postseason play of any kind for the first time since 1999.

Heading back to school after spring break, the then-freshman Beachem was concerned only with the demanding 3-on-3 workouts that would commence the following afternoon.

The NCAA tournament? Couldn’t care less.

That’s all changed.

“Just the journey from then on has been great,” Beachem said.

For the third straight season, Beachem was front and center watching Sunday when bids were handed out to the 2017 NCAA Tournament. And for the third straight season, Notre Dame saw its name in the brackets that most matters.

Beachem and No. 22 Notre Dame (25-9) drew Princeton (22-6) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Thursday’s game in Buffalo, N.Y., matches the No. 5 seed Irish against the No. 12 seed Tigers. It will be the first game of the tournament and tip at 12:15 p.m. on CBS.

All NCAA eyes will be on the Irish and Tigers.

“Princeton’s a great team, very well-coached,” Beachem said of the Tigers, led by Mitch Henderson, who played at Culver Military Academy back in his prep period. “It should be a lot of fun playing against them.”

Henderson was named the Tribune’s Male Athlete of the Year in 1994. He earned 12 letters at Culver, playing four years each in baseball, basketball and football.

Notre Dame is 2-1 all-time against Princeton. Thursday is the first meeting since a 1977 Irish loss at Jadwin Gym.

Former Marian High School standout Devin Cannady, a sophomore guard, leads the Tigers in scoring (13.7 ppg.).

The other side of the West Regional bracket has No. 4 West Virginia against No. 13 Bucknell. The winner of what Mike Brey annually classifies as a mini-tournament moves on to the regional semifinal in San Jose the following weekend.

“We’re excited to be playing for something again,” Beachem said.

Virginia (East), Iowa State (Midwest) and Minnesota (South) are the other 5 tournament seeds. The Atlantic Coast Conference advanced a league-record nine teams.

Notre Dame’s coaches and players watched the selection show on CBS from Club Naimoli atop Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame was one of several teams CBS had live cameras on as the Irish waited to hear and see where they were headed.

Still trying to recover from Saturday’s near-miss against Duke in the ACC tournament championship, Brey watched the show from his office.

“This never gets old,” Brey said. “We’re kind of making this an annual event, which is what you want your program to be doing.”

Also recovering is junior power forward Bonzie Colson, who scored a game-high 29 points Saturday against Duke. Colson suffered a sprained right ankle with eight minutes remaining in the game, but played through it. Brey figured the Irish medical staff will put Colson in a walking boot for much of this week.

Colson’s practice time is expected to be limited, but Brey believes he’ll be full-go by game time.

For the Irish, it’s visit No. 36 to the NCAA tournament. They own a 37-39 record, including a school record six wins over the last two seasons. The only team to appear in each of the last two Elite Eights, Notre Dame has never had multiple victories in at least three straight tournaments.

The school’s only appearance in the Final Four came in 1978.

The Irish have gone to 12 NCAA tournaments in Brey’s 17 seasons.

It's Notre Dame's first trip to Buffalo since 2001.

Having all but locked up a bid in mid-February following its 10th conference victory of the season, which came Feb. 18 at North Carolina State, Notre Dame had been projected for much of winter as a No. 5 or 6 seed from various tournament bracketologists. The Irish then won six in a row late in the year, and eight of 10 heading into NCAA play. Two of those wins came against ranked teams – Virginia and Florida State – on consecutive nights last week at the ACC tournament.

Those wins, coupled with the six-game run of success to close the regular season, likely allowed Notre Dame to flirt with a higher tournament seed. The Irish were listed as a 4 seed in some bracket projections late last week. They were as high as a 3 by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as of Sunday morning.

By Sunday afternoon, Lunardi had Notre Dame headed to Indianapolis as a 3 seed.

Instead, Notre Dame is a 5 for the first time since 2008 and fourth time in school history. The Irish are 3-0 as a 5 seed in NCAA openers. They went to the Sweet 16 as a 5 in 2003.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Will former Notre Dame forward V.J. Beachem keep the recent Irish run of NBA draft picks going Thursday? (AP File Photo/Julie Jacobson)

NCAA Tournament

First Round

WHO: No. 5 seed Notre Dame (25-9 overall; 12-6 ACC) vs. No. 12 Princeton (22-6; 14-0 Ivy).

WHERE: KeyBank Center (19,200), Buffalo, N.Y.

WHEN: Thursday at 12:15 p.m.

TV: CBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.