NCAA Notes: Notre Dame men embrace break from ACC basketball routine

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A routine rolled back out early Sunday evening inside the Notre Dame men’s basketball office.

After all the brackets were revealed, the preparation machine kicked into motion for this week’s NCAA tournament. Associate head coach Rod Balanis has the lead scout assignment for Princeton, Notre Dame’s first-round opponent Thursday (12:15 p.m., CBS) in a West Regional game in Buffalo, N.Y. There were video clips of the Tigers to compile and detailed reports on personnel to draft. Tendencies to track. Opinions to be formed. Keys to consider.

It all was something the coaching staff has done 35 different times since the season started in mid-November.

But in some ways, it all was new.

For the first time since late December, a dossier was being constructed on an opponent that didn’t have the word Atlantic Coast Conferee next to its name. And that felt good. Fresh.

“It’s great,” coach Mike Brey said. “It’s unbelievable to just not see that.”

Walking out of Barclays Center in the early morning hours Sunday after his team had lost the ACC Championship to Duke, Brey felt a certain sense of relief. The loss sure stung, but the upcoming NCAA tournament could serve as a time for his team to start over.

No more preparing for a Duke or a Louisville or a North Carolina and another tough test in the nation’s toughest conference. Heck, it’s even good not to have to worry about some of the teams at the bottom of the league – Boston College, Clemson and North Carolina State – that the Irish fattened up on.

All of it became a two-plus month grind. Brey’s done with the league – for now.

“I’m just glad we don’t see an ACC team next weekend,” he said. “Now, if we see another ACC team that means we’re doing pretty good and I’ll deal with that then.

“But we all need a break from each other, ‘cause we ground each other up a bunch.”

Should Notre Dame (25-9) do again what it’s done the last two seasons in being the only team in the country to get to consecutive Elite Eights, the earliest it might cross paths with a conference colleague would be in the Elite Eight. That would be a regional final matchup against No. 3 Florida State next week in San Jose, Calif.

Among the ACC’s nine teams that earned tournament bids, Notre Dame and Florida State are the only two slotted in the West Region.

The Irish went 12-6 and finished tied for second in the ACC. They then won two of three ACC tournament games last week to advance to the conference championship game for the second time in three years.

“You play conference games against teams, two, three times,” said senior swingman V.J. Beachem. “Playing against somebody new is exciting.”

The last time

Two members of Brey’s current staff played prominent roles the last time Notre Dame played in Western New York.

On Dec. 22, 2001, coordinator of basketball operations Harold Swanagan scored 15 points, including a career-best 9-of-12 from the free throw line. Assistant coach Ryan Humphrey drew a charge with the Irish up by five and less than five minutes remaining as Notre Dame beat Canisius 84-73 at KeyBank Center, which then was called HSBC Arena.

“That saved our butts,” Brey said of Humphrey drawing the late charge. “We escaped.”

Literally.

The game was the last before a brief Christmas break. Irish players raced out of the arena shortly after the final horn to grab commercial flights home. The next night, snow started falling at a rate of four inches an hour. When it stopped five days later, Buffalo had received over seven feet of it.

That road game against Canisius was part of quirky schedule left over from the one year of Matt Doherty that Brey was handed during his second season. Following a Thanksgiving trip to Honolulu for a tournament, Notre Dame played five straight games away from home in December. That included trips to Buffalo, Bloomington (Indiana), Oxford, Ohio (Miami, Ohio) and New Orleans (Alabama in the Sugar Bowl Classic).

Notre Dame’s lone home game of the month was a Dec. 30 victory over Colgate.

Christmas in March

Advancing to the NCAA tournament for a third straight season also brought the Irish a nice goody-bag from Under Armour.

Players were outfitted early Sunday evening in crisp, white Under Armour T-shirts with the motto of “March Into April.” They also each had two baseball hats – one with the UA logo on it and the other that read “I can do all things.”

And waiting for them at center court of Purcell Pavilion following the Selection Sunday show was a wooden crate containing shoe boxes with each player’s name scrawled on them.

In the boxes were pairs of the new gold and white Stephen Curry model shoes that won’t be released until late this spring.

“Some of the guys will break them out,” Beachem said. “Not a bad deal at all, but none of that stuff matters.”

Tourney tidbits

• Winter Storm Stella is expected to cause tricky travel into the region this week. The late-winter nor’easter is projected to clip Western New York. A Winter Storm Warning that runs from Monday night to Wednesday night has been issued for the Buffalo area. Three to five inches with winds up to 40 mph are forecast for Tuesday, an inch of snow and windy on Wednesday.

• Notre Dame’s 40-minute open practice – free to the public – starts Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. at KeyBank Center.

• The Irish traveling party will be housed in a hotel in Amherst, a 14-mile drive from downtown Buffalo.

• Notre Dame finished No. 14 in the final Associated Press poll of the regular season, which was announced Monday. It ties for the highest the Irish have been ranked this season.

• Notre Dame spent 14 of the 19 weeks of the poll somewhere inside the Top 25. The Irish opened unranked and also were outside of the Top 25 as recently as Feb. 12.

• Princeton earned one of the 32 automatic bids after going 23-6 overall, 14-0 in the Ivy League. The Tigers won the first-ever Ivy League tournament with a 71-59 victory over Yale.

• Princeton has won 14 consecutive games since its last loss Dec. 20 at Monmouth.

• The teams did not have any common opponents this season.

• KeyBank Center is home to the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame and coach Mike Brey like the chance to get away from Atlantic Coast Conference play after facing nothing but league tests the last two-plus months. (AP Photo/JULIE JACOBSON)

NCAA Tournament

West Region

First Round

WHO: No. 5 seed Notre Dame (25-9 overall; 12-6 ACC) vs. No. 12 Princeton (23-9; 11-7).

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.