Analysis: What can Notre Dame do to chase a hoops tourney three-peat?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BUFFALO, N.Y. – It got a little more real late Tuesday afternoon as the Notre Dame men’s basketball team left behind one lake-effect snow belt for another.

With the snow falling and the wind blowing and a state of emergency declared across all 62 counties of the Empire State, the NCAA-issued 737 charter flight carrying No. 14 Notre Dame landed at half past 4 at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport.

Able to beat the brunt of a massive nor'easter into town, the No. 5 seed Irish (25-9) have one final day to fine-tune everything in advance of Thursday’s West Regional first-round game against No. 12 Princeton (22-6) at KeyBank Center (12:15 p.m., CBS).

The next flight the Irish board, which will take them back to campus as spring break winds down this weekend, also will carry with it a question. Will Notre Dame ponder how opportunity got away, or wonder what’s next as it advances to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament a third-consecutive season?

Following are five ways that Notre Dame can extend its season:

• Embrace the frustration over the Atlantic Coast Conference championship loss

Back in 2011 with a senior-saturated team that won 27 games and tied the school record with 14 in the Big East, Notre Dame was 20 minutes away from advancing to a league tournament championship game for the first time in school history.

The Irish then let a 14-point halftime lead slip away in a Big East semifinal overtime loss to Louisville. Having come so close and invested so much that Friday night, the looks on the Irish faces afterward at Madison Square Garden told a troubling tale – it was going to be really hard to start over the following week and gear up for the NCAA tournament. The loss cut that deep.

A No. 2 seed, Notre Dame then slogged its way through a first-round victory over Akron before being boat-raced two nights later by Florida State. The Irish never did recover from the Big East near-miss.

Consider that a lesson learned.

Deep within the expansive locker room of the New York Islanders late Saturday, Brey encouraged his team to embrace the hurt that came with coming so close to a second league tournament title in three years before a five-point loss to Duke.

Let it linger, Brey offered. Then let it help drive the Irish deep through the upcoming NCAA tournament weekends.

“Maybe we’re a little pissed off ‘cause we couldn’t get that banner,” Brey said. “Can we play with a little bit of an edge in this? I think they’ll do that.”

• Saddle up the Big Four

Back in the fall when everything was so unknown, Brey talked of his “Big Three” — junior Bonzie Colson and seniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia. All three were captains. All three would play big minutes. All three would dictate the success or failure of this season.

They eventually added a fourth horseman.

Coming clear of a Legends Classic championship won early in Thanksgiving week at Barclays Center offered Brey and the Irish the first clue that this season might go a totally different and unexpected direction.

Junior guard Matt Farrell had arrived.

The main handler for the first time in his collegiate career, Farrell made several winning plays at critical moments in the wins over Colorado and Northwestern. He just didn’t accept the spotlight. He craved it. No bright lights were bright enough.

So long “Big Three.” Hello, “Big Four.”

Last week in Brooklyn, they combined to average 59.3 points, 18 rebounds and 10.6 assists over three games. None played fewer than 32 minutes in any night.

Now they have to do it again. And again. There’s a lot on each of their shoulders. But that’s the way this program works.

“They understand the process best,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger. “We’re going to have to ride our veterans.”

• Dig in and defend

In any other year, Thursday’s test of Princeton would be like cramming for an accounting exam and getting an hour of sleep.

An Irish outfit that often viewed defense as optional would be susceptible to guarding for extended stretches and leaving themselves vulnerable to the myriad back-cuts and ball movement incorporated in the Tigers’ motion offense.

Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel would have been easier for the Irish than getting stops. Except Notre Dame just played a team that grinds opponents with its movement and patience and cutting. It cracked that Virginia code in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.

This group’s maybe the best defensive outfit in Brey’s 17 seasons. They get in a stance. They guard. They jump the passing lanes and get the steals that lead to easy runouts.

Notre Dame ranked fifth in the ACC — ahead of Duke, North Carolina and Florida State — in scoring defense (69.2), eighth in field goal percentage defense (.431), sixth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.337) and third in steals (7.18).

That 2015 ACC championship team that won a school-record 32 games finished 10th in the league in scoring defense (65.8), 10th in field goal percentage defense (.427), eighth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.326) and fourth in steals (6.7).

“Our defense has taken major steps,” Farrell said. “That’s something we’re excited about and something we take pride in.

“Defense comes down to wanting to do it and getting stops and this team has that.”

• Cultivate another tourney X-factor

Last March, Beachem elevated his game to a never-seen level. He played with a look in his eye seldom seen his previous two years. After struggling with his confidence and falling out of the rotation during the 2015 postseason, Beachem was arguably the best player on the roster last March.

Where did that come from? And who’s next?

Can this be a time for sophomore Matt Ryan, who took a bite of success back in Brooklyn, to put a frustrating year behind him? Does Martinas Geben continue on his fast-track trek back into the rotation after losing his starting spot and logging a pair of DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) last month? Will freshman T.J. Gibbs play with even more poise under pressure like an upperclassman? Does Austin Torres factor into the rotation equation?

If one or two can share in the heavy lifting, it opens everything up for everybody else.

“Anybody that wants to step forward, they have my permission,” Brey said. “Any other of those guys could have an unbelievable impact and really be a key for us to make a move.”

• Play poor

What Notre Dame did two years ago when it fell a shot short against Kentucky and its first Final Four since 1978 doesn’t matter. What the Irish did last March in improbable tournament escapes against Stephen F. Austin and Wisconsin doesn’t matter. That Notre Dame is the only team in the NCAA field to get to consecutive Elite Eights doesn’t matter.

It just can’t. Nobody cares. Those teams are those teams. Yes, those massive tourney deposits help the collective confidence of this team, which believes it belongs among those who can make a deep run. But nothing that happened with Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, then Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson is going to help Notre Dame beat Princeton. Or West Virginia. Or Bucknell.

It’s a new tournament with new teams. New challenges. The veterans know what it’s like to win — they have a combined six wins the last two times through this dance — but getting the first one with this core is all that matters.

If the Irish play with that mindset, they advance. If they play trying to protect their tournament rep, they’ll be back on campus for the weekend.

Those Irish teams of the last two seasons did a lot. Won a lot. This one wants to do something different to set itself apart.

“We’ve been to the Elite Eight the last two years, but we’re trying to break through that,” Geben said. “The Final Four is the next step.

“We know we’re playing for bigger things.”

Time for the chase to commence and the madness that is March.

NCAA Tournament

First Round

West Region

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.

The emergence of guard Matt Farrell (5) has given the Notre Dame "Big Three" a fourth horseman. (AP Photo/JULIE JACOBSON)