Notebook: Notre Dame guards on guard for West Virginia pressure

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Toting trademark New Jersey toughness every time he steps on a basketball court, confidence seldom is an issue for Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell.

He’s so sure of his ability to do what he needs to do and go where he needs to go that it matters little who or where he’s playing. He’s going to come at you. And he’s going to do it again and again.

Now faced with Saturday’s task of helping No. 5 seed Notre Dame (26-9) solve the fullcourt pressure defense of No. 4 seed West Virginia (27-8) in a second-round NCAA Tournament game at KeyBank Arena (12:15 p.m., CBS), Farrell looked out from under his Irish baseball hat Friday afternoon and smiled.

"Press” Virginia is coming, and Farrell can’t wait to press play.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “They do a lot of fun things on the defensive end. They make people turn the ball over a lot. It’s a challenge for us.”

Farrell isn’t unfamiliar with Mountaineer personnel. Leading scorer and lead guard Jevon Carter was his teammate on an East Coast All-Star team that toured Italy last summer. The two went at it in practice every day; now they’ll do it with the winner (survivor?) going to the Sweet 16.

For Notre Dame, West Virginia is similar to Clemson in turning its defensive screws. It’s also like Florida State, a team it faced three times and beat twice during the Atlantic Coast Conference season. Like the Seminoles, the Mountaineers will press a lot, play a lot of guys and, for most of 40 minutes, test a team’s manhood.

“We’ve got to be strong with the ball,” Farrell said.

The Irish – their guards – will have to be ready. They are.

“Definitely,” said freshman T.J. Gibbs. “We know how they’re going to play. They’re going to bring the pressure. Staying composed is going to be a big part of our game. It’s a challenge we’ve been waiting for.”

Familiar foe

Notre Dame and West Virginia once were Big East colleagues before the schools went their separate conference ways, so no Irish knows what it’s like to face a Bob Huggins-coached team.

First-year video coordinator Eric Atkins does. The former Irish point guard played three times against West Virginia, including a 71-44 victory at Purcell Pavilion during the 2011-12 season. Atkins finished with 13 points, eight assists and four rebounds in 39 minutes. The Mountaineers didn’t pressure teams anywhere near the way they do these days, but their overall M.O. remains the same.

They test an opponent’s manhood, be it every loose ball, every rebound, every pressure situation after makes or misses.

“It’s hand-to-hand combat,” Atkins said. “It’s a fight. That’s what I remember the most. All those little things is such a fight with them.”

Saturday will be all about being strong with and without the ball.

“They have guys who just stick their heads in there and take their personality of their coach,” Atkins said. “We’re going to need to do the same things.

“We’re going to need all our guys to be tough. This game is going to come down to toughness.”

O Canada

Count at least one Irish who was pulling to spend this week in Western New York.

It’s the closest that freshman small forward Nikola Djogo may get in his collegiate career to home. Buffalo is less than 90 minutes – 63 miles of road – away from his home in Hamilton, Ontario. His native Canada sits right across the Peace Bridge from downtown Buffalo.

For the first time this season, he actually had to dip into his ticket allotment (each player gets four for the NCAA Tournament) and find a few more with 15 family members and friends attending.

Thursday’s first-round game against Princeton was the second game Djogo’s immediate family – father, mother, sister – attended this season. The other game was in South Bend on Feb. 11 against then-No. 10 Florida State.

“I’m definitely happy that I’m here,” Djogo said. “It’s what you work for all year. You can just sense the excitement and anticipation that everyone has in the locker room.

“The vibe is just different. You really can’t explain it until you’re a part of it.”

Djogo hasn’t been a part of actual games, but has used practices and the hours before tip to get better. Home or away, he’s often out running through high-level shooting drills with assistant coach Ryan Ayers. Occasionally during non-league play, the lanky 6-foot-7 left-hander Djogo would return to Purcell Pavilion for more work by himself after games.

“I’m here to soak up as much as I can and develop,” he said. “I’m not here to just sit around and wait for my time. I’m here to work, so when I do get my chance, I’m prepared.”

Afternoon adventures

Notre Dame’s post-season reputation as “night-stalkers” has been retired, at least for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

After starting its three Atlantic Coast Conference tournament games at 9:46, 9:56 and 9:06 at night, Notre Dame’s first two NCAA games had start times of 12:15 and 12:10 in the afternoon.

Saturday is the first time in the latest three-year tournament run that Notre Dame hasn’t had a dramatic start time shift between first- and second-round games.

In 2015, Notre Dame beat Northeastern in a game that tipped at 12:10 p.m., then beat Butler in an overtime game that started after 10 p.m. Last season, Notre Dame beat Michigan in a game that ended at 12:07 a.m., before beating Stephen F. Austin in a game that scheduled to start at 2:40 p.m.

Saturday’s tip time was not finalized until 12:33 a.m. Friday morning. The NCAA waits until all games of the first round are complete before deciding second-round starts.

Like Thursday’s opener against Princeton, Saturday’s game will be televised by CBS.

Buffalo bits

• Brey planned to serve as honorary grand marshal of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade downtown following the early Friday afternoon media session. He was joking. The parade is Sunday morning.

• West Virginia leads the nation in steals (10.4), total steals (353), turnover margin (8.2) and turnovers forced (20.44).

• The Mountaineers rank fifth in the nation in offensive rebounds per game (14.4).

• Notre Dame is second in the country in turnovers per game (9.4). Its season high for turnovers is 18, in the Jan. 18 loss at Florida State.

• Mishawaka native Billy Hahn is completing his 10th season on West Virginia’s coaching staff. The Penn High School graduate spent his first four years as an assistant coach and has served the last six as an assistant to head coach Bob Huggins.

• Notre Dame has won nine of its last 11 dating back to the Feb. 7 victory over Wake Forest, which snapped a season-high four-game losing streak.

• The Irish are 4-7 against ranked teams, including two straight wins (Virginia, Florida State).

• West Virginia is 3-0 all-time in Buffalo in NCAA Tournament play.

• Both teams had 90-minute practices scheduled Friday afternoon for KeyBank Center. They were closed to the public and to the media.

Notre Dame's Matt Farrell (5) said he relishes the challenge of West Virginia's full-court pressure. (AP Photo/TIMOTHY D. EASLEY)