INSIDER: Irish, Wolverines renew rivalry in first round
Alex Carson | Friday, March 18, 2016
While Irish head coach Mike Brey will embark Friday on his 11th NCAA tournament appearance at Notre Dame, this journey started out differently than the others — because it wasn’t until late Wednesday night that the Irish learned precisely who they’d be playing in the first round.
“It is a little unusual that you don’t really know your opponent yet,” Brey said Sunday following the bracket announcement. “Usually we’ve turned around, I’ve left [the media], and we start breaking down one team.”
But instead of breaking one team down and preparing for it, Brey got the opportunity to spend three days working on the East Region’s No. 6-seeded team: Notre Dame (21-11, 11-7 ACC).
“I told [the team] I think the most important thing about this week is that we have three days of practice on our floor … to really kind of work on us and get some reps on us,” Brey said.
Of course, after Wednesday’s result, Notre Dame now knows its first opponent: No. 11-seeded Michigan in Brooklyn, New York, on Friday at approximately 9:40 p.m.
Unlike the Irish, who finished the season 3-4 in their last seven games, the Wolverines (23-12, 10-8 Big Ten) had to play their way into the tournament. Without a win in the Big Ten tournament over top-seeded Indiana, they would have likely found themselves playing in the NIT this week, and without the 67-62 win over Tulsa on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, they would have crashed out before reaching the final 64.
Prior to his season-ending injury, senior guard Caris LeVert led the Wolverines in scoring with 16.5 points per game. Without LeVert, however, junior guard/forward Zak Irvin leads a trio of active Michigan players in double figures.
Notre Dame and Michigan have met 22 times on the hardwood, with the Wolverines ahead 15-7 in the all-time series. The last meeting between the rivals was an 87-84, double-overtime Michigan victory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on March 20, 2006.
Playing the winner of a First Four game meant Notre Dame had the opportunity to see its opponent play one last time before Friday’s opener, something sophomore forward Bonzie Colson said he saw as a positive.
“We get to watch a game and see what their tendencies are, how they play offense and defense, so we’re excited about that,” Colson said Sunday.
Though expectations aren’t as high for this year’s Irish squad as they were last season, Notre Dame lost just two rotation players from that team. And while Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant were significant departures, it means the core of this year’s team has been there and done that.
“I feel like our nucleus knows what it takes to advance, and we’re excited about that,” Colson said.
If the Irish move past the first round, they will get a date with either No. 3 seed West Virginia or No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin on Sunday, with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
The style employed by West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins is best described by his squad’s nickname, “Press Virginia.” The Mountaineers (26-8, 15-7 Big XII) heavily utilize the press on defense, forcing a turnover on 25.5 percent of possessions, good for second in the nation.
The only team in the country that forces turnovers more frequently? Stephen F. Austin (27-5, 18-0 Southland). The Lumberjacks once more enter the tournament on a tear — they’ve won 20 straight games — reminiscent of their 2014 team that upset No. 5 seed Virginia Commonwealth in its opening game.
A pair of wins at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center would advance Notre Dame to the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia, where No. 2-seeded Xavier would be the most likely opponent. The other side of the East Region’s bracket is littered with squads the Irish have recent history against: Notre Dame split a season series with No. 1-seeded North Carolina, lost in December to No. 5-seeded Indiana and ended its season last year with a 68-66 defeat to No. 4-seeded Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
But Brey said he isn’t looking that far ahead yet.
“You look at a weekend thing,” Brey said. “I haven’t really looked past [Brooklyn]; I just glanced to see who else was in New York with us.”
A return to New York, especially being in the same pod as West Virginia, brings back memories for Brey and Irish fans of trips for Big East tournaments.
“We’re thrilled to be in New York,” Brey said. “It’s a great Notre Dame town; we have great memories of our Big East days, playing and hanging out in the city.”