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Men’s Basketball

Carson: Don’t worry about the details; Notre Dame is still alive

| Thursday, March 16, 2017

BUFFALO, N.Y. — That certainly wasn’t pretty. But hey, it’s March.

We’re all familiar with the “survive and advance” cliche and, in many cases, its use is a little annoying. With this Notre Dame squad, though, it’s probably pretty apt.

Of course, any coach would’ve preferred a nice, comfortable 15-point win to the 60-58 one the No. 5-seeded Irish registered over No. 12 seed Princeton on Thursday afternoon — there’s no doubting that. And sure, Mike Brey might have felt a little better about his team’s chances against No. 4 seed West Virginia on Saturday with that type of result.

Then again, this is Brey’s Notre Dame, a team that thrives in game situations.

Irish sophomore guard Rex Pflueger celebrates after Notre Dame's 60-58 victory over Princeton on Thursday at KeyBank Arena. Pflueger had four points in the contest, after requiring stitches after taking an elbow to the head.Michael Yu | The Observer

Irish sophomore guard Rex Pflueger celebrates after Notre Dame’s 60-58 victory over Princeton on Thursday at KeyBank Arena. Pflueger had four points in the contest, after requiring stitches after taking an elbow to the head.

The Irish have made a habit of tight, often ugly wins over double-digit seeds in the last couple years. Last year, Notre Dame needed a big comeback to down No. 11 seed Michigan, before needing Rex Pflueger’s tip-in near the buzzer to get past No. 14-seeded Stephen F. Austin two days later. Similarly, in 2015, the most talented Irish squad of a generation only got past No. 14 seed Northeastern by a couple buckets — and that team certainly made a deep run.

In fact, it’s that Northeastern game, a 69-65 victory, that most closely resembled Thursday’s contest. Just ask senior forward V.J. Beachem.

“Pretty much the exact same feel,” he said. “First game of the tournament against a really good team and then just finding ways to win.”

In 2015, during an early afternoon game on the tournament’s opening day, the Irish looked groggy, slow and uninspired — much like the win over Princeton this year. Everyone knew Notre Dame could have played better, and the overwhelming emotion walking away from that win was relief, not happiness.

I can remember the thoughts around campus that day; there was no way Notre Dame would move further playing like that, no chance of anything other than a second-round exit, like was so familiar back then for Brey and the Irish.

Two days later, Notre Dame won one of the games of that tournament against Butler and handled Wichita State in the Sweet 16. I’ll spare you the details of that Elite Eight game.

When we look back on that 2015 team, though, we don’t remember the tight win over Northeastern. Notre Dame fans remember the two wins over Duke, the ACC tournament crown, the Elite Eight run. When we look back on this season’s Irish squad in a couple years, I’d be willing to bet this game doesn’t factor much into that memory, either. Gone, washed away.

It’s true: On another day, the Irish effort wouldn’t have been enough. Had Princeton hit 11 or 12 of its 31 3-point attempts — a figure that would’ve been in line with its season average from deep (38 percent) — instead of the eight it did, the Tigers probably pull away late to win the game, knocking Notre Dame out. Hell, if Mishawka, Indiana, native Devin Cannady just hits his attempt on the final possession, the Irish were getting on the plane and heading back to South Bend, Indiana, on Thursday.

Irish junior forward Martinas Geben contests a shot during Notre Dame's 60-58 victory over Princeton on Thursday at KeyBank Arena. With the win, the Irish advance to the Round of 32 for the third straight year.Marek Mazurek | The Observer

Irish junior forward Martinas Geben contests a shot during Notre Dame’s 60-58 victory over Princeton on Thursday at KeyBank Arena. With the win, the Irish advance to the Round of 32 for the third straight year.

But it’s all true in the same way that if Northeastern, down two in the final seconds two years ago, hits a 3 instead of turning it over, Notre Dame’s first Elite Eight run in decades never happens. The same can be said for Pat Connaughton’s block against Butler; Pflueger’s tip-in against Stephen F. Austin; Demetrius Jackson’s late heroics against Wisconsin.

There is no doubt that Notre Dame will need to be better Saturday to head west for a Sweet 16 date in San Jose, California. I think everyone in that Irish locker room would agree.

But there is no other program in the nation that better understands the fine lines between a win and a loss, advancement and elimination, at least one more practice and a flight home, than Notre Dame.

Which is what makes the “survive and advance” cliche so annoyingly appropriate here.

The Irish will be one of the last 32 teams playing this year. It’s the necessary first step. And you really shouldn’t lose sleep over how it happened.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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