Irish look to enter NCAA tournament with ‘an edge’
Marek Mazurek | Tuesday, March 14, 2017
When it comes to the NCAA tournament, seeding only means so much.
Often, a hungrier team can pull off an upset if the higher seed doesn’t play with fire. As a No. 5 seed, Notre Dame hopes to stave off No. 12 seed Princeton’s upset attempt while potentially pulling off an upset of its own — should it play No. 4 seed West Virginia in the Round of 32.
For some players, that motivation comes from the desire to reach the Final Four — something the Irish (25-9, 12-6 ACC) have not accomplished since Digger Phelps’ squad did it in 1978.
“I joked around and said, ‘We’ve got an ACC tournament title already. Let’s go try and do something we haven’t been able to get to in a while,’” senior forward V.J. Beachem said.
But for others, that motivation comes from Notre Dame’s 75-69 loss to Duke in the ACC tournament final.
“I think that’s a lot of motivation for us right there,” sophomore guard Rex Pflueger said. “I think we’ve got a lot [of motivation] before just in the sense that we wanted to win for our seniors, V.J. [Beachem] and [guard] Steve [Vasturia]. They’ve been with the program for four years and they’ve contributed a lot, and so we definitely want to go out and play for them. I think that loss is hopefully going to fuel our fire and that we’re going to move on and become stronger from it.”
Pflueger played 27 minutes in the Duke game, and the Irish will rely on him, as Pflueger has found himself in the starting lineup in the last two weeks.
Similarly, Irish junior guard Matt Farrell said Saturday’s loss to Duke was one of the most emotional losses for him since high school. On Sunday, the sting was still there.
“Obviously it’s not a good feeling,” Farrell said. “I think we can remember how it feels after that loss. It wasn’t easy, so obviously I think we have to learn from it and use it as motivation.”
Even Irish head coach Mike Brey felt it would be remiss to deny that an opportunity at a second ACC championship in three years slipped through Notre Dame’s fingers.
“It’s a chance to hang a banner,” Brey said. “One of the neat things we were able to talk about after Florida State game was, ‘Fellas, we could have another banner hanging up and cutting nets down. You’re playing for a championship.’ … The program has gotten to the semifinals, we’re used to getting close and now we’ve played in two out of three championship games. That’s something they go for.”
But Notre Dame’s ACC tournament wasn’t all bad. In fact, one could argue the opposite. On Thursday, the Irish knocked off Virginia — the only team the Irish had yet to beat as a member of the ACC. Then on Friday, a flurry of 3-pointers saw Notre Dame topple Florida State. The Cavaliers are a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and the Seminoles are a No. 3 seed.
Other good signs: The Irish defense seemed to kick into another gear during the stay in Brooklyn, New York, and the bench — mainly junior forward Martinas Geben and sophomore forward Matt Ryan — stepped up its play.
“Obviously it was not the outcome we wanted, and I think one thing that we can look at is that we got better over the course of three days in New York and beat two good teams,” Vasturia said. “We came out and scored points. Now, where we are, it’s [win or] go home and we have the opportunity to continue to play.”
Beyond the bench play and renewed defensive focus, the Irish built up its confidence during the ACC tournament and will bring it with them as they head to Buffalo, New York, Pflueger said.
“The positives are that we can play with anybody,” Pflueger said. “A lot of people are saying Duke’s the best team in the country. They’re a great team, I’m not going to lie, but I think we’re just as good as them. We can play with any team — I think we proved it at that tournament, and it gives us confidence going into this one.”
Confidence is good, but Brey said he hopes the loss to Duke gives his team something else: an edge.
“You know what I told them? I told them last night, I said, ‘How about this? You guys play with a pretty darn good edge. But since we couldn’t win this thing, let’s have that add to our edge a little bit. Maybe we’re a little pissed off because we couldn’t win that banner,’” Brey said. “We talked about that on Friday night. So can we play with a little bit of an edge in this? I think they’ll do that.”
Having an edge can be difficult for a team that has reached the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons, but Beachem added that the edge should come naturally by focusing on how close the Irish have been in conference play.
“Just that that extra little chip on our shoulder [is good] and just knowing how close we’ve been, not only potentially tying for a regular season title in the ACC, but [also] a tournament title too,” Beachem said.
Ultimately, the mix of confidence and hunger will serve Notre Dame well when it takes on Princeton (23-6, 14-0 Ivy League) at 12:15 p.m. Thursday at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves and I think we learned what we need to do better. And that’s what you have to do in any situation like that, when we played really well and gave ourselves a chance to win,” Farrell said. “Sometimes the chips fall where they fall, and sometimes the best thing is learning from that, especially going forward into a tournament like this.”