Limiting turnovers and offensive rebounds will be keys against West Virginia
Alex Carson | Friday, March 17, 2017
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Take care of the ball against No. 4 seed West Virginia and, odds are, you’ve got a pretty good chance of winning.
But up against Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins’ “Press Virginia,” that’s easier said than done. No team turns its opponents over more often than West Virginia (27-8, 12-6 Big 12), which forces a turnover on 27.9 percent of possessions, and the Mountaineers often convert those turnovers straight into layups and easy buckets, as they did in their first-round win over Bucknell on Thursday.
Corollary: Turn No. 5 seed Notre Dame over often and, odds are, you’ve got a pretty good chance of winning.
But up against Irish head coach Mike Brey’s nickname-less team, that’s easier said than done. No team takes care of the ball better than Notre Dame (26-9, 12-6 ACC), which turns the ball over on just 13.8 percent of possessions, and the Irish have only turned the ball over on more than 20 percent of their possessions three times this year.
In theory, something has to give.
West Virginia’s two starting guards rack up the steals — junior Jevon Carter is sixth in the nation with 90 and senior Tarik Phillip is tied for 31st with 62 — but the Mountaineers’ press is bolstered by their length in the back; West Virginia starts 6-foot-8 sophomore Esa Ahmad, 6-foot-9 junior Elijah Macon and 6-foot-9 senior Nathan Adrian along their frontline. The Mountaineers bring in 6-foot-8 freshman Lamont West, 6-foot-8 freshman Sagaba Konate and 6-foot-9 senior Brandon Watkins off the bench.
When Notre Dame breaks that West Virginia press, like it probably will at a solid rate, the Irish will have to make a decision: do they push the ball and look for a quick bucket, or will they be their usual patient selves, using most of the shot clock to get the optimal look?
“You’ve gotta know when to attack it to score and when you don’t have a good numbers advantage [to] back it off and run some half-court offense,” Brey said.
But while the Mountaineers’ attack is foreign for most, Brey and many Irish players were able to draw comparisons to clubs they played during the ACC slate — some offered Clemson as a comparison, another offered Louisville, but one team kept resurfacing: Florida State.
“[I] made the comparison to Florida State,” Brey said. “Playing a lot of guys, getting in passing lanes, pressuring. … It’s a very Florida State-type of prep.”
Seeing those challenges in conference play should only help Notre Dame on Saturday.
“We’ve been facing this the whole year,” freshman guard T.J. Gibbs said. “Big games, big moments and just keep delivering, just how … everyone’s been delivering.”
While the Seminoles don’t attack defensively in the same way, there are certainly comparisons — Florida State’s length and aggressiveness often force high volumes of turnovers. And that’s exactly what happened in January, when Notre Dame traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, and turned the ball over 18 times, a season high, in an 83-80 loss, the first defeat of the ACC season.
But when Florida State made the trip to South Bend the next month, the Irish turned it over just 13 times in an 84-72 victory. During the ACC tournament in March, Notre Dame settled down for just nine turnovers, winning 77-73 to move to the championship game.
And though most will focus on West Virginia’s pressure defense, another facet of its game may affect the outcome more: offensive rebounding. The Mountaineers rank sixth in the nation in offensive rebounding, corralling 37.8 percent of available offensive boards. Notre Dame opponents have snagged 30.7 percent over the course of the season.
It presents the same balancing act the Irish have had to deal with all season: can they be efficient enough on the offensive end to still win a game where they get hit hard on the boards? The answer could be playing two bigs, substituting junior Martinas Geben or senior Austin Torres for one of Notre Dame’s guards or wings.
“I think our bench really needs to be ready to give us more, maybe play two big guys tomorrow, with the physicalness of their frontline,” Brey said.
The Irish and Mountaineers will get the Round of 32 underway Saturday at 12:10 p.m.