BUFFALO, N.Y. — While the NCAA second-round press conferences were going on Friday at the KeyBank Center here, a basketball coach sat miles away in an office.
“I figured you were there,” he said after answering the phone.
He asked that his name be withheld, but, yeah, sure, he’d break down Saturday’s game between Notre Dame and West Virginia.
He was asked because he’s uniquely qualified. See, his current team played against the Fighting Irish this season and he’s very well versed on the Mountaineers.
Picking the winner, he said, is a tough call, and it’s difficult to disagree. Las Vegas oddsmakers had WVU as a 2.5- to 3-point favorite as of Friday afternoon. The Associated Press Top 25 poll had West Virginia ranked No. 13 and Notre Dame No. 14 in its final list. WVU is No. 12 and ND is No. 14 in the USA Today coaches’ poll.
So we’re splitting hairs here. (Since I can’t do it anywhere else, why not do it here, right?)
If you’re a Mountaineer fan, perhaps a primer is in order. You might know that Notre Dame is led by terrific junior forward Bonzie Colson, who is listed at 6-foot-5 but plays much, much bigger. You might know the Irish are led by terrific coach Mike Brey.
What you might not know is the team has four double-digit scorers in Colson (17.5 per game), 6-8 forward V.J. Beachem (14.7), point guard Matt Farrell (14.2) and guard Steve Vasturia (13.2). After that, though, Notre Dame has a severe dropoff in scoring to guard Rex Pflueger, who averages 4.8 points.
“The fifth man,” said the coach, “is just a fifth man.”
We’ll get back to that. The headline, of course, involves “Press Virginia,” which turns over teams when clicking, and Notre Dame’s merry band of ball caretakers.
“Notre Dame is really solid there,” said the coach. “They make the right decisions. West Virginia’s hope isn’t that the press will cause turnovers, but that the four [Fighting Irish players] wear down.”
If they don’t, WVU could be in trouble. And even if the Irish do eventually tire, expect Notre Dame to sparkle at times, especially early.
“It will be a good game for a while,” said the coach. “What you have to watch is how Notre Dame looks in the last 10 minutes — especially on one day of [preparation].”
That’s the ticket — to San Jose, California, the next round, said the coach.
“West Virginia has more strength and quickness,” he said. “That will hurt Notre Dame, especially when you look at the guys coming off the bench. Notre Dame doesn’t have that.”
Indeed, see above. But the Fighting Irish will have standouts on the floor. Brey has been comparing point guard Matt Farrell to ex-Duke standout Bobby Hurley all week. And then there’s Colson.
“A matchup nightmare,” said the coach. “He’s undersized, but can step out and hit it.”
Because of where Colson plays, expect Elijah Macon to get the first crack at the junior.
“Yes sir,” Macon said Friday before assessing the task.
“He’s a smart guy,” said the Mountaineer. “I mean, it’s the same principals as guarding any post player. You have to shut down on defense.
“He likes to score off angles. And he has a long wing span, so nine times out of 10 he’s going to get his shot off. But I feel if I just stay down and cut off his angles, it will be hard for him to score.”
Colson has hit 22 of 55 3-point attempts (40 percent) this season.
“Yeah, but I don’t think that will hurt us as much,” Macon said. “Him shooting those long-ball 3s is actually what we want him to do. If you can get him to do that instead of scoring in the paint it’ll help us a lot.”
If Macon can’t handle Colson, expect WVU to move Nate Adrian over, said the coach.
“It would be a fun matchup,” Colson said of Adrian. “He’s big, can defend and is strong-bodied.”
Defensively, Notre Dame is “nothing special,” said the coach. The Fighting Irish play mostly man-to-man, but even Brey said Friday to expect change-ups.
“We’ve got to make them play against something different to maybe change [WVU’s] rhythm,” Brey said, “since they change your rhythm with full-court pressure.”
While WVU was picked to finish second in the Big 12, Notre Dame was picked to finish seventh in the ACC this past preseason. They’ve overachieved, said the coach.
“No one thought Notre Dame would be this good heading into the season,” he said.
In sum, the coach said the Irish “make the right pass, shoot well and don’t miss free throws,” but that “WVU’s athletes will hurt Notre Dame.”
“I feel we can get them on the glass and outrebound them, like we did [to Bucknell] the other day,” Macon added. “If everyone crashes the boards and has that same effort, we should be OK.”
Whether in Buffalo, on a couch or in a coaches’ office, we’ll see around noon Saturday.