BUFFALO, N.Y. — There is just one angle to take to properly anticipate Saturday’s NCAA tournament game, one between old Big East foes, one that could have happened at the same stage last season, one that sends the winner to the Sweet Sixteen next week.
There are no teams more picky about possession than West Virginia and Notre Dame, the KeyBank Center’s combatants in the 12:10 p.m. game on CBS.
The Fighting Irish, the No. 5 seed in the West region, commit turnovers on 13.5 percent of their possessions, the lowest rate in college basketball this season. The No. 4 seed Mountaineers force turnovers at more than double the frequency, generating a takeaway on an NCAA-best 27.2 percent of possessions.
“Something’s got to give,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We’re going to kick it around a little more than usual, but we have to be great overall to win.”
The Mountaineers advanced with an 86-80 win Thursday against Bucknell, and that secured a spot in the second round after a first-round loss last year prevented a matchup with Notre Dame two days later. WVU leads the nation by forcing 20.2 turnovers per game. The Fighting Irish, still alive after surviving Princeton and a last-second look at an open 3-pointer in a 60-58 win, have committed 20 in the past three games. They average just 9.3 per game — also the lowest number in the country — and haven’t committed more than 18 in a game this season.
“They don’t let us pick,” coach Bob Huggins said. “If you’re asking me, would we have picked them, absolutely not.”
Against Princeton, Notre Dame committed six turnovers, and the Tigers managed just seven points on the other end. The Mountaineers average 24.5 points off turnovers per game and 19.9 in 23 games since the beginning of Big 12 play.
Against the Bison in the first round, WVU forced 15 turnovers and turned them into 16 points. The Mountaineers found a flourish, too. Bucknell led 9-8 early and didn’t commit a turnover until a player was trapped and traveled to stop the game and send it into a media timeout. By the time the next media timeout arrived, the Bison had five turnovers and trailed 25-12. The lead grew to be as large as 15 points.
“They do a great job of forcing people to get out of their comfort zone,” Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia said. “I think their defense creates and turns it to their offense, and that’s something that they’re really known for.”
The averages suggest WVU can’t expect the same success against Notre Dame, and if the defense isn’t creating easy scores or extra possessions and additional chances for points, the offense has to excel. WVU made 10 of 15 shots to take a 27-12 lead on Bucknell and then made 20 of 51 the rest of the way.
Notre Dame’s offensive ability, which features four starters averaging between 13.2 and 17.5 points and two guards who combined have 307 assists and 143 turnovers, means the Mountaineers can’t afford one of those familiar scoring funks.
“We need to try to stay poised and figure things out,” WVU forward Elijah Macon said. “We need to somehow find somebody on the team to provide energy for whatever happens in that moment. We’ve got to stick with what we’re doing. We can’t get out of whack and start throwing up shots.”
The Fighting Irish can shoot and score. They’re 6-0 when they shoot 50 percent or better, 14-1 when they make 10 or more 3-pointers and 14-2 when they score at least 80 points.
They’re 12-8 when they don’t make at least 10 3s and 4-4 when they score fewer than 70 points. The Mountaineers have held 19 opponents below 70 and won each game, and only four teams have made 10 or more 3s.
“They’re going to try to outscore us,” guard Tarik Phillip said. “They try to outscore everyone. They don’t really play too great of defense. That’s their game — they shoot 3s and try to outscore you.”
The Mountaineers liken Notre Dame’s patience on offense to Virginia’s, the lineup to Texas Tech’s and the strategy to Iowa State’s. WVU went 4-2 against those teams. The Fighting Irish feel their schedule helped them get familiar with the Mountaineers, too.
“We’ve kind of compared them to Florida State a little bit — being in the passing lanes, contesting, full-court pressure,” Notre Dame point guard Matt Farrell said. “I think [WVU’s defense] is a little more different, a little more havoc, I would say, or reckless. You’ve got guys everywhere, so we just need to stay poised with the ball. We need guys to be receivers. Everybody that’s on the floor needs to be a receiver.”
Notre Dame lost at Florida State and won at home and again in the ACC tournament. The Seminoles forced the season-high 18 turnovers in the win and used those to score 19 points. In the two losses, Florida State forced 13 and nine turnovers and produced 18 and 14 points.
“We’ve tried to make a comparison and get back to that kind of prep,” Brey said. “I don’t want to over-coach it. We have press offense that you work on back in October. You don’t want to over-analyze it too much. We need guys to be receivers.
“I think we can prepare in a day. I’ve really got pretty sharp guys and high-basketball-IQ guys, so I think our thing is when we get through it, are we looking to attack? Are we looking to run offense?”