BUFFALO, N.Y. — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey raised some eyebrows before his team’s first-round NCAA tournament game against Princeton by comparing point guard Matt Farrell to ex-Duke standout Bobby Hurley, who owns the NCAA record for career assists and went to three Final Fours, won two national championships and was once named the Final Four’s most outstanding player.
“My comparison is skill set, not honors,” Brey said Friday. “I think [Farrell’s] ability to play fearlessly and make plays off the ball screen, which he’s had to do all year, and then his ability to score and make shots makes him unbelievably valuable to us.
“He shoots it, and he shoots it deep. He can make the runner in the lane. He can get to the hole with his speed and get fouled. He’s pretty much automatic from the foul line.”
So are most of Brey’s players. They lead the country in free-throw percentage and shoot 79.5 percent as a team.
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The Fighting Irish’s Bonzie Colson averaged a double-double this season and is among the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, presented to the nation’s best player. His size might not fit at the NBA level, but he said he’s used perceived slights as motivation.
Colson, a junior who averages 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds, is listed at 6-foot-5 and with a 7-foot wingspan. He’ll likely finish this season as the shortest player to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounding since 1957.
“I’ll just say [it’s about] being motivated, being motivated to do what I can do to help us succeed as much as possible,” Colson said. “Trying to lead by example on and off the court and just use what they say as motivation. Our team, we’re focused in on what we can do and how we can be better. I think that’s something that’s within our program. We don’t really worry about what other people say. We lock in and we know what we can do to win games.”
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Coaching styles were a big topic at Friday’s media day at the KeyBank Center. Neither Brey nor West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, for instance, wear ties. Farrell called Brey the “loosest coach in America.”
“How about this?” Farrell said. “He comes into the locker room right after he gets off the court [Friday] and puts on a green hoodie. He said he had to get into St. Patrick’s Day mode for the media. We’ve got a game tomorrow to get into the Sweet Sixteen, and this guy is worried about what he’s wearing for the media.”
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Farrell and WVU’s Jevon Carter were teammates over the summer on the East Coast All-Stars, a college squad that played four exhibition games in Italy. They’re adversaries today.
“They’re buddies and went after each other in practice,” Brey said. “It’s a big matchup. Carter is a heck of a guard, and he’s a winner. Big shot taker, heck of a defender. That’s a great matchup at the point.”
Farrell averages 14.2 points and 5.4 assists and shoots 41.8 percent from 3-point range. He’s made a 3 in 25 straight games and scored at least 10 points in 20 of 21 games against ACC teams. He’s only committed more than three turnovers in a game once, and his six were a third of the season-worst total of 18 in a loss at Florida State.
“He’s pretty aggressive,” Carter said. “He can pass. He can score. He’s a good point guard. It’s just our job to do a good job and stop him from being comfortable.”
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The two teams haven’t met since 2012, but Brey enjoys his memories of games against WVU, whether coached by John Beilein or Bob Huggins.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Brey said. “The last game I remember, we had that No. 2 seed team [in 2011] with Ben Hansbrough. We go down there and West Virginia beats us. Jerry West’s son is a walk-on, and he goes in and bangs down a 3 across from our bench. I said, ‘We ain’t winning today. Jerry’s kid hit a 3. Let’s go home, get ready for the next one.’”
Brey even maintains an appreciation for the WVU fans who might not have felt the same about him.
“I guess my memory is how hard the Mountaineer crowd is on us down there,” Brey said. “It is one of the most brutal. I’ve heard some of the most unbelievable stuff. But what I’d do is turn to my assistant and say, ‘God, that was a good one. He really ripped me on that one.’ ”
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Colson leads the team in scoring. Forward V.J. Beachem averages 14.7 points, a half-point ahead of Farrell, and Farrell is a point better than Steve Vasturia’s 13.2 points per game. Those four starters combine to score 59.6 of Notre Dame’s 77.5 points per game.
“That’s too many points,” WVU forward Elijah Macon said. “I feel like if we can take two of those guys out of there, we have a big advantage.” Notre Dame only uses four players off the bench, and the Mountaineers are suspicious of that. Two of the reserves average less than eight minutes.
“They only play six or seven guys, and it’s really six,” WVU guard Teyvon Myers said. “I feel like my 10 are better than any 10 in the country. That’s just how I feel. If my 10 guys go battle their six or seven guys, I think we should be fine as long as we get them out of their comfort zone.”
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The NIT is experimenting with four 10-minute quarters this year, and Huggins isn’t a fan of the idea. In fact, he doesn’t endorse most changes to a game he doesn’t feel needs them. He returned the favor with a proposal of his own.
“I think we ought to stop having our rules committee meet in Palm Springs, because they just feel this need to make changes to justify them being there,” he said.
A better idea came to mind near the end of a snowy week here.
“We ought to have them here in Buffalo,” Huggins said. “In February.”
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The subject of St. Patrick’s Day and Notre Dame did come up Friday, specifically with regard to the large number of Fighting Irish fans living in and around Buffalo.
“Over 17 years, I’ve run into people from here that are big ND fans,” Brey said. “I hope they can get out of jail by 8 a.m. to come to our game, because they’re rolling [Friday], I can tell you that much. Matter of fact, we have some extra bail money just to make sure we can get them out. We know what happens with the Irish on a day like [St. Patrick’s Day].”