Here are five keys to another long Notre Dame run in the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5 seed Irish open against No. 12 Princeton at 12:15 p.m. Thursday in Buffalo:
1. Mike Brey’s deft touch
Brey was plagued by quick NCAA tournament exits for several years, but he silenced critics the last few seasons. Few coaches are able to exude the sense of calm that Brey brings to his team. He knows when to be demanding, when to get upset by a mistake and when to let things slide. More than most coaches, Brey seems to understand that the most important work happens in practice. He allows his players to perform with a sense of freedom.
2. Bonzie going gonzo
Bonzie Colson has emerged as a phenomenal force for the Irish, showing a knack for mixing it up and never backing down. He scored 68 points in three ACC games, including 29 points against Duke. For those old enough to remember when Charles Barkley was a player, Colson has a little bit of that type of edge and relentlessness to his game. He’s been battling an ankle injury, so he may need a day or two to rest before the tournament.
3. Sharp three-point shooting
When the Irish’s three-point shooters are off their game, trouble follows. Against Duke, V.J. Beachem and Matt Farrell were both 1-for-6 from long range and Steve Vasturia was 1-for-5. All three are much better shooters than that, and they’ll need to show it if the Irish hope to stage a return to the Elite Eight. Beachem, a New Haven High School alum, leads the Irish with 86 threes made this season, followed by Farrell with 76 and Vasturia with 56.
4. Offense balance
Brey generally likes to use a limited number of players in his rotation, but he molds a unit that can rely on different scorers depending on the matchups. Four players average in double figures: Colson 17.5, Beachem 15.0, Farrell 14.2 and Vasturia 13.3. At times, Rex Pflueger has shown a scoring burst, and Martinas Geben helps the offense at times with his presence inside. Notre Dame has also received a good boost late from freshman T.J. Gibbs.
5. Poise under pressure
The NCAA tournament produces a level of intensity and tenseness that is rarely duplicated in the regular season. Even the conference tournaments don’t have the same level of do-or-die urgency for players who know they’re heading to the NCAA tourney regardless of conference tourney play. But Notre Dame’s players have shown over the last two years they can handle the intense spotlight of March Madness. That experience should pay off as the pressure rises.