There are few teams in college basketball tougher to prepare for off one day of rest than West Virginia. Bob Huggins recruits for toughness and athleticism, and then turns his guys loose for 40 minutes, pressing up and down the floor and forcing opponents to play at his pace. Notre Dame beat Princeton 60–58 in a half-court-oriented game in the first round on Thursday; they were barely playing the same sport on Saturday. The Mountaineers got out to a 10–0 lead and never looked back, controlling the game throughout and winning 83–71.
Notre Dame’s point guards just couldn’t handle the pressure. Junior Matt Farrell had six assists on four turnovers, and he never looked comfortable going up against West Virginia’s aggressive defenders, particularly Jevon Carter, a ball hawk who sped Farrell up and forced him into sideline traps, where he repeatedly coughed up the ball. Freshman T.J. Gibbs showed some potential, and Notre Dame had some of its best stretches on offense with him at the helm. However, he was still too callow to be ready for the moment, finishing with one assist on three turnovers and picking up a pointless technical foul in the second half. The Irish turned it over 14 times, five more than their season average.
It’s hard to win NCAA tournament games without a good point guard, and it’s impossible to do it against West Virginia. A well-coached team that can handle their press can run them off the floor, but even a group as efficient as Notre Dame can struggle to deal with the athleticism that West Virginia has on the perimeter. Stephen F. Austin beat the Mountaineers in the first round last year thanks to the all-around brilliance of Thomas Walkup, a point forward who dissected the press almost single-handedly, but Notre Dame didn’t have anyone who could control the game in the same way.
The best perimeter player on the floor Saturday was Carter, who had 24 points and two assists on 8-of-15 shooting, and seemed to hit a big shot whenever Notre Dame got close. He was athletic enough to get around the Fighting Irish guards and finish at the rim, and he could shoot off the dribble when they gave him space. Carter hasn’t gotten a ton of recognition this season because it’s hard to put up huge per-game stats as part of a 10-man rotation, but West Virginia is going to go as far as he can carry them.
The Mountaineers will face a much tougher challenge in the next round, unless Northwestern can continue its magical season with an upset of Gonzaga. The West Virginia big men couldn’t handle Notre Dame center Bonzie Colson, who had 27 points and eight rebounds on 10-of-15 shooting, and the Zags have one of the best frontcourts in the country. More importantly, they have an experienced point guard with size, junior Nigel Williams-Goss, who has a chance to play in the NBA. He will have a week to prepare for Press Virginia, which is much longer than poor Matt Farrell got. The Mountaineers play the same way every time and dare their opponent to beat them. It’s just a matter of whether they can handle it.