Notre Dame has made its mark in March as the only team to reach the Elite Eight round of the past two NCAA Tournaments.
To be truly elite, however, the Fighting Irish know they need to carry that success into another month.
“We have a great opportunity ahead of us to make a deep run in this tournament,” senior guard Steve Vasturia told the Chicago Tribune. “It culminates in April, and we haven’t been able to get there. That’s a goal.”
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Notre Dame (25-9) is seeded fifth in the West Region and will tip-off the first round Thursday afternoon against No. 12 seed Princeton (23-6) in Buffalo, N.Y.
The Irish were emotionally and physically drained after reaching the ACC tournament championship game. But after Saturday night’s loss to Duke, coach Mike Brey tried to lift his team’s spirits by pointing to the past postseason success.
“When that bracket shows up on Sunday night, we’re the only that that has played in back-to-back Elite Eights,” Brey said. “That’s a great advantage of ours, and it’s a psychological advantage for this nucleus.”
Brey also believes his team benefited from its run to the ACC title game in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We delivered under bright lights and played well enough even though we couldn’t finish and get the championship game,” Brey said. “We had our March swagger.”
Princeton enters the NCAA Tournament having not lost since December. The Tigers’ 19-game winning streak includes a perfect 16-0 record against the Ivy League, including two wins in the league’s first championship tournament.
The Tigers had to come back from 10 points down in the second half to defeat Pennsylvania in overtime of the semifinals before beating Yale in the title game.
“We’re battle-tested,” senior Spencer Weisz told the Asbury Park Press. “These two games kind of give you that feeling of sudden death.”
Princeton last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2011, the year before coach Mitch Henderson took over the program. Henderson played on the Tigers team that upset defending national champion UCLA in 1996 as well as the ’98 squad that beat UNLV in the first round
“I’m really fired up about one opportunity we have,” Henderson told the Asbury Park Press. “It can end really quickly and these guys know that, but they’re playing with the fearlessness that I think you’re going to need.”
An Ivy League team has won a first-round game in two of the past three NCAA Tournaments as the 12th seed. Yale beat Baylor last year and Harvard defeated Cincinnati in 2014.
Senior forward Steven Cook and sophomore guard Devin Cannady each average 13.7 points for Princeton, leading four double-figure scorers. Weisz leads the Tigers in rebounding (5.4 per game) and assists (4.1).
Cannady is from Mishawaka, Ind., just outside South Bend, and has played summer pickup games at Notre Dame.
“It was cool seeing them pop up as our opponent,” Cannady said. “I’ve played with them and against them. I’m pretty familiar with their roster and their coaching staff.”
Bonzie Colson is Notre Dame’s leading scorer (17.5 points) and rebounder (10.2). The 6-foot-5 junior has 19 double-doubles this season. Senior forward VJ Beachem is scoring 15 points per game while junior point guard Matt Farrell averages 14.2 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Brey said this is the best defensive team he’s had at Notre Dame.