Match-up: 6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist/Jim Spanarkel/Allie LaForce)
Date and Time: Sunday 3/20, 2:40pm EST (approx.)
Location: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
Brad Underwood's Lumberjacks tore through the Southland Conference for the third year in a row en route to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, Underwood has only lost once in conference during his three-year tenure as SFA's head coach. Truly remarkable run he's had, and certainly he is on the short-list for openings at Oklahoma State, TCU, Saint Louis, and a few others.
The Lumberjacks were very under-seeded by the committee based on this program's credibility, but SFA was very short on good wins, with just 3 in the RPI top 100 - and all three of those were over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. They also got trounced in their season opener at Baylor, have a horrible loss to Tulane, and additional respectable losses to UAB, Arizona State, and Northern Iowa. The other 21 games, all wins, all against opponents with RPI's lower than 150. Such is life in the Southland Conference.
That is until their opening round dismantling of West Virginia, a top ten opponent that barely looked like it was still playing basketball against this ferocious SFA defense. That 11th-ranked defense according to KenPom will look to do the same against the 11th-ranked KenPom offense on Sunday afternoon, but one that has given the ball away a lot recently. For a team that forced 22 turnovers on Friday, that's music to their ears.
In fact, KenPom favors the Lumberjacks in this one, despite the respective seedings of the two teams. Following their win, SFA catapulted up to 25th overall, up nine spots from where they sat entering Friday. Notre Dame, following their comeback win over Michigan, barely budged and sits at 40th (although the gap between SFA and ND is narrower than the gap between ND and Michigan, and we saw how close that game was).
FiveThirtyEight has Notre Dame as the slight favorite (57% win probability) and has this game as the most even match-up of the day on Sunday. All of this is to say that Notre Dame may have "lucked out" by getting the 14 seed instead of the 3 seed, but in no way should the Irish start looking past these guys and penciling themselves into the Sweet 16.
G Trey Pinkney
G Demetrious Floyd
G Ty Charles
F Thomas Walkup
F TJ Holyfield
G Jared Johnson
G Dallas Cameron
F Clide Geffrard
F C.J. Williams
The story of the day on Friday was certainly the Thomas Walkup show, as his 33 points carried the Lumberjack offense past West Virginia. Good news for the Irish, however, is that Walkup got 19 of his points from the FT line against the foul-happy Mountaineers, and the Notre Dame defense pretty much lives by one principle - don't foul. The 6'4" Walkup will probably face some combination of Steve Vasturia and Rex Pflueger, who will certainly make him work to repeat his heroics from Friday.
In fact, ignore the free throws, and SFA only shot 31% and scored 41 points from the field. Many of those were easy buckets off turnovers, as they really struggled to generate much offense in the half-court, albeit against a much better defense than Notre Dame's. Still, the Irish would do well to keep the fouls to a minimum and dare anyone other than Demetrious Floyd (42% 3P%) to shoot over the top. Demetrius Jackson will likely be the one tasked with making sure Floyd doesn't go off and get the Lumberjack offense rolling from deep.
The Lumberjacks also do not have any regulars listed as taller than 6'7". Though I think height can be a little overrated in general (it's not like Zach Auguste can sprint down the lane with the ball over his head), the Irish could find some spots to exploit that with Auguste especially. In fact, if you look completely up-and-down that lineup, Notre Dame enjoys the size advantage at literally every position. Will it be a factor against a team that still manages to play incredible defense? You'd have to imagine, at the very least, Demetrius Jackson will be more aggressive in getting into the lane than he has been against much bigger ACC opponents lately.
Clide Geffrard is definitely one to watch off the bench, as the 6'5" wing is the Lumberjacks' third-leading scorer and very efficient inside (60% 2P%) and competent enough from outside to make you worry (35% 3P%). Other than that, not much stands out with this team. They go 8-9 deep so that they can harass you for 40 minutes. Underwood's squad certainly plies its trade on the defensive end, forcing turnovers and getting easy offense the other way. This seems like a team to "burn" against, limit turnovers, and trust that your half-court offense can beat theirs if you can keep them off the fast break.
Every time I start to believe in this team, they send me crashing back to reality with a clunker, or maybe even a few in a row. I certainly got caught up in it after the dramatic win over Duke in the ACC Tournament, and doing so again now after a nice comeback against Michigan seems foolish, relying on a big second-half against a tired team to restore my hope.
Now, they face a team that would be a dream match-up for the February version of the Irish. The team that didn't turn the ball over, was getting to the line a ton, and was starting to make life difficult for teams defensively inside the arc. But we aren't getting that team back this season. Not after 51 turnovers in the last three games. Now I see a team that is going to hand-deliver SFA exactly what they need to win, a bunch of easy buckets in transition.
And let's not be too dismissive of what the Lumberjacks can do offensively; they boast plenty of nice FG percentages on that roster, including a couple guys who can knock down threes (seriously, Floyd is going to have a career-game Sunday), despite the ugly night from the field against West Virginia. Notre Dame is no West Virginia on defense, so don't expect another 31% from SFA, who is still KenPom's 66th best offense.
Another slow start is just going to be too much this time. The Irish absolutely cannot afford another 10 turnover first half and double-digit halftime deficit. They have to be more composed and play a complete 20 minutes because a team that harasses you so relentlessly on defense is going to be tougher to mount a second-half comeback against than Duke or Michigan. Their lack of focus to end first halves is particularly troubling, so that time between the under-4 timeout and halftime is going to be the four minutes on which this game hangs.
But still, I have myself believing that the Irish are going to slow it down and be more deliberate against a team that is going to want them to speed things up. SFA will command the lead for much of the game's first 30 minutes, but Notre Dame is going to always be within striking distance, being just greedy enough with the ball (but still not great) and getting just enough offense to stay in it. I have a lot of faith in this team's ability to execute down the stretch in close games, so long as they can keep it close. V.J. Beachem is on another planet right now late in games, and, behind Auguste and Bonzie Colson, the Irish can match the Lumberjacks' enthusiasm and toughness in those pressure situations to get the necessary little things done.
I really think this one is going to overtime, and Notre Dame is (by my count) a gaudy 13-2 in the past five seasons in overtime games. This is where Mike Brey excels; he has an attitude on that sideline that rubs off on his players and gives them confidence in pressure situations. That's why this team has so many big wins under Brey, and they are finally coming around to getting a few of those in March, too. The Irish will add one more on Sunday afternoon, knocking off the Lumberjacks in an overtime thriller.
Notre Dame 74
Stephen F. Austin 70