When the final horn sounded after Steve “White Steve” Vasturia’s missed free throw yesterday afternoon, neither teams’ fans felt any sense of joy or elation.
For Princeton Tigers supporters, the agony and disappointment of their underdog team coming up just a bit short (60 to 58) certainly stung as they wondered “what if?”
For Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans, a wave of relief washed over them after their team’s pitiful performance, and a seed of doubt was certainly planted as ND advanced to a likely 2nd-round matchup against 4-seed West Virginia (since then that matchup has been confirmed).
The Irish survived an impassioned Princeton comeback over the final 8 minutes of the game, as a 52-45 Notre Dame lead was slowly chipped down to 1 as the Tigers made play after play while their opponents made mistake after mistake.
So, what can we learn from Notre Dame just barely surviving a game in which the Ivy League champs really, for the most part, outplayed them? Let’s discuss.
This Notre Dame Team is Very Bad When Vasturia and Beachem Play Bad Basketball (Surprise, Surprise)
This really isn’t something we needed to experience firsthand to be able to identify as true, but when the two departing senior starters and captains play poorly, the team, too, plays poorly.
White Steve shot 3-of-12 from the floor with 10 points. VJ Beachem shot 1-of-9 with 2 points. That’s a combined 4-of-21 (19%) and 12 points from guys who average a combined 28.3 points per game and who shoot 44% from the field as a pair. To say they didn’t pull their weight in what could have been their final game in those gold uniforms is generous.
And then, if you want to look at other facets of the game, it doesn’t get much better. Besides Vasturia’s 8 rebounds, the two players played well below normal in every other respect as well.
Beachem had 6 rebounds, but the amount of rebounds he allowed Princeton to get while standing right under the hoop in great position to fight for them was frustrating. Meanwhile, the normally staunch defense of Vasturia was replaced by lots of getting beat to the hoop or overpowered by players who had no business doing so.
None of this is to say that Beachem and Vasturia contributed literally nothing to the game, but I am very confident in saying that they both played very bad games and it nearly cost the Irish their season. If these two don’t get it together by Saturday, there is no way Notre Dame is making another Sweet Sixteen this year.
Free Throws Are Becoming a Problem
I honestly never imagined I’d be saying this when the Irish were flirting with the all-time national free throw shooting record earlier in the season, but free throw shooting is a legitimate concern down the stretch for this team.
In the last 5 minutes of the Princeton game, the Irish could have really helped themselves extend the lead and put Princeton away by hitting foul shots. Instead, ND shot 60% (6-of-10) in the final 5 minutes, allowing Princeton to stick around and keep chipping away at the lead.
Matt Farrell’s miss on the front end of a one-and-one with 11 seconds left was particularly terrible, as it gave Princeton a very real opportunity to win the game.
Lucky for Notre Dame, Princeton’s Devin Cannady missed his potential game-winning deep three pointer with just seconds remaining, and ND escaped with a victory.
However, the Irish have shown the inability to knock down their free throws when trying to close out games, and eventually they’re going to run into a team who will make them pay and send them home.
Whatever ND did to build up their country-leading free throw percentage, they need to figure out how to channel that into late-game situations, when those free throws matter most and could mean the difference between a win and a loss.
Matt Ryan Deserves More Minutes
If you had told me this roughly 3 weeks ago, I would have laughed in your face, brushed it off as a joke, and thought nothing more of it. But after his coming-out party in the ACC Tournament against Florida State, Matt Ryan has shown a renewed confidence in his shot and the ability to make some plays to spark the offense off the bench.
Against Princeton yesterday, Ryan played just 9 minutes, but was able to score 6 first half points (2 two-point shots and 2-for-2 on free throws!!!) and snare 2 rebounds in that very limited time. In the second half, with Princeton hanging around and then making a slow, steady comeback, Mike Brey didn’t once turn to Ryan, even though the rest of the team shot 36% from deep and 39% overall and was desperate for someone to make some shots.
Now, I’m not arguing for Matt Ryan to play starter’s minutes or anything, but I think he could give this team 15+ minutes per game and provide a spark so that the offense doesn’t stagnate as it did for various stretches against Princeton.
BONUS: BONZIE is Still a God
For essentially the first time this season, we as fans saw BONZIE as human during the ACC Championship game when he rolled his ankle and proved to not be completely impervious to harm.
Watching him against Princeton, he clearly isn’t 100% because of that minor injury, but he powered through it to put up 18 and 7 and serve as the only saving grace for the Irish offense in the final quarter of the game.
Combined with Matt Farrell’s first half performance (he was not good in the 2nd half), Pflueger’s defense, and Matt Ryan’s 9 minutes of solid basketball, Notre Dame was able to endure a terrible overall team game and beat a solid-yet-unspectacular team, surviving and advancing (which at the end of the day, is all that matters).
Nevertheless, there are a lot of things the Irish can improve based on this one, and ND fans are certainly hopeful that they do, considering the high-octane, pressing defense that West Virginia will come out swinging with on Saturday.