BUFFALO, N.Y. — After 17 years at Notre Dame, it’s not as if anyone expected Mike Brey to turn nervous over an NCAA tournament game.
Especially not on St. Patrick’s Day.
So Brey walked off the practice floor Friday and informed Irish players he was donning a green hoodie for the interview session.
“How about this? He said he has to get into St. Patrick’s mode for the media,” point guard Matt Farrell said. “We’ve got a game tomorrow, the Sweet 16 game, and this guy is worried about what he’s wearing for the media.”
Brey’s team survived its first-round game 60-58, enduring a last-second 3-point miss by Princeton. Now the fifth-seeded Irish — and for that matter, No. 4 seed West Virginia — can matchup on even ground without the sometimes-crushing mentality trying not to lose.
After beating Bucknell 86-80 on Thursday, West Virginia (27-8) aims to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth time under Bob Huggins.
While he and Brey wax sentimental over yesteryear Big East matchups, their players have only known life in the ACC and Big 12 . Because those were the top RPI conferences this season, both teams played a string of high-profile games — the Irish going 9-8 against the top 50 and the Mountaineers 6-4.
Still, March Madness makes for a unique stage.
Elijah Macon sensed the Mountaineers “had those NCAA tournament jitters” when falling behind early Thursday.
“Big lights, big games, big crowds from different schools — it’s another environment,” he said.
Nathan Adrian was a high school freshman when he scored a ticket to see the Mountaineers shock Kentucky at the Carrier Dome in 2010. Now the end of his West Virginia career swivels from possession to possession.
“There’s a little bit more difference toward the end of the game,” Adrian said. “When it’s a little bit closer, and you start to realize if you blow this one, then you’re not going to have another chance.”
After coaching Note Dame to 12 NCAA tournaments and consecutive Elite Eight appearances, Brey seems immune to the enormity. (“I think I was a little more uptight when I got to South Bend in 2000 because I was trying not to get fired,” he said.)
On Friday he simply hoped the large contingent of Irish fans could recover from Buffalo’s array of St. Paddy’s festivities.
“I hope they can get out of jail by 8 a.m. tomorrow to come to our game, because they’re rolling today,” Brey said. “Matter of fact, we have some extra bail money just to make sure we can get them out.”
West Virginia (27-8) vs. Notre Dame (26-9)
Tipoff: Saturday 12:10 p.m. in Buffalo (CBS)
Turnover tussle: Notre Dame commits the fewest turnovers in Division I at 9.3 per game, while Press Virginia forces the most (20.2).
“Something’s got to give,” Brey said, admitting up front that his ballhandlers will probably “kick it around a little more than usual.“
He sees comparisons to Florida State, which beat the Irish 83-80 in Tallahassee by forcing 18 turnovers. Notre Dame won the ensuing two matchups while averaging only 10 turnovers.
“I don’t want to over-coach it,” Brey said. “We have press offense that you work on back in October. You don’t want to overanalyze it too much. We need guys to be receivers.
“I think we can prepare in a day. I’ve got pretty sharp guys and high-basketball I.Q. guys.”
Given Notre Dame’s ability to spread the floor with five ballhandlers — in this sense, the Iowa State comparison is more legit — Huggins understands the gambles of pressure could yield some open shots.
“If you’re asking me would we have picked them to play, absolutely not,” he said. “But I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t (a bad matchup). Probably about 2 o’clock tomorrow, I’ll have an answer for you.”
Colson not Burton-like: Several players nixed comparisons between 6-foot-5 forward Bonzie Colson and Iowa State’s similar-sized Deonte Burton, who shredded the Mountaineers in the Big 12 championship.
“Deonte was different, man, because he could grab the rebound and take it coast-to-coast,” Teyvon Myes. “He’s a fast-pace playing guy, little more handle. He’s athletic and can shoot the ball of the dribble. I don’t feel like there’s any Deonte on the team.”
Macon, whose listed at 6-9, spent Saturday night watching film of Colson pump-faking and using up-and-unders to score against taller defenders.
“Burton’s more of an iso guy,” he said. “Notre Dame runs plays to get (Colson) the ball, but they don’t iso him.”
Colson produces 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds — the only ACC player to average a double-double — and he scored 33 in South Bend against guess who … Florida State.
Free-throw aces: At a tick below 80-percent, the Irish are the nation’s top foul-shooting team.
“If you let them shoot 40 free throws they’re going to beat you,” warned WVU forward Nathan Adrian.
However, Notre Dame isn’t as proficient at getting to the line, ranking 267th in free-throw attempts. The onus will be on Saturday’s officials to determine how rigorously they restrict Press Virginia.
“The first five or 10 minutes is a feeling-out process,” WVU assistant Larry Harrison said. “But I think as the game goes on they adjust more to us than we adjust to them.”
The Mountaineers, 8-7 in games where they commit 20 fouls or more, were whistled for 19 vs. Bucknell.
“Two of the three officials had worked out games before, so they were familiar with our style,” Harrison said. “They called a couple touch fouls early, but as the game went on those officials did a good job.
“They expect us to back off but that’s not the way we play.”
RPIs: West Virginia 22, Notre Dame 21
Line: West Virginia favored by 2.5
Prediction: West Virginia 85-83