Let the great NCAA Tournament debate of 2018 start.
The selection committee is potentially looking at a serious conundrum in Notre Dame. It climbed as high as No. 5 in December behind Preseason All-America Bonzie Colson. The Fighting Irish also went 6-9 over an eight-week span after their star suffered a fracture in his left foot. He returned on the last day of February.
So how will the Irish be judged: Are they the entire body of the work for the season? Or are they the team they have become since he returned. The one that erased a 21-point deficit with 15 minutes to play and scored a 71-65 ACC Tournament second-round victory over No. 7 Virginia Tech on Wednesday night before 17,732 at Barclays Center?
“I’ve never been prouder of a group,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “They were thumping us pretty hard . . . But we dug in defensively and started making our shots.”
Tenth-seeded Notre Dame (20-13) will have a chance to end the debate before it begins on Thursday when it faces fifth-ranked and second-seeded Duke in a 7 p.m. quarterfinal.
“I’ve never been a big guy to campaign, but I think we really deserve to be in,” Brey said. “I don’t want to hear about the best 68. When I have my guys back we’re a Top 20 team. I feel strongly we should be part of it. We have another great opportunity to end all the drama tomorrow night.”
The Blue Devils beat the Irish by 22 points on January 29 in Durham and Notre Dame was not only without Colson but also its other senior leader and second-best scoring option Matt Farrell, who was out with an ankle injury.
“We lost to Virginia Tech without Bonzie and Matt so I was excited to play Virginia Tech with [them] back,” Brey said. “For a while we looked worse tonight.”
Virginia Tech (21-11) led 34-21 at halftime and seemed to have Colson gasping for air as he went 1-for-10 from the floor over those first 20 minutes. The Hokies went up 47-26 when Kerry Blackshear Jr. drove for a layup with 15:07 to play. And then, as Tech coach Buzz Williams put it, “we disintegrated. We didn’t guard and they scored 45 points in the last 15 minutes. We just completely fell apart.”
The game really turned during a 13-0 run in the middle of the second half. In the midst of it, Tech’s Chris Clarke was called for a charge on the baseline. As he protested, Farrell snatched the ball from his hands to take it out for the Irish. Clarke took exception and shoved Farrell past the first row of photographers on the baseline. Clarke was called for a technical foul.
“I think it showed toughness,” Farrell said. “I think for-sure it shifted the momentum.”
The Irish finally had it together when Colson got back into the act. With the shot clock expiring and him on the wing, he launched a three-pointer that banked in for a 60-59 lead, the Irish’s first since 15-13.
“That felt good,” Colson said. “The backboard is there for a reason. My dad taught me it’s your best friend. I shot it. I looked it in. It went in.”
Farrell finished with 22 points, Rex Pflueger 14 points, T.J. Gibbs 13 points and Colson 12 points for Notre Dame, which shot 57 percent in the second half and was 19-for-23 on the free-throw line after the intermission. Justin Robinson and Justin Bibbs scored 15 apiece for the Hokies.
“All the stuff they’ve been through, they’re such tough dudes,” Brey said. “Tonight you saw it, the toughness hanging on in there. I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a team in a big game that really matters.”
Orange to sweat out Selection Sunday. With a shot to assure itself an NCAA Tournament berth, the 11th-seeded Orange came up short against sixth-seeded and 12th-ranked North Carolina, 78-59. Jim Boeheim, coach of Syracuse (20-13) said he felt his team deserved a spot in the field and that “it just depends on what the committee decides. There’s a whole group of teams that are almost a coin flip. But this team’s played very well and I think we’re competitive with anybody.”
Kenny Williams had 17 points and Theo Pinson 16 points for UNC (23-9). Oshea Brissett scored 20 for the Orange.