It was the middle of September, a month away from the start of the season, and Brad Underwood still hadn’t found enough schools to fill Stephen F. Austin’s schedule. Big-time Division I schools weren’t in the hunt to play a mid-major, most Division II schools weren’t looking for a beating, and even Notre Dame coach Mike Brey — whom Underwood hobnobbed with at Under Armour events — said no.
“Now I’ve got to play him no matter what,” Brey said Friday.
The only thing Underwood had to do to get some decent non-conference competition was stun a juggernaut like third-seeded West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament.
On Sunday, the No. 14 Lumberjacks will take on No. 6 Notre Dame at Barclays Center in the East Reginal for a spot in the Sweet 16. But this is no Cinderella run for Stephen F. Austin, which has been to the tournament three straight years and whose players insist is better than its seed. A weak schedule will do that to you on Selection Sunday.
“There’s a lot of good teams out there, a lot of high-major teams that are going to take up those first 10 or so seeds in the four brackets,” said Thomas Walkup, who, with his beard, his tongue-wagging and his 33 points became an instant social media sensation Friday. “You’re always fighting for the 11 or 12. So when we do drop to a 14 seed, all right, let’s go show these dudes that we can actually play and shock the world.”
Make no mistake — Notre Dame (22-11) will not be caught unawares. Unlike West Virginia, which said it didn’t take the Lumberjacks seriously, the Fighting Irish are fully prepared for Walkup, that stifling Stephen F. Austin defense and their propensity to force turnovers.
In their fourth-ever appearance in the tournament Friday, the Lumberjacks forced 22 turnovers, improving upon their total of 18.6 per game, tops in Division I. It was their 21st straight victory. They’re 28-5, having allowed an average of 62.9 points in that span.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, is fourth in Division I in three-point percentage (53.3) and shot 8-for-15 in Friday’s comeback win over Michigan. Its man-to-man defensive switch in the second half of that game helped erase a 12-point halftime deficit and limited the Wolverines to 9-for-32 shooting from the field.
“We didn’t see many ball screens” against West Virginia, Underwood said. In Sunday’s game, “we’ll see ball screens at every angle and coming from different parts of the floor . . . Notre Dame poses a lot of problems.”
The key for the Irish will be dictating the tempo, forward Zach Auguste said, later pointing out that limiting Walkup — who’s listed as a forward but does a bit of everything in the team’s “positionless” basketball — will be key.
“[We’re] probably going to switch up, go to two-three, play man,” he said. “Really understanding him, knowing his tendencies, what he likes to do, what shoulders he likes to go off, and really just try to pressure that.”
Brey added that Walkup, who had four of Stephen F. Austin’s 16 steals and nine rebounds, won’t be getting much alone time.
“We can’t guard him with just one guy,” he said. “We have not played against a guy who has a better or higher basketball IQ than him.”
Underwood called it the best team he’s ever brought to the tournament. The Lumberjacks try to be a self-contained team, one that focuses on consistency rather than the name on the opposing jersey.
“Notre Dame,” he said, is simply “the next one on the schedule.”