7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: North Carolina -8.5
Something has to give tonight in Chapel Hill, as the red-hot Notre Dame Fighting Irish travel to North Carolina to face the Tar Heels. Few teams have been hotter of late than the Irish (14-1, 2-0 in ACC), who bring a ten-game winning streak into tonight’s matchup, largely on the strength of their highly efficient offense. After a shocking 75-74 upset loss to Providence, Mike Brey’s charges have run off ten consecutive victories, hammering their opponents by a ridiculous 22.9 points per game. However, now that they have embarked on their conference schedule, the going has gotten tougher; their first tilt in the ACC came Saturday Night at home against Georgia Tech, who gave the hosts everything they could handle in an 83-76 Irish triumph. The Yellow Jackets actually led the encounter 31-27 at Halftime, only to see Notre Dame rally back to force the game into Overtime, where the contest would go to a second period, which belonged to Brey and Co. The hosts outscored the visitors 14-7 in the second and final Overtime, thanks in large to part to the exploits of one Jerian Grant, who scored a team-high 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting (55.6%), to go along with six assists, a rebound, a steal, and a block. All five starters managed to end the night in double-figures for the Irish, who relied almost exclusively on their First Five; four of Brey’s starters logged over forty minutes of action, while the Bench only contributed a meager eight points in a game that lasted a total of fifty minutes. Pat Connaughton was the hero of the day, scoring five of his ten points, along with a pair of rebounds, a steal and a block in the final additional stanza. On the night, they shot a blistering 53,.3% from the field, despite proving largely ineffective from long-range (4-of-19 for 21.1%). Then again, they didn’t have to, for from inside of the three-point arc the Irish met very little resistance, shooting 68.3%. Defensively, they handled Georgia Tech relatively well, but they were exploited on the offensive glass, where the Yellow Jackets secured eighteen Offensive Rebounds. Offensive Boards are a poor-shooting team’s best friend because it oftentimes gives them plenty of easy second-chance opportunities at the rim; as a result, the visitors attempted thirteen more shots, which is something that Brey will have to correct as his team continues to make their trek through the ACC.
And that next stop brings them to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels, whom they haven’t defeated in 23 years. In fact, since January 11th, 1992, the Irish have lost five consecutive meetings in this series, including last year’s heart-breaking 63-61 defeat on March 3rd, their first as members of the ACC. But more importantly, tonight’s contest will mark the first true road game for Brey’s charges, which is a notable storyline given their woeful performance away from home last season; Notre Dame was a dreadful 1-9 in true road games during the 2013-2014 campaign. To improve on both of those fronts, they will need to speed the tempo up against a team that usually relishes the opportunity to do so. Over the past few terms, North Carolina has become a much more defensive-oriented team that is prone to struggling offensively, which is something that the Irish can really take advantage of. So let’s take a moment to run through the numbers; thus far, Notre Dame is averaging 85.9 points (3rd Nationally) on a Division-1 best 55.3% shooting from the field, including a stellar 64.4% from within the three-point arc (1st Nationally), and 40.4% from beyond it (13th Nationally), while dishing out a healthy 15.8 assists (16th Nationally), and committing just 9.5 turnovers (34th Nationally). And as you can imagine, distributing the ball leads to sharing the wealth, which this team does in spades. Four different players average well over 13.0 points, with all shooting 49.0% from the field or better, led by the aforementioned Grant , who has really come into his own in this his Senior season. The 6-5 Guard leads the Irish in scoring (17.9) and assists (6.2), while shooting 53.1% from the field, including 35.1% from three, and 78.5% from the free-throw line, amassing 3.1 rebounds, and 1.5 steals to boot. Fellow Senior Connaughton gives Brey another experienced weapon on the perimeter, where the swingman has netted a team-best forty triples thus far. However, as formidable as they have proven to be on the offensive end of the court to this point, the true test for Notre Dame will be on the defensive end where their lack of physicality, and more importantly depth could be a real problem. Though they have a number of bigger bodies to turn to, the Irish do not, or at least have not, delved deep into their Bench, leaving them exposed around the rim, where the opposition has feasted on the glass. As we stated earlier, Georgia Tech accumulated eighteen offensive rebounds Saturday Night. Granted, the game did feature multiple overtimes, but eighteen offensive boards is still a glaring number to relinquish. They can get away with that against the likes of the Yellow Jackets, but when they get deeper into their schedule and meet the likes of Duke, Louisville, Virginia, and tonight’s opponent North Carolina playing charity on the offensive glass will surely prove to be a recipe for disaster.
Meanwhile, after getting embarrassed in an 84-70 loss against top-ranked Kentucky (no shame there), North Carolina (11-3, 1-0 in ACC) has apparently rounded into form as they begin their own trek through the ACC. Winners of five straight, Roy Williams’ charges opened their conference schedule emphatically with a 74-50 pasting of Clemson on Saturday Night. In all honesty, the game was over by Halftime, as the Tar Heels burst out of the gate, outscoring the Tigers 39-17 through the first twenty minutes of play. With the game well out of hand in the second half, Williams went to his Bench, playing eight reserves, as his starters played no longer than 27 minutes a piece. And with that said, the scoring was very even, as four of the five starters scored in double-figures, with none scoring over thirteen points. Freshman wingman Justin Jackson led the team with thirteen points on 6-of-8 shooting, while Kennedy Meeks had himself a game in the paint, racking up a dozen points and rebounds, five of which were of the offensive variety. On the night, the Heels owned the glass, outrebounding the hosts by a ridiculous twenty-seven boards, including 15-9 on the offensive end. And though they only shot a fairly mediocre 44.4% from the field themselves, the visitors absolutely suffocated their opponent; Clemson was relegated to a mere 28.3% shooting from the field, including a miserable 6-of-26 from beyond the arc (23.1%), and a scant eight assists. To put things in proper perspective, North Carolina had as many offensive rebounds as Clemson had made field goals. Now that is what you call a beating…
As we hinted at earlier, the Tar Heels have undergone a bit of a culture change over the past few seasons, trending much more towards the defensive end of things after spending the majority of Williams ‘ tenure lighting up the scoreboard. Much of that has had to do with personnel, or the lack thereof; though he has recruited outstanding athletes, the overall skill-set of many of the players that have come through Chapel Hill over the last two campaigns has paled in comparison to that of years past. In short, Ty Lawson is not walking through that door. Harrison Barnes is not walking through that door. And Tyler Hansbrough is certainly not strolling through that door. This team is more experienced, and deeper than it was a year ago at this time, but offensively they still haven’t performed at the level that we’re accustomed to; to this point, the Tar Heels have averaged 80.8 points (16th Nationally) on 45.9% shooting from the field (74th Nationally), including 50.7% shooting from within the three-point arc (106th Nationally), and just 30.9% from beyond it (272nd Overall), while dishing out 18.4 assists, the sixth-most in the country. And that is the major difference between these Tar Heels and their predecessors; while they still push the tempo whenever possible, these kids struggle to score efficiently in the halfcourt, whereas the championship teams of 2005 and 2009 could torch you either way. It’s rare to see a team move the ball as well as they do, but still struggle to knock down open shots. Finding a Point Guard that he trusted was chore numero uno for Williams, and he has that in the form of Marcus Paige, who developed into an All-American in his Sophomore season. After a slow start in which he struggled to shoot just 37.0% from the field, Williams made the adjustment of playing him off the ball more frequently, so that he doesn’t have to expend so much energy creating for himself. As a result, he leads the team in scoring (13.4), while continuing to be their only real threat from distance. On a team with few three-point threats, Paige is the most dangerous, knocking down 36.7% of his ninety attempts, for a team-high thirty-three treys, a staggering twenty-two more than the next man. Hence the reason he’s been moved off the ball. So with their offensive struggles well-documented, the Heels have had to go the blue-collar route of creating extra opportunities for themselves with defense, which could really make them a threat come March. Simply put, this might be Williams’ best defensive team in the twelve years he’s headed the program; North Carolina has allowed 63.9 points (131st Nationally) on 34.8% shooting from the field (8th Nationally), including 41.4% from within the three-point arc (23rd Nationally), and just 24.9% from beyond it (3rd Nationally), along with 10.6 assists (92nd Nationally), while forcing 14.2 turnovers (94th Nationally). But where they have really flexed their muscles is on the glass, which should give them a sizeable advantage in tonight’s contest. At boards per game, this team ranks second in in the country, and with offensive rebounds, they sit in that same position. Williams’ teams have always rebounded well, but these Heels have been better than most, besting their opponents by an average of 10.4 boards a night.