PHILADELPHIA – Notre Dame’s potent offense has been held below 35 percent shooting only three times this season. North Carolina is responsible for two of those lockdowns and look to score the hat trick in Sunday’s East Regional final.
The most recent of the meetings – UNC’s 78-47 dismantling in the ACC Tournament semifinals – has been a popular topic around the Wells Fargo Center this weekend. The Tar Heels scored 16 points off 17 turnovers and stifled the Fighting Irish into a season-low 30.0 percent shooting.
“We are a team that's been really good with the ball throughout the year,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said on Saturday. “But that game we were not. And you give Carolina credit. I think they've stepped up their defense. It was hard to make a pass the way they contest in passing lanes.”
UNC was also effective defensively in the first matchup despite losing, 80-76, in South Bend on Feb. 6. The Irish shot 34.8 percent for the game, including a 28.1 percent effort in the first half. Brey’s squad pulled the upset not with its offense, but with its work on the backboards and a 19-0 edge in points off turnovers.
Notre Dame ranks ninth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (118.2), according to kenpom.com, due to a combination of its shooting touch (47.4; 32nd) and its ability to take care of the ball (10.1 turnovers per game; 11th).
In two games against UNC, the Irish are shooting 32.8 percent (38-of-116), including a 22.9 percent mark from 3-point range (8-of-35), well below their season 3-point field goal percentage of 37.1.
Limiting dribble penetration and preventing the need for help defense have been key components of UNC’s defensive success.
“I think we’ve done a good job covering the ball when we play them,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “At least this year we have. Last year they gave us all kinds of problems with Jerian Grant creating basically any kind of offense they wanted. This year we’ve been a little better at containing the ball.”
Sophomore wing Justin Jackson agreed, saying, “A lot of it was that we were just out sitting down and guarding people.”
Roy Williams is often criticized for his approach in defending the 3-point shot, which originates from a desire to stop opportunities at the rim first and foremost. By containing the drive, perimeter defenders can stay attached on the wing and take away open looks. Notre Dame has not been afforded many quality looks from beyond the arc against UNC this season, knocking down a trio of treys in South Bend and not making its fourth 3-pointer in the ACC Tournament semifinal until its deficit had grown to 23.
Despite the short turnaround, Notre Dame has added a few wrinkles offensively for Sunday’s matchup. Instead of pairing forward Bonzie Colson with forward Zach Auguste in the post to match UNC’s size, Brey has moved sophomore point guard Matt Farrell into the starting lineup to serve as an additional ball handler.
The other change is not one of strategy, but of a hot hand. Junior wing V.J. Beachem is leading the Fighting Irish in scoring during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 17.3 points on 64.5 percent shooting. He’s knocking down 52.9 percent of his 3-pointers (9-of-17).
“Beachem has been shooting the ball extremely well, so we’ve got to make sure to try to contain him as much as we can,” Jackson said.
Paige attributed Beachem’s scoring tear on Notre Dame’s ability to establish a rhythm offensively. The Tar Heels intend to disrupt that flow as much as possible, which is something they have done twice before this season.