ACC Championship: Who, and What, to Watch?

A handful of topics to preview tonight's ACC Title Game matchup between No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 19 North Carolina.

1.) THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT
Six-feet-ten, Six-five, six-five, six-five, six-one, six-five, and six-feet-eight inches tall.

The heights of Notre Dame's seven-man rotation, with seldom-used eighth-man-in Austin Torres at six-feet-seven inches.

North Carolina's nine-man group that played last night in a 71-67 semi-finals win over No. 3 Virginia?

Six-feet-ten, six-nine, six-nine, six-eight, six-eight, six-five, six-one, six-feet, five-feet-eleven inches.

As one Notre Dame official offered to me last night: "Just one of those North Carolina guys would make us look a lot better getting off the bus…"

The Tar Heels pass the eye test for good reason: they almost exclusively recruit Top 100 national prep talents and McDonald's All-Americans (six at present) on an annual basis.

North Carolina's listed starting five is as follows: F, F, F, F, G.

The Irish? G, G, G, G, F.

Will bigger be better? Can small-ball prevail?

More pointedly, will the backboard carnage North Carolina unleashes on Notre Dame tonight be mitigated by Irish efforts elsewhere?

"I thought watching North Carolina (Friday night), they're in gear. They're a very confident team," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "They had 21 offensive rebounds against us down there. We escaped. I don't think we can escape if they get 21 on us. But I think we're a better defensive team than (January 5) in Chapel Hill."

Of note, Notre Dame freshman Bonzie Colson did not play against the Tar Heels in hist team's 71-69 victory. Colson has collected five or more rebounds in five of his last six games, scoring 16, 16, 17, 4, 0, and 17 points in those outings.

Colson's remarkable production since his mid-January inclusion in the rotation ranks a chief storyline tonight. The rookie has been successful on 34 of his last 46 field goal attempts (73.9%) and is 46 of 70 (65.7%) in ACC play.

On the bright side for North Carolina: they're unlikely to connect on just 15 of 34 shots in the paint as they did vs. Notre Dame earlier this season.

2.) PEAKING…X2
So much for the theory the Irish peaked (again) in February.

Wins at No. 16 Louisville and last night against No. 2 Duke rank as the best March moments -- and in this case, the only two month-of-March wins over teams ranked among the nation's Top 20 -- for the Notre Dame program *since…1979.

(*Note: All "Since" Notre Dame statistics must include the caveat that the program basically failed to win a basketball game during the 1990s, or something to that effect.)

The Irish are in good company tonight, as head coach Roy Williams' Tar Heels have righted their previously rudderless ship, one that included five losses by double digits (albeit one to Kentucky) plus a 25-day stretch in February during which North Carolina lost five of seven outings.

“We’re getting warmer,” said Tar Heels point guard Marcus Paige post-game. “You’re not going to get that out of me until/if we win the (championship). But we’re getting warmer.”

North Carolina will play its third game in as many days after dispatching of No. 14 Louisville, 70-60, and No. 3 Virginia, 71-67 last night. The Cavaliers had won 35 of their previous 39 ACC contests including last year's Tournament Championship.

3.) DEAD LEGS UNDENIABLE
Somewhere around the five-minute mark of last night's Irish victory, a sobering reality became apparent to Notre Dame fans in attendance:

Jerian Grant, the team's best player, is tired. (Not "was," but "is.")

Grant was first unable, then less-than-engaged in his efforts, to break free of the face-guarding methods employed by Duke guard Matt Jones. Making matters worse, Notre Dame's screeners had little left in the tank to to afford Grant space to catch a pass as well.

Nearly six minutes passed between Notre Dame field goals, a Demetrius Jackson driving layup at the 7:09 mark and Pat Connaughton's dagger jump shot that gave the Irish a six-point lead, 70-64, with 1:15 remaining.

Fittingly, the latter came courtesy a pass from Grant, but Notre Dame's unanimous first-team all-ACC pick did not attempt a field goal in the final nine minutes and was just 1 for 3 from the floor in the second half. His only assist of the second stanza was the game-clincher to Connaughton.

To his credit, Grant contributed three defensive rebounds in the final two minutes plus connected on each of his six free throws in the second half while keeping All-ACC guard Quinn Cook off the scoreboard in the final 20 minutes.

"I thought Jerian did a great job on Quinn Cook," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "I was like, 'I don’t care about your offense. Take Quinn Cook away and be secure enough that if that helps us win you’ll be all right.'"

North Carolina forward J.P. Tokoto (the 2014 ACC Defensive Player of the Year) harassed Grant and limited the Irish star to eight points (and eight assists) on 1 of 8 shooting in the team's first meeting. Grant also fouled out.

Notre Dame will need Grant's playmaking ability to be present in order to upend the Tar Heels tonight.

4.) IN THE ZONE
No, not the oft-discussed offensive rhythm enjoyed by great scorers, but the necessary defensive tactic a team needs to defend much taller, more athletic foes.

The Irish will need to employ that strategy at times, perhaps often tonight, and though that notion once sent ardent Irish followers screaming into the woods, it's notable to point out Notre Dame's zone defense efforts this winter *haven't been wholly disheartening.

(*In case you're a casual Irish hoops fan waiting for football season to begin, for the bulk of the last 9-10 basketball seasons, Notre Dame's "zone" was that in name only. In other words, they weren't assigned to guard individuals, thus it was a zone. It could have also been referred to as national "Everybody gets a layup or open shot day.")

North Carolina's current nine-man rotation boasts one starter, Marcus Paige, and one reserve (Paige's backup Nate Britt) that hit for better than 38 percent of their three-point offerings this season. The Tar Heels attack though recently added another outside shooting weapon in six-foot-eight freshman Justin Jackson.

Jackson ripped the nets for 22 points on 8 of 10 shooting including 4 of 5 from long range last night against the nation's second-best defensive team, Virginia.

"I always knew I was a shooter…the numbers didn't show it, said Jackson who connected on just 26 percent of his 75 three-point attempts this season. "I knew it would come around sooner or later."

The Tar Heels now have a least a pair of players (the third, backup PG Britt is unlikely to play along with Paige) to monitor outside the arc, but their long-range threats are doubtless the lesser of two evils compared to a litany of athletic, alarmingly long-armed bodies inside.

A healthy dose of zone intermixed with gritty man-to-man, awaits.

5.) WHAT THO THE ODDS BE?
North Carolina played 18 games this season against teams ranked among the BPI Top 50 (Basketball Power Index) and won half of them.

Notre Dame's slate included 12 such outings with nine victories against the lot. (Incidentally, North Carolina ranks #9 and Notre Dame #10 according to the BPI.)

North Carolina finished 3-5 vs. NCAA locks Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, and Louisville.

The Irish were 4-2 in those matchups (adding UNC).

Though the program has claimed 17 ACC Championships (the ACC regards its tournament champion as the lone champion), no player on North Carolina's roster has won an ACC Title.

Ditto the Irish.

At their best, North Carolina runs, dunks, scores points-aplenty in the paint, rebounds, defends, passes with aplomb, and plays championship basketball.

At their best Notre Dame runs, shoots the lights out, scores points-aplenty in the paint, defends, passes at the game's highest level, and plays championship basketball.

The point of these comparisons is that the two teams are not disparate in terms of ability. This is college basketball at season's end, not a collection of mythical prep projections or indicators of NBA success.

The teams played to a near stalemate in Chapel Hill in early January, and are likely to do so 45 minutes west of North Carolina's campus tonight in Greensboro.

Both might have bigger fish to fry in the coming weeks, but both will lay it on the line tonight for the right to hang a banner when they return home.

It's a toss-up, which throughout 2015 has translated to: Advantage Irish.

• Pointspread: North Carolina by 3
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Notre Dame 71 North Carolina 70
• Season record: 22-11 straight up; 13-12 vs. points
• Game MVP: Demetrius Jackson
• UNC MVP: Brice Johnson


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