• Game 32: No. 4 Notre Dame (21-10) vs. No. 1 North Carolina (26-6)
• Date: March 11, 2016
• Place: Verizon Center; Washington, D.C.
• Time: 7:00 ET
• TV: ESPN
• Opponent nickname: Tar Heels
• Head coach: Roy Williams (28th year overall: 776-208 -- 358-107 in 13th year at North Carolina; 418-101 in 15 years at Kansas.
• Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
• 2014-15 record (26-12, 11-7)
CHAPEL (AND CAPITOL) HILL DOMINANCE?
Notre Dame’s success against Duke and North Carolina has reached epic proportions.
The Irish have victories over the Blue Devils/Tar Heels in eight of the last nine meetings, including five in a row, which hasn’t been done since Tim Duncan and Wake Forest did it in 1995-96.
Notre Dame enters Friday night’s game, however, as a decided underdog despite wins over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill and Greensboro last season and a four-point victory at Purcell Pavilion on Feb. 6.
Surprised? Everybody seems to be except the Notre Dame players, particularly now in the ACC tournament where the Irish have won four of their last five, including two against North Carolina and one versus Duke.
“This nucleus is a tough nucleus, physically and mentally, and it started last year,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “Most of the guys on this team have won a (ACC) championship. They come down here thinking they’re going to do it again.”
The Irish are oblivious to the degree of difficulty for teams seeking back-to-back ACC championships. Five different teams – Duke, Florida State, Miami, Virginia and Notre Dame – have won it the last five years.
Duke is the last back-to-back champion (2010-11). North Carolina hasn’t won it since its back-to-back crowns in 2007-08.
“When you look at the stats and see how hard it is to win this tournament and how hard it is to do two years in a row, our guys don’t know any different, which is great. They’re like, ‘We’re going to go win it again, right?’
“Demetrius (Jackson) said, ‘We’re going to go win it again.’ So I’m like, ‘You’re right!’ I’m not going to look at the odds.”
Indeed, the odds remain stacked against Notre Dame as a 7 ½-point underdog to the Tar Heels. Yet it seems fitting that the Irish will have to go through the Duke-North Carolina pairing to give themselves a shot at a second straight ACC title.
“Absolutely,” said Brey when asked if North Carolina is the preferred foe in semifinals action Friday night. “You got to do it. You’ve got to play those guys.”
THE SECRET TO THEIR SUCCESS
When Notre Dame defeated North Carolina, 80-76, in Purcell Pavilion on Feb. 6, the Irish executed things that appeared improbable in the lead-up to the game.
Notre Dame grabbed 20 offensive rebounds against the North Carolina front line that features 6-foot-9 Brice Johnson, 6-foot-9, 265-pound Kennedy Meeks, 6-foot-8 Isaiah Hicks, 6-foot-8 swingman Justin Jackson and, occasionally, 6-foot-10, 280-pound Joel James.
The Irish must combat that size/length with 6-foot-10 Zach Auguste and 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson, which was plenty the first time they met this year. Auguste and Colson combined for 20 rebounds – 10 on the offensive end – with Colson scoring 19 points and Auguste tossing in 15, including Notre Dame’s first six points of the game.
Johnson, Meeks and Jackson were limited to 29 points in 81 minutes. Meeks finished with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting, but Johnson – a 61 percent shooter and North Carolina’s leading scorer – was just 6-of-16 from the field while Jackson missed six of seven shots.
“We did a good job against them at our place because Bonzie and Zach held their own in the paint against their size,” Brey said. “When they get to people, they wear you down in there. We held our own and that was really a key.”
The Irish also benefitted from converting 31-of-38 from the free-throw line in the February victory. Notre Dame didn’t make its first three-pointer until 26 minutes into the game. But when they did, it was V.J. Beachem – as he did Thursday against Duke – coming through down the stretch.
“I think (North Carolina) is better than when we played them,” Brey said. “It really comes down to controlling the paint and rebounding.”
Another key will be limiting North Carolina’s three-point shooting because it is so sporadic. The Tar Heels shoot just 31.3 percent from three-point range, which is among the bottom 10 percent in the country.
The Tar Heels had some success at Notre Dame when they squared off in February. Joel Berry II suddenly is hot from beyond the arc, converting 11-of-27 in the last four games (40.7 percent). But Berry has made a modest team-leading 54 three-pointers, although he and Marcus Paige were a combined 4-of-8 against Pittsburgh in North Carolina’s 88-71 victory Thursday night.
A DAY AT THE BEACH(EM)
Expecting and getting a consistent performance from willowy 6-foot-8 junior V.J. Beachem has been difficult. Just when you think he’s about to make a breakthrough, he reverts back to a more passive game.
Yet Beachem is one of the most underrated three-point shooters in Notre Dame history – due to the up-and-down nature of his overall game – with a team-leading 73 three-pointers and a 42.9 three-point shooting percentage.
“It’s a great feeling, just to have the guys still looking to find me out on the perimeter,” said Beachem, whose two three-pointers over the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation sent the Duke game into overtime before adding another trey less than a minute into the extra session.
“They always tell me to shoot the next one no matter what.”
Beachem, ironically, seems to have some of his best shooting performances away from Purcell Pavilion. In addition to his 4-of-7 shooting from three-point range at the Verizon Center Thursday night, Beachem also connected on 4-of-7 at Clemson on Feb. 8 and 5-of-8 at Syracuse on Jan. 28.
The mild-mannered Beachem had, for him, a strong look of determination and a “give me the ball” attitude down the stretch against Duke.
“To knock down some big shots gives me great confidence,” Beachem said.
O’Malley/Prister Prediction: Notre Dame 84, North Carolina 83