GAME NO. 24: NO. 22 NOTRE DAME (17-6) AT NO. 12 NORTH CAROLINA (20-4; 8-2)
-- Date: February 5, 2017
-- Place: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.
-- Time: 1:00 pm (ET)
-- TV: ESPNnews
-- Opponent Nickname: Tar Heels
-- Head coach: Roy Williams (803-213; 385-112 at North Carolina)
-- Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
-- 2015-16 record: (33-7; 14-4 in the ACC)
-- 2016 NCAA Tournament Finish: Lost in the national championship game to Villanova
-- Point spread: North Carolina is favored by 8 1/2
THE JIG IS UP?
Notre Dame entered the 2015 ACC season a startling 4-18 all-time against North Carolina.. That January, the Irish won in Chapel Hill. Two months later, they took down the Tar Heels in their own backyard – the Greensboro Coliseum – to claim the ACC Championship.
Less than a year later, Mike Brey’s bunch completed the trifecta, winning over North Carolina in South Bend.
But in two games since, head coach Roy Williams’ peaking Tar Heels extracted a measure of revenge, murdering Notre Dame in the ACC semi-finals last March in Washington, D.C., then fending off a game Irish effort in the Elite 8 in Philadelphia.
North Carolina’s dominance (a 31-point win followed by an unmistakable exertion of talent, force, and will when Notre Dame threatened midway through the second half with a berth in the Final Four at stake – begs the question:
Is the jig up?
Notre Dame will have North Carolina’s full attention today in Greensboro – the site adjusted and game postponed a day due to water conditions in the Chapel Hill area – and that undivided attention from the Tar Heels might be all it takes for a program blessed with more talent, height, and depth than the one in South Bend.
“We’ve had some great games against them,” said Brey Thursday. “We’ve have had some success, and because of that success, it’s given us great credibility in the league and nationally.
“We’ve played championship games against them. We played big, high-level, a-lot-on-the-line games with them in the ACC championship and the East Regional. Their fans really have an awareness of Notre Dame basketball. I don’t know how they felt about Notre Dame (prior).”
The Tar Heels fan base might no longer fear the undersized Irish but North Carolina’s core knows well what it’s like to lose to Notre Dame with a lot on the line.
Current starters/regulars Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, *Theo Pinson, and Nate Britt each played key roles in the aforementioned three losses to Brey’s Irish, combining for a whopping 202 points.
Bonzie Colson, Steve Vasturia, and V.J. Beachem are battle-hardened vs. the Heels on the other bench.
“They are who they are and they run their stuff. They don’t deviate,” said Brey. “They’re getting the ball out and coming down quick on made buckets. Their offense has been their offense. Roy has been a Dean Smith guy, so as you watch what they do, it’s consistent. And they play big guys.
“Where the game has maybe gotten away from ‘bigs’ and low-post feeds, they are true to throwing it to their big guys and then pounding the boards. They love getting it done in the paint. That’s one thing Carolina has always been.”
And it’s one thing that has proved to be a fatal flaw for the Irish defense.
(*Pinson will not play against the Irish as a result of an ankle injury suffered last week.)
Brey offered Thursday that he could choose his fifth starter – Martinas Geben, Austin Torres, Rex Pflueger, or T.J. Gibbs – just prior to tip-off.
The quandary: should the Irish attempt to combat North Carolina’s size with quickness, movement, and the extra pass? (It seems logical, because the other option is taking on the favored Tar Heels with a little size and a lot less skill.)
Regardless if utilized at the outset, Brey knows well his “downshift” tactic will play a key role Saturday inside the Smith Center.
“For us, that’s a tricky one because we do want to play small sometimes,” Brey offered. “It’s group responsibility and can we ride our small group. Are we scoring enough to absorb a couple put-backs when we’re downshifting?
“The last time we played North Carolina in the East Regional, we were playing small in the second half and they were having their way. We went back to Bonzie and Zach (Auguste), and that’s when we made the run to make it a game.”
THE CRUX OF THE PROBLEM
Irish senior swingman Steve Vasturia is struggling, making good on just six of his 26 field goal attempts (3 for 14 from long range) during Notre Dame’s three-game losing skid.
But Brey can’t usually afford to take him out.
“I’m always conscious of him getting recovery time and rest,” said Brey. “It’s easy to say, ‘Get him out of there and give him a blow.’ But you need him on the floor. He’s good on both ends.
“Rex and T.J. had not played well the two games (before Duke). When they’re playing well, you can steal some stuff for Steve. In Atlanta, they had a tough day, and we couldn’t steal (time on the bench) for Steve.”
And Vasturia’s defense – plus perhaps five to six defensive rebounds – remain paramount if the Irish are to keep North Carolina’s high-flying attack under 80.
“Berry and Jackson, those two guys have been so good,” said Brey of the Tar Heels veterans at point and shooting guard, respectively. “We can’t help off of them. We’ve got to take away their three-point looks. We’ll play some zone, and when we do, we have to really tilt it towards those guys. But whoever is matched up on him, you can’t help in the post. If Kennedy Meeks is backing down somebody, you can’t leave those two guys because those two guys making threes are momentum plays for them.”
Expect Notre Dame to shoot much better than they have in the last three games (an aggregate 41 percent from the field overall; just 30.3 percent from long range) but for the host Tar Heels to exert their will for a crucial defensive stretch, pulling away in the middle portion of the second stanza before hanging on for a relatively comfortable win.
O’Malley/Prister Prediction: North Carolina 82, Notre Dame 75