Date and time: Friday, 3/11, 7:00pm EST
Location: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
How did they get here?
The Tar Heels advanced to the semifinals with a grinding win over Pittsburgh, the kind of performance you would expect in the NCAA Tournament from a 1 seed over an 8-9 seed. Pitt kept things close, and actually had control of the game for awhile, in the first half, but the second half was all North Carolina as they pulled away en route to a double-digit victory.
The Heels got great games out of all-ACC first-teamer Brice Johnson (19 points, 8-11 FGs, 10 rebounds) and point guard Joel Berry (20 points, 7-8 FGs). All the talk has been about struggling Marcus Paige, but if those two are playing this well, along with a deep bench of role players, and North Carolina is a tough out in the tournament.
Notre Dame, of course, had a much more stressful route to get here, requiring a 16-point comeback and overtime to knock out Duke and advance. Now their reward is the conference's regular season champ and one of the national title favorites.
F Justin Jackson
G Nate Britt
G/F Theo Pinson
F Joel James
Size, size, size. The Tar Heels have three starters and two other regulars that are taller than every Notre Dame player except Zach Auguste. The Irish have done a great job neutralizing that factor in the second halves of their win earlier this year as well as last year's ACC title game against North Carolina. Still, it's been a major factor in the first halves of those games, helping the Tar Heels out to leads that the Irish have had to overcome.
Of course, it starts with Brice Johnson, who is the only player in the ACC with as many double-double as Zach Auguste. He will likely draw a combination of Bonzie Colson and Matt Ryan, so it's not too hard to imagine him going off in this one. It will be interesting to see if the Irish try to find ways to help off North Carolina's shooters (the one thing they aren't good at) or if they go with their Okafor strategy and just let him get his.
Marcus Paige is the one guy that everyone keeps saying needs to come around for this team to be a true title threat. He didn't have any problems in South Bend, as 21 points (including 5 for 8 for three) were the catalyst behind the Tar Heels running out to a 15-point lead. Still, he is shooting just 33% from deep this season, 39% overall, and getting to the line just 1-2 times a game. Do the Irish bother throwing their "stoppers" of Steve Vasturia and Rex Pflueger on him, or do they decide those guys are better used elsewhere?
The underrated Joel Berry can be a major factor as a fairly efficient shooter and distributor with a bit better than 2:1 assist-to-turnover rate. Berry and Demetrius Jackson will likely do battle for most of this one. V.J. Beachem and Justin Jackson may be an interesting match-up as well, with one (Beachem) a great shooter and the other (Jackson) a much more effective player going to the basket. I could easily see both having big games against one another.
And, of course, there is the North Carolina bench. They go much deeper and spread out their minutes more than do the Irish, which may really benefit them. Only Paige played more than 30 minutes for them, and they were even able to empty their bench at the end of Thursday's game against Pitt, compared to Notre Dame's starters that all played over 35 minutes, including the last 10 minutes and overtime, against Duke.
Keys to the game
Offensive rebounding - The Irish really struggled on the defensive boards for the first 30 minutes of yesterday's game, much like they did against the Tar Heels back in February. In that one, Zach Auguste's and Bonzie Colson's energy changed the game completely, and Notre Dame actually finished with 20 offensive rebounds to North Carolina's 15. It almost seems unfathomable to win that battle again, but if they can manage to do so, it is easy to start imagining an Irish victory.
Still, this is likely to be a North Carolina advantage; the only question is, how much? If the Tar Heels are able to get up 5-6 more field goal attempts than the Irish because of their rebounding, the math really starts to look daunting for Notre Dame. Can they afford to wait until the last ten minutes to really start attacking the boards? Hoping for another second-half miracle is asking for trouble. The Irish need to hit the boards hard from the opening tip.
Turnovers - Notre Dame is one of the best in the country in this category but have really struggled lately, including a shocking 18 yesterday against Duke that was reason #1 that the Irish fell into such a big hole. Notre Dame had only 2 turnovers in their four-point win over North Carolina earlier this season. Two.
North Carolina is also very good in this department, easily in the top 50 in the country. I think both teams, obviously, want to play a very clean game. If the Irish can somehow bounce back from yesterday's turnover-fest and make this category an advantage for them, they can start to neutralize the likely offensive rebounding advantage for the Tar Heels. If not this, then the Irish are starting to run out of ways to win this one.
3-point shooting - It has looked like Notre Dame has really struggled in this area of late, and they probably have, but they are substantially better than North Carolina (37% to 31%). The Irish have also been much better from long-range in the second halves of games than they have the first recently, but Matt Ryan's mini-resurgence has started to minimize that difference as well.
A consistent three-point effort in tonight's game just might be Notre Dame's biggest advantage on paper, especially given how poor the Tar Heels are from long-range. We saw what Beachem did for this team yesterday with his four second-half/overtime threes, and what some iconic threes did in last year's title game against North Carolina. In these settings, the three-point shot is a major momentum-builder and can help whittle down deficits in a hurry.
If Notre Dame can manage something like last year's 10-20 from beyond the arc, the win starts looking a lot more likely. On the flip-side, if Marcus Paige and/or Joel Berry can heat up from deep, the Irish will likely have their work cut out for them.
Notre Dame's dominance over the state of North Carolina, including the Tar Heels and Duke, these last two seasons is really becoming a thing. 12-1 against the state, 7-1 against these two programs that have been the gold standard of the ACC and all of college basketball for as long as any of us can remember.
I said it before the Duke game (incorrectly), but it feels like that is due to regress to the mean. At the very least, you'd have to imagine that revenge is on the minds of the Tar Heels after dropping three straight to the Irish, including last year's ACC Tournament Championship.
Still, Roy Williams has adopted a strange position of apathy or downright disliking of the ACC Tournament, which seems to have a negative effect on a team that surprisingly hasn't won this tournament since 2008. Are they going to consider this a "tune-up" for their real championship, against a team that is solely focused on defending this one?
North Carolina has a great mix of talent, experience, and leadership (and vengeance?), so motivation is not likely to be too much of an issue for them. But it is something to keep in mind as the game reaches its stretch run. Notre Dame has often been a special team in the second halves of games, including their great win over the Heels earlier this season, so you'd expect North Carolina to have to withstand some punches to win this one.
I doubt you'll find a whole lot of people picking the Irish to take this one, and that's for good reason. They are an inconsistent bunch going up against one of the best in the country. It seems like they thoroughly enjoy being in that us-against-the-world position, and I think we can all at least expect a complete 40-minute effort from Notre Dame to make the Tar Heels work for this one. But can the Irish come out on top and again assert their Tobacco Road dominance? That might be a different story this time around.