Match-up: 6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels
TV: TBS (Brian Anderson/Steve Smith/Dana Jacobson)
Date and Time: Sunday 3/27, 8:49pm EST (approx.)
Location: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
North Carolina has had a dream March thus far. They closed out the regular season with a win at rival Duke to clinch their ACC regular season championship. Then, they tore through NCAA Tournament teams Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Virginia to win the ACC Tournament in Washington, D.C. Now, after fairly easy victories in the first two rounds, the Tar Heels eclipsed 100 in their big victory over Indiana to advance to the Elite 8.
Following that effort, North Carolina now stands at 4th in the country in KenPom's rankings to Notre Dame's 33rd, the lowest of the remaining eight teams. The Tar Heels rate as KenPom's 2nd best offense and 16th best defense, although that defense has certainly struggled at times in big games this season. They look locked in at both ends of the court this postseason, though, as the Irish can certainly attest, and can absolutely dominate on the defensive end just as easily as they can offensively.
The Irish have notably picked up the pace this postseason, but against North Carolina, the most fast-paced team remaining in the tournament, that just plays right into the Tar Heels' hands. Instead, the Irish need to win by being precise, efficient, and effective on the boards, just like they were back in February when these two teams faced off in South Bend. Notre Dame is certainly capable of that effort again, but that optimism is toned down by the reality of the 31-point beatdown North Carolina delivered on a neutral court in the ACC Tournament semifinals just two weeks ago.
North Carolina is a substantial favorite in this one, around a 10-point favorite in Vegas, nearly 80% likely to win according to KenPom, and just over 80% according to FiveThirtyEight. Of course, Notre Dame faced similarly stiff odds against Kentucky in last year's Elite 8 but acquitted themselves quite well, coming up just a shot short of knocking off the then-undefeated Wildcats.
G Joel Berry II
G Marcus Paige
F Justin Jackson
F Brice Johnson
C Kennedy Meeks
G Nate Britt
G/F Theo Pinson
F Isaiah Hicks
F Joel James
What's there left to say that hasn't been said yet about this North Carolina roster? The Tar Heels have been touted all season long as having among the most complete, talented rosters in the country and a clear national title favorite. Everything they have done in March has backed that up, at least thus far.
When you talk about the Tar Heels, you start with their size and the wave of tall, athletic players that they can throw at you. No one else has that interior depth, especially the Irish, who will need great, gritty efforts from Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson to neutralize that North Carolina front. Luckily, that Irish duo is one of the few front courts that has actually done exactly that this season when Notre Dame took down North Carolina in February in South Bend.
Still, that's a tall order to expect from anyone, certainly with the depth the Tar Heels feature but particularly with a star like Brice Johnson. Johnson is one of only two players in the country with as many double-doubles as Auguste this season, and for him, it's not a matter of if he's productive but just how productive he is going to be. Can Auguste match Johnson's output?
Then, you have someone like Marcus Paige, who returned to form a big way against Indiana with a 21 point effort that included 6 made threes. In fact, Paige has really played well against the Irish, totaling 12 of 21 for 37 points in the two games. His hot start put Indiana in a hole from which they couldn't recover, and Notre Dame will suffer a similar fate if he does the same against them. Steve Vasturia simply cannot let that happen.
This is all to say nothing of the underrated Joel Berry, who Demetrius Jackson may need to pick-pocket a time or two on the defensive end like he did to Wisconsin. Winning the turnover battle was Notre Dame's main key for success back in February, so if Jackson can lead that charge defensively, the Irish might be in business.
Finally, the match-up between Justin Jackson and V.J. Beachem is an interesting one, as you'd expect Jackson to be able to out-muscle Beachem, but the Notre Dame wing being the better shooter and able to space out the floor and extend that ferocious Tar Heel defense. The continued magic of Beachem this tournament is going to be necessary in this one.
What a run for these Irish in this tournament. I mean, who out there really expected them to return to the Elite 8, especially the way they stumbled down the stretch? Of course, I'm saying that to lead off my prediction because I can't shake the feeling that the Elite 8 is going to have to do, because this may very well be the end of the road for Notre Dame.
The grit, resilience, and toughness required to stay close, constantly battle, and find a way to close out games are great, great traits for a team come March and have exemplified this Irish run these last three games. But that will-to-win may only be so much when the gap between opponents on paper is so large. Notre Dame basically won three coin flip games to get to this point but now stands as a substantial underdog to the favored Tar Heels.
A ten-point underdog (this is around what I've seen at the time of this writing) will have a hard time simply willing its way to victory. No, that underdog needs to find another gear on both ends than where it has typically performed on the season. It certainly is not impossible, but when the recipe for success is "play your best game and/or hope they play far worse than they just did Friday", it's just hard to find the path to victory.
The offensive performance against Wisconsin was an eye-opener. I thought the offense was back this tournament, but they certainly showed that a great defense, even one without the athleticism and length of North Carolina, can still get the better of this Irish attack. If it was, I could perhaps have convinced myself that Notre Dame could pull this thing off. Can they bounce back from Friday's effort anyway? Certainly. But am I predicting them to do so? I just can't.
The 31-point drubbing two weeks ago looms large over this one, and while I don't see nearly the ugliness we saw in D.C., I just have a hard time seeing the Irish give the Tar Heels too much of a hassle deep into the second half. If they do, all bets are off, and I really like this Notre Dame team to finish off the game. How can you not at this point after what we've seen?
But still, I'm expecting North Carolina to continue that effort from Friday night, generally able to keep Notre Dame at arm's length after halftime. The Irish keep it respectable and flirt with a backdoor cover in this one, but the Tar Heels just look like it's their time right now, playing their best and most complete basketball in March. Notre Dame fans may have to settle for coming up just short of the Final Four for the second straight season.
North Carolina 85
Notre Dame 74