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Notre Dame Basketball: North Carolina Tar Heels Preview

Notre Dame and North Carolina play a basketball game this evening

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Well folks, after the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team finally lost a conference game on Wednesday night at Georgia Tech, the team returns home for a few games, starting with a Saturday evening tilt against the #20 North Carolina Tar Heels.

UNC comes into this one with a 13-4 record overall and 2-2 record in the ACC, as the Heels are fresh off a 30-point victory over the Boston College Eagles on Tuesday.

The Irish, meanwhile, are also 13-4 overall, with a surprising 3-1 ACC record considering they’ve played the last 3 games without leading scorer and rebounder BONZIE COLSON (fractured foot) and the last 2.5 games without second-leading scorer and senior point guard/captain, Matt Farrell (sprained ankle).

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Since the two went out, the Irish have gotten by mostly on defense, rebounding, and hustle, but all of that finally fell short on Wednesday in a 60-53 loss to Georgia Tech that featured a lot of poor shooting from ND and junior wing Rex Pflueger losing his lunch at halftime thanks to a bout of the flu.

So, facing its first ranked opponent since their 18-point loss to Michigan State in late November, the Irish are not exactly at full strength. Will this young, gritty Irish team have enough firepower to keep up with a blue-blood team like North Carolina? Here’s what you’ll need to know about this matchup.

Quick Facts:

  • This is the 29th meeting between UNC and Notre Dame, with the Tar Heels leading the all-time series 21-7, including a 4-3 lead in ACC conference play
  • North Carolina is 21st in adjusted offensive efficiency and 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency, making them 11th overall in overall efficiency margin according to (for comparison, ND sits at 17th overall — 28th offensively, 31st defensively)
  • UNC thrives on the glass, as the Tar Heels are 1st in the country in rebounding margin at +13.4 rebounds per game as well as 1st in total rebounds per game at 44.7. They’re also 4th in the country in defensive rebounds per game and 11th in the nation in offensive rebounds per game, so it will be a very tall task for this Irish team to keep up on the boards
  • Although UNC is 32nd in the country in scoring offense (83.4 ppg), the Tar Heels are not a very good shooting team, sitting at 118th in field goal percentage (46.1%) and 60th in 3-point percentage (38.2%)
  • UNC also has a tendency to give up some points, ranked 155th in the nation in scoring defense (71.3 ppg allowed) and an ABYSMAL 268th in the country in 3-point percentage allowed, with opponents shooting 37.3% from beyond the arc against them
  • Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben is one of just 5 players averaging a double-double in ACC play. His 10.5 ppg and 10.3 rpg puts him in a group with Marvin Bagley III, Ben Lammers, Donte Grantham, and North Carolina’s Luke Maye, who he will be facing off with in the paint this evening
  • Notre Dame leads the nation in least amount of fouls committed per game, and are second overall in total fouls committed (damn you, Western Illinois!)
  • The 2018 senior class (COLSON, Farrell, Martinas Geben, Austin Torres, Matt Gregory) is just three wins away from beating the ND record for most victories by a graduating class over a 4-year span. The 2017 class (Steve “White Steve” Vasturia, VJ Beachem, Patrick Mazza) and the 2013 class (Jack Cooley, Joey Brooks, Mike Broghammer, Scott Martin) are tied for the lead with 97 wins, while COLSON and his classmates sit at 95

Where: Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame, Indiana

When: Saturday, January 13, 6:00 p.m. ET

How to Watch: ESPN national broadcast with Dan Shulman (play-by-play), Jay Bilas (analyst) and Maria Taylor (sidelines).

Notre Dame Basketball Radio Network with Jack Nolan (play-by-play) and Zach Hillesland (analyst). Available locally on WSBT-AM 960/FM 96.1, via network affiliates (list available on page 8 of the notes package), world wide on and on Sirius/XM Channel 84.

North Carolina Tar Heels (13-4, 2-2)

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Tar Heels have had an interesting first ten weeks to the college basketball season, as they began the year ranked #9 in the country and rose to as high as #5 before tumbling back down to #20 after 3 losses to Wofford (ouch), Florida State, and Virginia in a 5-game span. UNC hasn’t picked up many quality wins yet this season, with their standout victories being a dominant win over Arkansas in November and wins at Tennessee and against Ohio State in December.

Don’t let their non-threatening ranking fool you, though, as the Tar Heels are still a super-talented team with Final Four-caliber players all over the roster.

The group is led by the inside-outside tandem of F Luke Maye and G Joel Berry II. Maye averages 18 and 11 per game down low on a North Carolina team with a lot less size than usual (although as noted above, they still rebound exceptionally well). Berry II, meanwhile, is an All-American guard who puts up about 18 points per game himself to go along with 3 rpg, 3 apg, and an 89% free throw shooting percentage.

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Tar Heels go as those two go, but they have plenty of other talented players to help out, including G Kenny Williams (12.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.4 apg), 6’8” Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson (10.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), and F Theo Pinson (8.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.3 apg), who has seemingly been at UNC for 15 years.

The Tar Heels are an excellent rebounding team who doesn’t shoot particularly well but gets enough scoring from Maye and Berry II, as well as lots of second chances on the glass that allow them to score in bunches and out-pace most teams.

Tar Heel to Watch:

Luke Maye, F, Sophomore

NCAA Basketball: Wofford at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With no BONZIE COLSON for the Irish, Luke Maye has to be licking his lips in anticipation for the kind of game he could potentially have this evening. Maye has collected double-digit rebounds in 10 of UNC’s 17 games this season, including a season-high 18 that he snared in the Tar Heels’ 30-point win over Boston College earlier this week (to go along with a very modest 32 points on 13-of-20 shooting).

Not only is he a fantastic rebounder who will give ND’s big men all they can handle (hope Geben comes to play again today!), he’s also a polished scorer from all over the court. Maye averages 18 points per game, shoots 51% from the field and 49% from deep on 3 three-point attempts per game. He’s big enough to be a ton to handle in the paint, but athletic enough to get himself open on the perimeter and knock down shots from distance as well.

If the Irish are going to have any sort of chance in this one, the ND big men will need to play a physical and fantastic defensive game against Maye, and keep him off the offensive boards to eliminate second chances as much as possible. If they can somehow do that, then MAYBE this team has a shot at a sorely-needed big upset win.

Irish X-Factor:

Rex Pflueger, G, Junior

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Rex Pflueger was recently named as a captain by Mike Brey, and at a very good time considering the injuries to COLSON and Farrell. He seemed to be stepping up very nicely into the increased responsibility — both from a leadership and from a scoring perspective — until he was derailed this week against Georgia Tech with the flu (the Pflu).

Pflueger still played 35 minutes and gave his usual fantastic defensive effort, but the sickness that forced him to puke his guts out at halftime certainly affected him out there, as he shot 0-for-8 from the field in a game where the Irish really needed some additional scoring.

If Pflueger is closer to 100% health and able to contribute some offense today (especially 3-point shooting against UNC’s poor perimeter D), it will go a long way in helping a team who is very short on scoring right now to hang around with a team that’s roughly top-30 in the country in scoring offense.

Pflueger’s length and defensive ability will also be crucial in shutting down Berry II, Williams, Pinson, and Johnson on the perimeter, so the better that Pflueger is feeling and the more minutes he can play, the better off ND will likely be.


Notre Dame 66 - North Carolina 81

If the Irish had Matt Farrell, I’d probably be boldly picking an upset here led by Farrell just going off from deep, but without him, I can’t see the Irish having enough shooting to take down this North Carolina team.

I think both TJ Gibbs and DJ Harvey will have good scoring games, and Geben will be his normal consistent presence down low (and of course he’ll get himself a dunk in this one), but I think Maye, Berry II, Williams, Johnson, and Pinson have too much athleticism and scoring ability to be bogged down in a low-scoring, snail’s pace slugfest like the Irish were able to do with Syracuse and Georgia Tech, and so I think the Tar Heels win this one going away despite a nice effort back home for the Irish.