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Notre Dame Men’s Basketball: North Carolina Tar Heels Preview

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Notre Dame men’s hoops travels to Chapel Hill tonight to face the #13 Tar Heels. Can this plucky young team compete on the road against a ranked blue blood?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at N.C. State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Well y’all, it finally happened — the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team picked up its first victory of the ACC season, defeating the Boston College Eagles 69-66 on Saturday despite having just 6 available scholarship players and missing key guys such as T.J. Gibbs and Juwan Durham.

That win was essential for the Irish to build any sort of confidence, to be sure, as Notre Dame’s ACC slate for the foreseeable future looks ROUGH.

ND, in its next 5 games, will play the #13 North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, at home against the #17 North Carolina State Wolfpack, on the road at the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and then two home games in a row against the #4 Virginia Cavaliers and the #1 Duke Blue Devils.

Considering how much this young Irish team has struggled, a road game against Georgia Tech looks to be the only potentially winnable game in that stretch, and who knows if this squad can beat the Yellow Jackets on the road where many better ND teams have failed to do so in years past?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

With that said, the youthful Irish have eliminated the possibility of an 0-8 start to ACC play, and T.J. Gibbs will hopefully be back after missing the BC game due to illness. Weirder things have happened with Mike Brey teams than an underdog Irish squad taking down a blue blood.

However, considering it’s a road game against a team that should be focused after getting spanked this past weekend, and the Irish will likely again be without shot-blocking extraordinaire Juwan Durham, the Tar Heels will likely roll. Let’s dive into the details, though, and see what we should expect in this one.

Quick Facts

  • Notre Dame and North Carolina will be meeting for the 31st time, with the Tar Heels dominating the series 23-7 to this point (per Alan Wasielewski, Associate Athletics Communication Director)
  • Tonight’s game is a match up between two of the winningest programs in college basketball history, as North Carolina ranks third in all-time wins (2,232) and Notre Dame eighth (1,866) entering the 2018-19 season (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • This past Saturday, Notre Dame became the first Division I team to win a game this season playing only six players. It marks the second time a Mike Brey team has won a game playing six — the Irish defeated American 78-74 on December 21, 2003 (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • T.J. Gibbs missed the first game of his Notre Dame career on Saturday against Boston College due to a sudden illness that struck during pregame warm ups. Gibbs had appeared in 87 consecutive games for the Irish (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • Prentiss Hubb, Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski became the first trio of true freshman to start a game for a Notre Dame Mike Brey-coached team last Saturday, and became the first such trio to post a victory since LaPhonso Ellis (who will be the ESPN analyst on Tuesday night), Elmer Bennett and Keith Tower defeated Portland 80-58 on January 9, 1989 (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • Junior forward John Mooney currently stands second in the ACC in rebounding (9.8 per game) and leads the league in double-doubles (8 in 16 games played) (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • Junior guard T.J. Gibbs ranks second in the ACC for assist/turnover ratio (3.41), joining freshman backcourt mate Prentiss Hubb (5th, 2.12) in the top 10. The Irish are the only team in the league with two players in the top 10 for assist/turnover ratio (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • Junior Juwan Durham leads the ACC in blocked shots per game with a 3.29 average (46 total in 14 games played). That number puts him fourth in the country entering this week’s college basketball action (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • Though Notre Dame and North Carolina have met 30 times previous to Tuesday night’s game, it will only be the sixth visit to Chapel Hill for the Irish. Notre Dame is 1-4 in the Smith Center and 1-3 as an ACC member (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • With a 9.4 average, Notre Dame ranks 3rd in the country in turnovers per game, trailing only Virginia and St. Joseph’s (per Alan Wasielewski)
  • Notre Dame, on average, is committing just 13.4 personal fouls per game, which is tied with Dayton for the NCAA lead (per Alan Wasielewski)

Where: Dean E. Smith Center — Chapel Hill, North Carolina

When: Tuesday, January 15th at 9:00 PM ET

How to Watch:

  • TV: ESPN with Rece Davis, LaPhonso Ellis (Notre Dame ‘92) and Brooke Weisbrod
  • Live Stream: WatchESPN.com and the ESPN app
  • Radio: Notre Dame Basketball Network with Jack Nolan and Zach Hillesland (Notre Dame ‘09)

North Carolina Tar Heels (12-4, 2-1 ACC)

The North Carolina Tar Heels enter tonight’s game fresh off a proper demolition at the hands of the Louisville Cardinals, losing 83-62 at home in easily their worst performance of the season.

With that said, this Tar Heels team is very good, and considering their loss on Saturday, will likely be doubly focused as they take on the Irish.

The Tar Heels are 12-4 on the year, having only otherwise lost to the Texas Longhorns, the 12th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, and at the #2 Michigan Wolverines. Furthermore, the Tar Heels already have a couple impressive wins on their resume, having beaten the #4 Gonzaga Bulldogs (by scoring 103 on them!) and winning at the #17 North Carolina State Wolfpack.

They’re led by Cameron Johnson, whom you may remember as the Pittsburgh Panthers transfer who’s had a fantastic career both with the Panthers early on and with the Tar Heels the past couple years. With Joel Berry II finally graduated, Johnson is the leader of this team, averaging 15.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 51% from the field and a blistering 47% from deep. The 6’9” senior guard is a great athlete, long, and can hurt you from all over the court. He’ll be a VERY tough match-up for the Irish with no Rex Pflueger to man-up on him.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson’s got a couple extremely capable running mates to help him form the trio of Tar Heels who average double figures in scoring, as Luke Maye is somehow still at UNC and still averaging a double-double, and freshman guard Coby White is scoring 14 per game himself.

The 6’8” senior Maye is scoring 14.4 points and snagging 10.1 rebounds per game this season while also dishing out a couple assists here and there and making a respectable 33% from deep. The match-up between him and Notre Dame’s best player right now, junior forward John Mooney, will be very interesting.

Mooney has been electric of late, asserting himself as a force down low as opposed to just a stretch four who occasionally gets hot from deep. He put up 27 and 12 in the win over Boston College, and was made a captain when senior Elijah Burns transferred out of the program. He’ll have his hands full with Maye, but the two are pretty similar players (with Maye being a little more athletic/quicker) and should make for a great battle down low.

Johnson and Maye are aided in the double-digit scoring department by true freshman Coby White, a 6’5” guard who averages 3.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds to go along with those 14 points per game. He also shoots 35% from 3, making him another decent perimeter threat to account for out there.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at N.C. State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

We haven’t even talked about 6’6” freshman Nassir Little, who is a likely lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Little is averaging a solid 9.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, deferring a bit to a couple seniors and to White. Make no mistake, though — Little is a helluva player and brings even more ridiculous length and athleticism to the court.

To round out UNC’s rotation, the Tar Heels have 6’4” senior guard Kenny Williams (8.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.1 spg) and 6’9” sophomore forward Garrison Brooks (8.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.7 rpg). Needless to say, with the amount of athleticism, length, and experience on Roy Williams’ squad, this shorthanded ND team will have its hands full in a tough environment.

And if that weren’t enough, North Carolina also boasts a number of amazing names on their roster, including guys named Seventh Woods, Leaky Black, and Sterling Manley. That’s just not fair.

Tar Heel to Watch

Luke Maye, Forward, Senior

Cameron Johnson will get his, scoring-wise, and I don’t think many people on ND are going to stop him. But Maye is probably the key, as he will be matched up with John Mooney a lot of the game, and if he gets Mooney into foul trouble or is able to either shut him down or go off scoring-wise (or, God forbid, both), the Irish do not have enough firepower, even with Gibbs back, to recover.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at N.C. State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Irish X-Factor

John Mooney, Forward, Junior

He’s stepped up in a big way already, but the Irish need him to continue to do so — especially during this upcoming brutal stretch of opponents. Mooney NEEDS to own the boards, especially on defense, and contain Luke Maye and any other UNC big men as much as he can in order for ND to even have a chance. That means staying out of foul trouble, gobbling up rebounds, and once again carrying much of the scoring load. It’s a lot to ask of a guy who averaged 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds last year, but it’s necessary for the Irish to win.

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

Prediction

I think ND will play decently well in their second road game of the early ACC season, but I don’t foresee the combination of Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye, Coby White, and Nassir Little failing to defeat, on their own home court, a struggling, young, short-bench Irish squad — especially after they just had their wake-up call against Louisville. ND just doesn’t have the size, athleticism, or shooting to do it.

North Carolina runs away with it in the last 10-15 minutes of the game. The Tar Heels win this one 81-64.