(1) North Carolina vs. (6) Notre Dame
Initial Thoughts: The Philadelphia nightcap at 9pm local time should be a doozy. The teams split games this season, but ND won at home in South Bend and UNC won on a neutral floor in Washington, DC, at the ACC Tournament. UNC was +27 combined in the two matchups, so I wouldn’t exactly call it an even split.
North Carolina basically played a flawless offensive game against Indiana in the Sweet 16, lighting it up from downtown (very uncharacteristically), grabbing almost 50% of their misses (very characteristically), and ultimately putting up a blistering 1.42ppp. If it wasn’t for Villanova’s utter destruction of Miami in the same round, UNC’s game would have easily been the most efficient offensive performance in the Sweet 16.
Notre Dame was…not as efficient on offense. Wisconsin dragged them into a rock fight, but to Notre Dame’s credit, they managed to come out on top in a defensive struggle, not normally their strength. Zach Auguste was a hoss as usual, VJ Beachem’s smooth stroke continued to shine, and the Irish rallied late to win in the last 19 seconds (much to my dismay as a Badger fan).
Aside – if you had listened to my futures piece here, you’d have Notre Dame at a lovely 65/1 (and Oklahoma at 35/1 in the Final Four) – please don’t notice that I also advised against taking 3 other teams (Villanova, UNC, and Syracuse), all of whom are in the Elite 8 (or Final Four already, in Nova’s case). Ups and downs people!
North Carolina on Offense: If UNC shoots the ball like they did against Indiana, then I don’t really need to write this preview. I’m going to operate under the assumption that a 31% 3-point shooting team on the season won’t hit 10 of their first 12 from deep tomorrow, though.
Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson are going to need to play the games of their lives in this one, because ND has no interior depth and UNC is going to hurl Johnson, Meeks, Hicks, and James at them in waves. It will be interesting to see if Brey sticks with Matt Farrell in the starting lineup – as much as that’s helped their offense, it forces VJ Beachem onto Meeks or Johnson, and that is a nightmare for Notre Dame. I’m guessing they start Farrell, but as soon as Beachem gets an early foul, we’ll see Bonzie at the scorer’s table. This goes for both post ups and on the glass – ND will need to rebound as a team, because UNC is going to send 3 good offensive rebounders basically every time a shot goes up.
Semi-related to the above about Carolina’s shooting – every team is going to make a few threes if they’re allowed to be comfortable on the perimeter. While letting them bomb away is the best way to beat the Heels, it can’t just be gratuitously open shots. Thankfully, with the way Jackson and Farrell have been playing defense, I don’t expect Paige and Berry to have a ton of daylight with which to work offensively.
With the way Carolina pushes off nearly every miss or make, the Irish transition defense is going to be paramount. I’d expect Brey to let Auguste and Colson (when on the floor) to attack the glass, but the other 3-4 guys on the floor will most likely eschew the offensive boards to ensure they’re behind the ball when Paige and Berry start pushing the pace. Notre Dame has the talent to run with UNC, but not the depth, and would be way better served keeping the game in the 60-possession range (UNC wants 70 whenever possible).
Notre Dame on Offense: Wisconsin frustrated Notre Dame by harassing them constantly on the perimeter – it was a great example of how a team doesn’t need to trap or press or even extend their defense too far to make an offense uncomfortable. As I expected, the Badgers mostly tried to bait the Irish ball-handlers into tough jumpers or floaters off the pick-and-roll, and for the most part, it worked. Wisconsin walled off the interior and forced most everything off the 3-point line (though Beachem’s 6’8 high release ended up being a problem – damn can that guy shoot!), and ND was forced to take a lot of bad shots towards the end of the shot clock.
UNC is, traditionally, not going to bring that kind of discipline defensively, but they do have a ton of size (sensing a theme?) to bother Auguste as a roll man and all of the Irish penetrators. You can’t fall asleep against the Irish shooters (again, something the Badgers were successful at), and Roy will need to make sure his boys are laser-focused at all times or Beachem/Vasturia/D-Jack will drop in their fair share. I expect the Irish to do okay on the perimeter in this regard, but it’s just going to be so difficult for them to get anything going towards the hoop.
One area that surprised me a bit was Notre Dame’s attempts to get open shots in transition against Wisconsin. It was an extremely smart adjustment by Brey to push when possible, as Wisconsin’s set half-court defense had proven extremely difficult to score on for 3 straight rounds. It only ended up being a 63 possession game (and both teams scored less than 1ppp overall), but Notre Dame got some of their easier opportunities on the break. Obviously, UNC isn’t going to allow that with the way they get 2 guys back immediately (Roy’s mastery of offensive rebounding + transition defense might need an examination of its own), but with Farrell and Jackson on the floor, the Irish should not shy away from the open court if it gets them better looks.
Key Factor(s): Can Notre Dame score or rebound with the Heels? This is a step up in competition from Wisconsin, and even then Notre Dame’s offense was pretty ugly, as College Basketball Twitter will attest to. In DC in the ACC Tournament, ND put up a hideous 0.68ppp and was outrebounded 49-31, compared to 1.19 and 41-40 in the friendly confines of South Bend. With the way UNC is locked in on offense and defense right now, I find it hard to believe the Irish can compete in those facets of the game.
Do I Trust the Coaches?: This section is getting a little repetitive to write, so I’ll keep it short – both Roy and Brey have their flaws, but they’ve got a phenomenal system going for the rosters they have. Brey has to be thrilled to be going against a mortal 1 seed instead of 37-0 Kentucky, but with the way Williams has the Heels playing, there isn’t a ton of difference. I don’t think coaching will settle this matchup.
Predictions: My expectation is a game that looks a lot more like the rematch in our nation’s capital than the original battle in Irish Land. UNC is not as hot as they were Friday night, but it won’t matter. They’ll completely control the interior, frustrating Zach Auguste to the point of a technical (he was close against Wisconsin), and win the rebounding battle by 15+. Paige and Johnson have their moment in the sun as the odd couple seniors, and Roy Williams enjoys/hates the week as he gets to talk about his team/the impending academic fraud investigation repeatedly.
SU Pick: North Carolina
ATS Pick: North Carolina -9
O/U Pick: Under 154.5