ACC Championship: #5 North Carolina vs #3 Notre Dame, 8:30 PM, ESPN/ACC Network
Prior to the start of the ACC Tournament the present UNC season had been called many things. It's been weird, disappointing, frustrating and heartbreaking. The full gamut of emotions have been run from inexplicable early season losses to Dean Smith's passing to crushing losses in close games. No one knew what to expect of this team and certainly there was little confidence in UNC's ability to string together some resembling a consistent level of play.
Then the Tar Heels arrived in Greensboro and in three days' time UNC has managed finally close out two tough games, played stellar defense when needed and performed at a high level offensively. The result is the Tar Heels playing Notre Dame for its 18th ACC Championship and measure of redemption in an otherwise nondescript season.
In order to do that, UNC is going to need the same defensive intensity it did against Virginia. The notable difference between Virginia and Notre Dame is the Irish are a much higher octane offensive team. Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson present an issue for UNC defensively. They have speed and strength to get into the lane plus solid free throw shooting to make the Heels pay for fouls. Notre Dame also has three point shooters which will see their share of open looks if the Tar Heels aren't attentive to close outs. In Notre Dame's win in Chapel Hill, Grant scored just eight points and fouled out. His teammates more than picked up the slack but it stands to reason Grant won't be as quiet this time.
On the other end, UNC's has substantial size that will make life difficult for the Irish which had no answer for Duke's Jahlil Okafor. In January 5th loss to Notre Dame, Brice Johnson was 3-11 scoring just nine and grabbing five rebounds. Early foul trouble from Meeks limited his effectiveness also. Theo Pinson actually ended up being UNC's leading rebounder with eight. The trio of Johnson, Meeks and Isaiah Hicks were just 8-21 against the undersized Irish. The Tar Heels will likely go inside early and need big games from post players to exploit the Tar Heel advantage.
That being said, UNC is where it is because the Tar Heels are finally getting production from Justin Jackson and Marcus Paige is playing up to last season's form. Jackson recorded his eight straight double figures scoring game and in a span of eight games has raised his three point shooting from 20% to almost 30%. Jackson has been highly efficient and playing with a high level of confidence. The elevated play of a healthy Paige is also a factor in Jackson getting better looks. Paige's ability to drive the ball now makes the Heels even more dangerous.
Both teams have solid offenses but only one has shown any inclination to really defend consistently. The question facing UNC is can the defense be good enough to contain an Irish offense that hits over 50% of its shots and 39% as a team from three. Again, UNC's troubles with perimeter shooting teams is always a concern and in the earlier loss this season Notre Dame shot 10-23 from deep. The game could very well be a shootout with the Heels needing to maintain the newly found offensive consistency and perhaps get enough stops in the second half to seal the game.
The ACC Tournament so far has been very much about revenge games. UNC has exacted revenge for prior losses at Louisville and to Virginia at home. Duke paid NC State back from an early season loss and Notre Dame in turn paid Duke back for a 30 point Blue Devil win. UNC dropped a 71-70 decision to Notre Dame in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels had the lead late but gave up an offensive rebound and Notre Dame scored on put back. Undoubtedly that will be a focal point for the Tar Heels going into this game.
UNC 81 Notre Dame 72