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UNC vs Notre Dame: Game Preview

The Tar Heels and Irish both seek to straighten out midseason struggles

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-North Carolina vs Notre Dame Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame (17-6, 6-4 ACC, AP #20, KenPom #26) at North Carolina (20-4, 8-2 ACC, AP #12, KenPom #11)

1:00 pm Sunday, February 5, Greensboro (assuming no further Old Testament calamities)

Line: UNC -10.5

TV: ESPN NEWS

A Saturday night home game in Chapel Hill against a quality opponent is a hot ticket. Spend the day in Chapel Hill, enjoy a good meal at Top of the Hill or Bin 54, and take in the game with plenty of time to get home. It’s many a Tar Heel fan’s idea of a perfect Saturday.

So of course we’ll instead be playing this one in Greensboro on Super Bowl Sunday, because something fundamental went horribly wrong with the Chapel Hill water and sewer system.

Maybe that just fits. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the Tar Heels or the Fighting Irish, it feels like your team comes into this one trying to fix something that once seemed to be working beautifully.

No one is going to feel sorry for a UNC team sporting a 20-4 record and sitting in first place in the ACC, of course, but if you look beyond the record, the last couple of weeks have been troubling for a team that thinks of itself as having national championship aspirations. Most prominent was the 77-62 loss at Miami, which was not even as close as that score suggests.

But no Theo Pinson, you say? Fair enough, but Pinson was available for the Boston College game a few days beforehand, and the Tar Heels had major problems putting away an Eagles team that now stands at 9-14. Don’t mollify yourself with the “ACC road games are all tough” rationale, either – UNC could easily have lost Pitt, who is 12-10, and 1-8 in the ACC, and that game was in the Smith Center. The truth is that since the January 14th romp against Florida State, the Tar Heels have struggled to find the rhythm that made them look something close to invincible at times earlier in the season.

Notre Dame could be forgiven for a collective eye-roll to that kind of concern. Barely more than two weeks ago, the Irish stood at 16-2 and were undefeated in ACC play. Their first conference loss was a tight game at Florida State, which hardly constitutes a red flag but turned out to be the first episode of what can only be called a slump: the Irish have lost four of their last five and are now 17-6, 5th in the conference, and are nearly certain to fall out of the AP poll with another loss.

As per usual with Mike Brey’s Notre Dame teams, if the Irish are going to pull out of their midseason slide it will need to start with offense, and 3 point shooting in particular. Four of Notre Dame’s five top minutes-eaters shoot 38% or better from 3 point range, including 6’6” senior Steve Vasturia, who must be in his 9th year in South Bend. As a team, the Irish shoot 39.9%, good for first in the ACC.

This bodes well against a UNC team that just finished giving up 13 3s to lowly Pitt. But there’s also a downside: Notre Dame struggles for an offensive identity when the 3 pointers don’t fall. Only 47% of their offense comes from two-point shots (262nd nationally), and they don’t rebound very well (186th in offensive rebounding percentage, 229th in defensive rebounding percentage).

There’s no real mystery to this: the Irish simply aren’t very big. Their primary post presence is 6’5” Bonzie Colson, the only player on the Notre Dame roster averaging over five rebounds per game (though his 10.6 average is impressive for a player his size). No one getting big minutes for the Irish is taller than 6’8” (6’10” Martinas Geban does get some time as a reserve).

That should make the Irish a prime candidate for helping UNC get its mojo back, as Notre Dame’s weakness on the glass plays right into the Tar Heels’ greatest strength. Recent struggles notwithstanding, the Tar Heels remain the best rebounding team in the country, rating 1st in offensive rebounding and 24th in defensive rebounding. If Notre Dame is not hitting its outside shots consistently, it should translate into transition points and a shot imbalance that heavily favors the UNC offense.

In order for that to happen, however, the Tar Heels must tighten up the perimeter defense that has shown too much vulnerability in recent weeks. Although UNC’s overall defensive efficiency rating still ranks a not-bad 33rd nationally, that position reflects a significant drop from earlier in the season when the Tar Heels’ defensive efficiency was comparable to its lofty offensive efficiency (currently 8th nationally).

A #136 ranking in defending against 3 pointers is a major contributor to that decline. Getting Theo Pinson and his length back on defense is undoubtedly part of the answer, but his absence is not the whole story. In the early part of the season without Pinson, the Tar Heels showed flashes of elite defense at times and need to find their way back there.

Should the UNC perimeter begin to do that, the Tar Heels should be able to handle Notre Dame and build towards heading into Thursday night’s Duke game with confidence that it is still capable of playing at an elite level.