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UNC vs Notre Dame: Three Things to Watch

Small(er) ball, hitting the boards, and Cam’s increasing role.

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

Fresh off a 30-point demolishing of Boston College, the Heels hit the road again when they travel to South Bend, Indiana for a Saturday night clash. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be looking to avenge their Wednesday night loss at Georgia Tech. North Carolina hopes to notch its first ACC road win.

The depleted Irish are still learning how to handle the absence of Bonzie Colson in the lineup, as he likely won’t return until late February from a broken foot. Now, they will likely be without starting point guard Matt Farrell, who hasn’t played since spraining his ankle against North Carolina State. A few more things to look for include:

Small Ball. Kind of. Not Really.

Roy Williams inserted Cam Johnson into the starting lineup, and the UNC fan base had two reactions. “Finally!”, or “Wow! I’m shocked Roy would change his style!” Truthfully, this change is being overstated, and we won’t overreact over one game. Nor should it really be much of a surprise. Literally every UNC basketball outlet has said this was a possibility if the freshmen big men were slow to develop. That includes us.

Subbing the 6’8” Cam Johnson for the 6’9” Garrison Brooks, isn’t exactly “going small”, though the skillsets between the two are obviously different. Instead this is a switch to a perimeter-oriented lineup, while still maintaining an emphasis on high-percentage shots near the rim. Who scores and how they score might look a little different, but the philosophy in getting the ball inside has not and will not change.

Also, the guard-dominated lineup of Berry/Williams/Johnson/Pinson/Maye technically were outscored by Boston College 22-21 in just over 9 minutes of playing time. A more traditional lineup was used during the remaining 31 minutes. (Granted, in over 30 minutes of playing time this season, this “small” lineup has overwhelmingly been the most successful combination of players for North Carolina.) It’s not unfair to ask if this was more of an aesthetic or emotional change, where this lineup starts games instead of finishing them.

However, it can’t be ignored that the Heels clearly got off to a faster start (a consistent problem this season) and integrated Cam Johnson into the rhythm of the game in a more timely fashion. Those are not unimportant events. If the same lineup starts tomorrow (and a quick glance at the personnel matchups support this idea), hopefully those trends continue.

Window Cleaning

One of the reasons Roy Williams is so intent on maintaining two post players in his system is his rebounding philosophy. He believes that everything revolves around out-rebounding the other team. It can be difficult to do that when four guards are on the floor together.

That was not a concern against Boston College, as the Heels won the rebounding battle 54-23. Berry, Pinson, Johnson, and Williams out-rebounded Boston College by themselves in corralling 24 combined boards. Of course, Luke Maye took advantage of his relative speed and quickness to gather 18 more missed shots.

A similar effort can be expected on Saturday. Notre Dame is arguably a worse rebounding team compared to Boston College. The Irish are 139th in the nation in total rebounds and 157th in total rebounds allowed, whereas UNC are 7th and 67th in the same categories.

Those numbers translate to rebounding percentages as well. According to teamrankings.com, Notre Dame grabs 29.5% of their available offensive rebounds and 72.7% of defensive rebound opportunities - good for 106th and 201st in the nation. The majority of those games were WITH Bonzie Colson.

Meanwhile, the Heels’ come in at 5th and 3rd in the nation in those categories. They bring down 36.4% of their available offensive rebounds and 80.6% of their defensive rebounding opportunities. They are the only team in the country ranked in the top 10 in both sets of data. If they can maintain that intensity while bringing Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley off the bench, a long January win streak is possible.

Cam Johnson’s Versatility

Kenny Williams often gets credited as being UNC’s best two-way player and Theo Pinson deserves credit for being the most versatile defender. However, they both have weaknesses that are easily exploitable. Theo is not a true threat to shoot outside 15 feet and KWill’s size makes it difficult to create his own shot or consistently rebound.

On Tuesday night against Boston College, Cam showed how he may be able to bridge the gap between the two players. In a season-high 32 minutes, he played his most complete game as a Tar Heel, finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists. Most importantly, he made zero three pointers.

His shooting prowess forces defenders to guard him outside the arc and his size makes him a threat to rebound on both ends of the floor, score around the basket, and draw fouls. The fact that the Heels scored 96 points, and a Cam Johnson three-pointer didn’t account for any of those, bodes well for his role as he continues to get healthy.

Not to mention, any time Joel Berry’s offensive load is lightened, the Tar Heels become a better team. Notre Dame may be the next step in that growth process.