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Game Preview: Notre Dame at #13 UNC

After getting embarrassed in their home opener, the Heels will try to regain some mojo against a young and battered, but feisty Irish team

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Home opener, part 2? After a pair of impressive road wins to start conference play, Roy Williams’ UNC squad had just about everything go wrong, both by bad fortune and by circumstances of their own making, in an 83-62 drubbing at the hands of Chris Mack’s Louisville team, in their return to the Dean Smith Center. On Tuesday, they’ll have a chance to start to making up for this... we’ll call it a misstep, when Mike Brey and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish come to town. Let’s take a look at what UNC is going to be facing tomorrow night.

This isn’t really the kind of Notre Dame team we’re used to seeing. For the past several years, Brey has had the benefit of multiple upperclassmen who had been good for more than a year, such as Bonzie Colson, Steve Vasturia, V.J. Meachem, and, stretching back a little bit, Demetrius Jackson and Pat Connaughton. This year’s team is a lot younger, with three freshmen and a sophomore among the team’s primary contributors. And while the team was expected to have senior guard Rex Pflueger to help alleviate this problem, he was, unfortunately, struck by injury in December, leaving the Irish without the kind of on-court leader that their best teams in previous years have had.

This has resulted in a team that lacks the kind of identity that Brey has cultivated. Previous Irish teams have been hallmarked by a potent, varied, NBA-style offense that frequently ranks among the country’s best, or at least around the top 30 in offensive efficiency. This year’s team is 53rd. This is in part due to relatively poor outside shooting, as this year’s Irish shoot just 34.1% from behind the arc, and losing Pflueger, a 39% shooter from deep before his injury, has only exacerbated the problem: Besides an 18/32 performance against Jacksonville, the Fighting Irish have been shooting at high volume, but at just a 31% clip since Pflueger was lost for the season. They’re not much better inside the arc, either, and all told, Notre Dame ranks a lowly 305th in the country in made field goal percentage.

But the pieces are clearly there. For one thing, this Irish team is first in the country in turnover rate, giving the ball up on just 11.8% of their possessions. They assist on about 56% of made baskets, which is not bad. Like I said before, they’re not afraid to let it fly, attempting 25 or more three-pointers in 10 games out of their 16 with five of those being 30+ attempt games and another coming just short at 29. It’s clear that the team is learning to play offense together; they just haven’t been able to finish.

So if they don’t have the typical Brey offensive production to rely on, what does this team have? Well, they’re still figuring it out. The team isn’t great on defense as a whole, but has begun cultivating a massive interior defensive presence. UConn transfer forward Juwan Durham has seen his playing time skyrocket since Pflueger’s injury, and while he hasn’t been the biggest offensive threat, he’s a monster on the defensive end with 46 blocks on the season, including 18 in his last 4 games. Thanks largely to him, Notre Dame ranks 11th in the country in blocked shots percentage. The other primary Irish forward, John Mooney, is also a fairly imposing presence. He’s only blocked 14 shots this season, but has a defensive rating of 93.2, showing that he has the ability to alter shots around the rim even if he doesn’t get a hand on them.

The two forwards are helped by Notre Dame’s increased use of zone this year, as it makes their job easier, but they have absolutely excelled within it. Both have excellent defensive ratings and Notre Dame is one of the best teams in the country at not fouling. Where they are weak is on the glass, ranking worse than 230th in opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage, which provides a key area to target if you’re Roy Williams and the Tar Heels. The guard play, too, has been suspect, forcing very few turnovers despite decently low opponent shooting percentages, which shows that they’re allowing teams to shoot, and due to a weak schedule thus far (317th-rated non-conference strength of schedule according to Kenpom), haven’t been burned by it on the whole. Better teams should not have the same issues, and while Syracuse and Boston College didn’t have great offensive games against the Irish, they aren’t exactly offensive juggernauts, either. On the other hand, Virginia Tech, an excellent team, had their way with them, going 60% from the floor and 11/18 from deep.

This is very clearly a Notre Dame team in a sort of transitional year. They have the pieces to be good, and the interior on defense is scary, but so far, the team just hasn’t come together yet. Particularly with their lack of forcing turnovers, poor shooting, and lack of rebounding prowess, they haven’t yet featured any of the traits that have defined UNC’s toughest opponents. Every ACC team is dangerous, but UNC seems to match up very well in this opposition.

Prediction: UNC 84, Notre Dame 68