For those of you who watched, when’s the last time you remember an ACC Tournament game ending as wild as that one? Notre Dame was down to Wake Forest by 12 with less than 10 minutes to go and looked absolutely stymied on both ends of the floor, and then completely shifted gears on offense and defense, getting stops and alternatingly knocking down threes and getting to the rim with little to no resistance, culminating in a buzzer-beating three by Trey Wertz (son of Langston, to those familiar with North Carolina sports media) that looked way too familiar to Carolina fans. For their troubles, they will face a UNC team that they met to open 2021, which you might remember as the Leaky Black game-winner game. Both teams have played a lot of basketball since then, so that game probably isn’t the best way to predict how this one might go. Here are three things to watch for that could influence how the game goes tonight:
1. Three-Point Defense
It’s a bit of a broken record point for UNC fans, but defending the three is going to be paramount in this game. Mike Brey’s teams always have a bunch of deadly shooters, and that was on full display in their game against Wake Forest, as they had been shooting pretty well for the first part of the game and then just went nuclear in their extended run to win it. Notre Dame takes 43% of their shots from downtown and makes about 37% of them, which is a dangerous combination for a UNC team that has struggled at times containing teams from behind the arc. We got a taste of that firsthand when the two teams met in January, when Nate Laszewski got red-hot and made 7 threes on 11 attempts, but UNC was a combination of lucky and good on the rest, because the rest of the Irish were just 4/19. While we can’t expect that to happen again, the Heels do need to figure out what they did right on the rest of the roster vis-a-vis three-point defense and try to replicate it, preferably not including the part where Prentiss Hubb didn’t miss from inside the arc as he got easy look after easy look. Meanwhile, they need to pay special attention to Laszewski, who’s hitting 46% of his three-pointers on the year and will probably play the 4 spot for most of his minutes. UNC’s bigs were able to consistently make Matthew Hurt uncomfortable as a shooter in both Duke matchups, and similar efforts will be required here for the Heels to even approach getting comfortable.
2. Size Advantage
The first Notre Dame game was Day’Ron Sharpe’s coming out party, as he scored his career high of 25 points in his second ever start and pretty much single-handedly willed UNC to the finish line before Black got them over it. He’s undoubtedly the strongest of UNC’s four bigs, and the Notre Dame front line, famously a more small-ball oriented one, couldn’t really handle him and his physicality. He was only 9/19 shooting, missing a fair amount of close attempts, but he got to the line a ton and rebounded enough of his own misses to where it didn’t feel like an inefficient game (and to be fair, 25 points on 19 shots isn’t bad at all). Sharpe’s been fairly muted lately as teams have been more successful in taking away his go-to baseline spin into the deep post and he hasn’t developed much of a counter move, and he’s also gotten himself into early foul trouble a couple of times in the past few games. Maybe seeing the team that really vaulted him from good player to great player can help him get some of that mojo back.
This isn’t all about Sharpe, however; Armando Bacot’s been plenty physical this year when he’s put his mind to it and Walker Kessler has the size and length to simply overwhelm the Fighting Irish inside (Garrison Brooks hasn’t been much for banging around the post this year, even in his good games). I’m skeptical of the idea that the Heels should be leaning on their frontcourt in every game because it’s their strength, but this is a matchup, similar to the Duke game, where I just don’t see an answer on the roster to the many things UNC’s bigs can do to you with how well they can use their bodies around the rim. This should be a game where close attempts come easy and can be converted easy, if the Heels can just get the ball there. I wouldn’t expect a repeat of the Syracuse game, where UNC bigs caused at least 12 turnovers by being overpowered when they got the ball in the post.
Carrying over from the Duke game
The first Duke game looked like a turning point for Caleb Love and for the Heels as a squad, as they looked like they were beginning to function as a unit and Love in particular had a takeover game of the variety that makes you salivate about what he can do with an offseason of work after learning to play point guard for the first time. Then they had a long layoff and returned to action laying an absolute goose egg against Virginia, and have defied explanation since — following blowouts against Northeastern and Louisville with a dud against Marquette, a win against Florida State with a giveaway to Syracuse, and then completing the Duke sweep this past Saturday. It’s all too tempting to try and assign special value to that game because the UNC-Duke rivalry is so big, it was Senior Night, and we want momentum to be realer than it is (but it still is real, stats nerds be damned), but it probably wasn’t all sustainable — Garrison Brooks hitting a stepback three and walking into another as the trail big, along with hitting about 4 deep midrange jumpers, probably isn’t going to happen again, for starters, and that production is going to have to be replaced with a more consistent source of offense. But maybe some of the game’s positives can be carried over, like Love’s 8 assists (I’m counting the pocket pass to Sharpe that Kessler had to clean up) and Kerwin Walton breaking out of his shooting slump. If Love can keep turning that corner as a distributor and manager of the UNC offense and Walton can keep the pressure on defenses from the outside, that alone makes UNC a tough draw for anybody, starting with Notre Dame.