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Game Preview: Notre Dame at UNC

Can UNC get the sweep against a coach who has given them fits?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Notre Dame joined the ACC, Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish and Roy Williams’ Tar Heels have fought some tightly contested battles. Since 2013, the two teams have played 9 times, and while the Heels hold a 6-3 advantage, 6 of those games have been decided by 8 points or less. The three contests in 2016 and 2017 were some of UNC’s easiest in that time frame, with margins of victory of 31, 14, and 7 points (that last one was the game in Greensboro that was so awfully officiated that even our sister blog for Notre Dame noted it), but, as I’m sure you recall, the latest entry in this series was an absolute nail-biter, a game that came down to the very last (extremely makeable) shot to determine a winner. UNC survived, though, and comes into this game on a four-game winning streak in the series.

This coaching matchup features a significant style clash. Roy Williams, of course, loves his high-octane, 3-out/2-in offense that nearly always ranks near the top of the country in tempo and prioritizes easy looks close to the basket. Brey, a disciple of Mike Krzyzewski, has a more perimeter-oriented style that prioritizes getting shooters open and frequently features 6’5’’ guys playing one of the post positions better than a 6’5’’ guy has any right to: see Pat Connaughton (of the 44-inch vertical) and now Bonzie Colson, who was averaging 21.4/10.4 before his injury. Notre Dame also doesn’t share UNC’s proclivity for tempo: This year’s team ranks 322nd in the country, per Kenpom’s Adjusted Tempo.

Preseason ACC Player of the Year Colson’s injury has been the big news for the Fighting Irish, but they have dealt with a couple of other key injuries as well: Guard Matt Farrell missed five games in the midst of a 7-game losing streak for Notre Dame (including UNC’s visit to South Bend), and key reserve D.J. Harvey is also sidelined with injury. The Irish, already thin, have had a rough ACC schedule with these injuries, and currently sit at 5-7 in the conference. Since Farrell came back, however, they have recorded solid victories over Boston College and Florida State, so they are more threatening right now than their record might indicate, even without their best player. Remember, 69-68 was played without Colson and Farrell.

This Notre Dame team isn’t as proficient from the perimeter as past editions of the Irish, shooting just 35.2% from beyond the arc in conference play, good for 9th in the ACC. Much of that is dragged down by Rex Pflueger, who has taken the 3rd most three-pointers on the team in conference play and only hits at a 32% clip. He was near 40% last year, so he has the ability to light it up, but has underwhelmed this year. Notre Dame’s other two volume shooters are very good, though: the aforementioned Farrell hits near 40% of his outside shots, and T.J. Gibbs has connected on 37% in conference play and 41% on the season. UNC’s perimeter defense should be primarily focused on not letting those guys burn them from deep. John Mooney has also been a threat from distance, though his sample size is much smaller.

This Notre Dame team also relies on having a powerful presence inside. In the past, this role has belonged to guys like Zach Auguste and now, again, Colson. With the former playing professionally and the latter injured, this role has fallen to Martinas Geben, who is having himself a fine, but not spectacular, season, averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds per game. In conference, those numbers have jumped due to more opportunity, and he has put up 12 points and 9 rebounds per game against the ACC. His per-40 numbers, for the record, have stayed the same, so he has held up against good competition. Against UNC this year, he had 14/9 and thoroughly outplayed UNC’s rotation of freshman centers, though Luke Maye did go 18/11. He has also been among the team’s best defenders going by Defensive Rating, but seeing as Notre Dame has just one player with a DRtg under 100, this isn’t much of a statement.

If that statement wasn’t enough of a hint, Notre Dame is a bad defensive team. They don’t rebound well, so even though their opponents’ field goal percentage is middling, they give up a ton of second chance opportunities. They are also last in the ACC in blocked shots; with no rim protector, teams are not deterred from going for and taking high-percentage looks. The best way to win this game will be with penetration, a facet of the game where UNC has been hit-or-miss this season. I will say that they have shown marked improvement in that regard during this winning streak; although the team’s shooting percentage was pretty bad against Duke and NCSU, players were finding driving lanes that they had turned down before and turning them into high-percentage looks, even if they didn’t fall. With less length on Notre Dame’s team than on either of those two, it stands to reason that UNC should see a bigger basket close to the rim than it has in the past two games.

A factor in this game worth tracking is fatigue. For UNC, this will be the final game of a 3-games-in-5-days stretch, something that no other team in the ACC has to do this year. Particularly given how tight both games were, UNC’s legs could be a little heavy tonight. Notre Dame also played a high-octane game on Saturday, winning 84-69, so there’s no guaranteeing they’ll be ready to run, either. I think both teams’ experience will make this a non-issue, but again, it’s worth noting.

Score Prediction: UNC 72, Notre Dame 65