ACC Tournament Preview: (5) North Carolina vs. (3) Notre Dame
After the entire season built to a Virgina-Duke ACC Tournament Championship, it will instead be the North Carolina Tar Heels facing off against traditional ACC foe Notre Dame Fighting Irish for the conference title.
North Carolina knocked off Virginia in stunning fashion Friday night, and Notre Dame held onto a big first half lead to eliminate Duke, setting the table for a Saturday night showdown in the Greensboro Coliseum.
After playing a Virginia team that prides itself on elite defense, the Tar Heels will have to switch gears and focus on how to stop an efficient, dangerous Notre Dame offense. The Irish are ranked 4th in offensive efficiency by KenPom, and beat the Tar Heels 71-70 in the Dean Smith Center earlier this season. Notre Dame picked apart North Carolina’s defense in the first match-up, hitting 46& of its shots, including going 10/23 from 3-point range. The Irish held an 11-point lead midway through the second half, but North Carolina fought back to give itself a chance on the final play. The inbound pass went to a triple-covered Marcus Paige instead of a wide-open Justin Jackson at the top of the key, and Carolina fell by just one point.
What does North Carolina have to do differently this time? Well, maybe defend the 3-point shot better. Yes, some of those 3’s Notre Dame hit were contested, but I remember multiple times screaming when a man (such as Pat Connaughton) was left wide open for a corner 3. Those shots were absolute killers, and derailed any momentum that North Carolina could build as it mounted a comeback.
North Carolina will also have to look to a player not named “Theo Pinson” to play well against the Fighting Irish. Pinson had a breakout game against Notre Dame in January, scoring 7 points and grabbing 8 rebounds in 16 minutes of play. Pinson served as a giant boost of energy off the bench, but with his nagging foot injury, it’s likely that he won’t see much playing time, if any at all.
Instead, look for another freshman to continue his impressive play: Justin Jackson. Jackson had his best game in a Carolina uniform Friday, dropping 22 points on one of the best defenses in all of college basketball. He looked confident with every shot he took, and against a far inferior Notre Dame defense (compared to Virginia), there is no reason he shouldn’t look to attack. Jackson has scored in double-figures in 8 straight games, and has quietly (until Friday) stepped up as someone Carolina can depend on offensively.
Of course, Jackson can play his best when defenders are forced to cheat in, so he’ll need his teammates Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson to continue to play at a high level in the tournament. Johnson, specifically, is playing the best basketball of his career at Carolina, and against a rather weak frontcourt, he can force some doubles, which will open up either Meeks down low or possibly a cutting Jackson or Marcus Paige.
If North Carolina can avoid getting burned by the 3-pointer, this is its game to win. The Greensboro Coliseum will be painted Carolina blue, and the Tar Heels will look to win the tournament that Dean Smith dominated for decades. It would be a fitting tribute to a fallen legend, and the “DES” patches on Carolina’s uniforms should motivate them to win this one for Coach Smith.
The Verdict: North Carolina defeats Notre Dame to capture the ACC Championship, 74-63.
Photo courtesy of Spencer Herlong (@TarHeelPhoto, herlongimages.photoshelter.com)