For the second straight season Notre Dame basketball is back in the Elite 8, and for the second straight season they have a colossal test in front of them. Last year it was undefeated Kentucky, this years its an uber-talented North Carolina team. The Irish have already taken down the Tar Heels this season 80-76 in South Bend, but then got smacked in the ACC Tournament as UNC won 78-47. Carolina is playing their best basketball right now, so the Irish will have their work cut out for them.
For much of the season UNC’s star guard Marcus Paige has not shot the ball all that well, but he has come alive in the NCAA Tournament. Paige, UNC’s all-time three-point shooter, is shooting 52% from three in the tournament, which is considerably better than the 34% he shot for the year. In UNC’s Sweet 16 contest against Indiana, Paige went off as he scored 21 points and made 6 of his 9 three-point attempts. Even though Paige hasn’t shot the ball well for most of the year, he is hot right now, so the Irish will need to pay extra attention to him.
As a team UNC is shooting 40% from three in the tournament, including a 11-20 performance against Indiana. But for the year UNC is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country. They shoot 32% from three, which is good for 284th in the nation. One would have to expect UNC to regress to the mean, so if I were the Irish I would make UNC beat me shooting the ball. If they do, then tip your hat to them.
Carolina has a considerable size advantage over the Irish, thus they should have a rebounding advantage as well. Although, when the Irish and Heels matched up in early February in South Bend both teams were nearly even on the glass. The Irish had 20 offensive rebounds in that game as well. Brice Johnson is one of the best rebounders in the country as he averages 10.5 per game. Johnson and Co. are going to get their fair share of rebounds, but the key for ND is limiting UNC’s second chances and capitalizing when they get their own.
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On top of capitalizing on second chances and limited UNC’s, Notre Dame will simply need to have a great shooting game. They shot the ball at a 40% clip against Wisconsin. That won’t be nearly good enough if they have any hopes of knocking off Carolina. Demetrius Jackson, V.J. Beachem and Zach Auguste have been providing much of the offense in the tournament for the Irish, but the x-factor for the Irish will be Steve Vasturia. Through the first 3 tournament games Vasturia has scored a total of 21 points and shot 25% from the field and from three. He needs to have a better shooting game. If he can knock down a couple of shots early and get his confidence going, it would be a major plus for the Irish.
I think this one will be closer than the experts say. I don’t think we’ll see another 30-point blowout. The loss in the ACC Tournament has to be sticking in ND’s crawl and will certainly want to put up a better fight. Many people counted the Irish out last year against Kentucky and they gave UK everything they had. I expect the same tonight. With that being said, UNC is playing at such a high level right now that it’s hard to not pick them. It’ll be closer than everyone expects, but a lot of things will need to fall Notre Dame’s way if they want to advance to their first final since 1978.