The Irish need to bounce back.
After starting out a remarkable 5-0 in the toughest conference in the country, Notre Dame has fallen back to earth in recent weeks as the Irish have lost three straight and four of five overall as they take on No. 12 North Carolina, Saturday.
Not only have the Irish struggled over the past few games, they haven’t looked like themselves. 25 points in the first half against Duke? What happened to the efficient offense, high assist to turnover ratios, and high percentage at the free throw line?
Those staples of the program have been nowhere to be found in recent games. If they Irish stay in this rut vs. the matchup problems UNC causes, then they are ripe to get blown out in Chapel Hill.
Saturday will be the 28th meeting between Notre Dame and North Carolina and the Tar Heels lead the all-time series 20-7. Weird tidbit – 17 of the ND-UNC meetings have occurred at neutral sites.
Each time the Irish have played at the Dean Dome in the ACC, they have more than held their own. In March 2014, the Irish lost by two despite being undermanned and ND won in January of 2015 in their last visit to Chapel Hill.
Last season, the Irish downed UNC in the first meeting in South Bend in February, but were blown out in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. Notre Dame and North Carolina met again in the Elite Eight and, despite an Irish run in the second half, the Heels held on to advance to the Final Four.
North Carolina is 20-4 and 8-2 in the ACC. The Heels are a 1/2 game ahead of Virginia for first place in the conference. UNC fell at Miami on Saturday before gutting out a home win vs. Pittsburgh Tuesday.
The Tar Heels are the tallest team in the country. Oftentimes their best offense is an offensive rebound, which makes them a matchup nightmare for the Irish.
The Irish will give up their fair share of offensive rebounds – Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are forced on the glass. Justin Jackson leads the team in scoring, but the key for ND defensively will be containing point guard Joel Berry – as Berry goes so do the Heels.
Mike Brey understands these mismatches and is toying with a change in the starting lineup and rotation. He hasn’t been forthcoming with specifics, but it seems that either T.J. Giibs or Rex Pfleuger will enter the starting lineup in place of Martin Geben. This should give the Irish more space on the offensive end with the four-around-one concept.
Brey also hinted at giving John Mooney more playing time. The 6’9″ freshman has only seen limited minutes thus far, but he is a big body, with the ability to contribute from the perimeter – a solid strech-four comparable to former Irish player Rob Kurz.
How well will a freshman function with his first major minutes coming in a hostile environment? Only time will tell, but it is a risk worth taking considering the offensive ineptitude the Irish have exhibited from their front court (except for Bonzie Colson) in recent games.
The Irish have to improve on the little things. Free throws have to be automatic again, Matt Farrell has to be smart with the ball and avoid forcing things, and Steve Vasturia has to hit open shots.
Those assets made ND a borderline top-ten team three weeks ago, and they won’t return to that echelon until they regain their form and make the little things routine again.
I’d be lying if I felt much optimism in advance of Saturday’s game. In theory, the Irish have to snap out of this funk at some point, but the Dean Dome is hardly a venue conducive to breaking out of slumps.
Notre Dame’s first goal has to be to withstand the opening rush from Heels and turn this into a second half game. ND’s best shot is to keep the game close and force UNC into game situations in the final minutes and bank on the poise and experience of the Irish to pay off.