As a frequent visitor of the Joyce Center and Purcell Pavilion, I have always noticed the banner that lists ND’s tournament appearances. I always thought this was a banner more suitable for mid-majors, as confirmed by my visit to Valpo on Monday night. There are more important banners such as the 1978 Final Four and the 2001 Big East West Division Championship (that’s a stretch), and of course, more impressive banners on the other end of the rafters thanks to Muffet. The Irish get a chance to add a significant banner (and hopefully a few more) tonight as they try to add another notch to their Tobacco Road belt. Hey Roy, UNC has 18 of these, how about you let us have just one?
Spread: UNC -2.5
How the Irish got here: Two tremendous first halves against Miami and Duke, and then two second halves of hanging on for dear life. The Irish have really stepped it up defensively, giving up 63 and 64 in the two games in Greensboro. Though Okafor had 28 last night, Auguste has been especially noticeable in his defensive effort (3 steals vs. Miami and 2 blocks last night). They are getting production from everyone, including momentum-killing threes by Vasturia, timely buckets from Beachem in his limited minutes, and of course the epic first half performance from The Bonz last night. Grant has 13 points in each game and Connaughton has 9 points in the last three halves, which actually is a great sign for the Irish moving forward. They need all of their pieces playing well if they are going to do any damage next week and beyond.
First matchup: January 5 @ UNC – Irish 71-70 Pretty familiar story here as the Irish jumped out to a double-digit lead, and then took Carolina’s best punches down the stretch to hang onto the victory. Interestingly, Bonz did not play as he was still trying to break into the rotation. UNC outrebounded the Irish 43-26, and had 21 offensive rebounds, which will probably be the most important factor tonight. UNC shot 37% from the floor, while the Irish hit 10 of 23 3-pointers (43.5%).
Keys to an Irish victory: Three things need to continue: 1) 40 minutes of defensive intensity; 2) aggressive play of Demetrius Jackson; and 3) don’t get killed on the boards.
First, Irish opponents are 8-37 (21.6%) from three in the ACC tourney. Brey’s game plan last night obviously was to let Okafor get his and not let the Duke shooters kill them, and it worked. Carolina has two main shooters (Paige and Jackson), and I would expect the Irish’s best two defenders (Demetrius and Vasturia) to follow them around. The interior defense has been the issue all year, but Auguste has really stepped up the last two nights. He and Bonz definitely have their hands full tonight.
Second, Demetrius Jackson needs to play like he wants the ACC Tournament MVP. He is averaging 13.5 pts, 4 rebs and 4 assists the last two nights, with the key being his aggression getting to the rim. In addition to staying selectively aggressive tonight, his role guarding Paige is critical.
Finally and most importantly, ND can’t get outrebounded by 17 like they did in January. It is almost certain that UNC will outrebound the Irish, but by how much? The Irish lost the rebound battle in both games this tournament (Miami by 2, Duke by 7), but did probably as well as they could on the glass. If the Heels start playing volleyball around the rim, it could be a long night.
Irish seed implications: Possible 2 with a win (depending on Iowa State/Maryland results), but probably locked as a 3 even with a loss.
Heels seed implications: UNC likely a 3 with a win, and a 4 with a loss.
Prediction: Irish 75-71. I only mentioned Grant and Connaughton once in this entire post, largely in part due to the excellent performances of the supporting cast, but also due to a couple ordinary performances by the seniors. I really think these two guys want this badly and will carry the Irish to their first conference championship since joining the Big East in 1995-96.