ACC Hoops Preview: #13 Notre Dame Vs. #18 North Carolina

While conference play tipped off in full measure this past weekend, we have yet to see a premier match-up against some of the top teams in the conference. Lucky for us, that’ll all change on Monday night.

Here we go.

The Match-up

The 13th-ranked Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (14-1, 2-0, RPI: 56) travel to Chapel Hill to take on the 18th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels (11-3, 1-0, RPI: 18)

Their Last Game

Notre Dame:

The Irish were victorious at home in double overtime on Saturday afternoon against Georgia Tech by a score of 83-76, behind a 24 point, 6 assist performance by star player Jerian Grant.

North Carolina:

The Tar Heels opened up conference play on Saturday night against the Clemson Tigers, routing them on the road 74-50. Sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks led the way for Carolina, scoring 12 points and adding 12 rebounds in the victory.

Players To Watch

G Jerian Grant, Guard, Notre Dame

The Irish are led by senior guard Jerian Grant, who averages 17.9 points per game on 53% shooting. He is without a doubt the team leader, and since coming back from academic suspension that kept him out much of conference play last year, Grant has been a force for the Irish for much of this season so far.

G/F Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame

As the other senior leader on the roster, Connaughton provides a rebounding edge at 8.3 per game, as well as sharp-shooting from 3-point land, splashing in shots from beyond the arc at nearly a 45% clip. His 13.7 points per game rank 4th on the team, which is a testament to how well this team can score the basketball, which I will get into later.

PG Marcus Paige, North Carolina

6’1″ junior guard Marcus Paige is without question, the Tar Heels best player. He leads the team averaging 13.4 points per game, dishes out nearly 4 assists per contest, and is shooting nearly 40% from beyond the arc. If you don’t keep a keen eye on #5, he will make you pay.

F Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina

This 6’9″ sophomore has been a pleasant surprise for the Tar Heels, who is averaging nearly a double-double at 12.8 points per game, and 9.1 rebounds. The Irish better put a body on him down on the block, or he could be in for big numbers on Monday night.

The Game and Prediction:

First of all, I can predict that someone will be cutting onions inside the Deandome this evening as the public openly mourns UNC-alum and “Friend of the Program”, former ESPN anchor, Stuart Scott. The team already paid him tribute in 2011 with a video montage.

Now then, carrying on:

Notre Dame can flat out score the basketball. The Irish come into tonight’s contest against the Tar Heels averaging 85.9 points per game, which ranks 3rd nationally, while boasting Division-1 basketball’s highest field goal percentage at 55.3% on the year. Jerian Grant is the go-to scoring option for ND, although the Irish like to spread the rock around, as they have four players who average at least 13.7 points per game. Junior forward Zach Auguste is the force down low for Notre Dame as he is good for about 15 points a night when he’s not in foul trouble. When he is, his numbers are tempered, and players like sophomore forward V.J. Beachem come off the bench and contribute what they can to one of the country’s most potent offenses.

For all of the good the Irish bring to the table, what needs to be examined a little bit closer is the caliber of opponent they have played thus far through 15 games. ND’s strength of schedule is currently 243rd in the country, YIKES! In their 14 wins, only one has come against a ranked team (#19 Michigan St. in OT), and the Irish have a margin of victory over their opponents of nearly 30 points per game. Their one loss was a heartbreaker against the Providence Friars by a point, but it will be interesting to see how the Irish react against a UNC team that is only getting better.

Meanwhile, North Carolina can score in their own right, as their 80.8 points per game currently ranks them 16th in the country at this juncture. They also excel in rebounding, as they average 45.2 rebounds per game, which is second in the country. Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, and J.P. Tokoto are the main cogs in the rebounding machine for UNC, as the three combined usually tally at least 20-25 rebounds per game. This could be a potential turning point in this game tonight, as the Irish struggle in rebounding in comparison to UNC, as they only average 35.5 rebounds per game, which is 161st in the nation. Also, unlike Notre Dame, the Tar Heels have been tested throughout the early part of the season, as they have wins against then-ranked #22 UCLA, #18 Florida, and #12 Ohio State. Although the ‘Heels have three losses, none of them can be considered “bad” losses, as they have fallen to the nation’s team to beat in #1 Kentucky, along with two losses by less than 10 points to Iowa and Butler.

Junior guard Marcus Paige has the ability to score the basketball at an unbelievable clip, as it does not take him long to heat up if he is left uncovered. He is the best guard in the ACC, and is one of the best players in the country in my opinion. When he isn’t scoring, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson pick up where he left off, as they are the other two players on the roster averaging over 10 points per game.

Here’s hoping Paige keeps his day job, though his vocals are reminiscent of a female artist I just can’t place, maybe you can help below in the comments? Every school should be forced to undertake Midnight Madness festivities for moments like this.

Vegas odds have the Tar Heels entering the game as home favorites at -8.5 over ND, which seems high to me, even though the game is being played tonight in Chapel Hill. While Notre Dame boasts one of the best offenses in the country, UNC will be able to keep up with Irish on the offensive end of the floor. The edge in rebounding, equality in scoring ability, and the fact that UNC is at home are all reasons why you should pick the Tar Heels tonight, but take the points if you’re betting. I have a hard time seeing Carolina being able to cover.

UNC 85  ND 80

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