These are not the two teams everyone expected to be in the ACC Championship game, as most people believed that #2 Duke would be battling #3 Virginia in this game. However, yesterday had some surprising results as UNC led Virginia wire to wire, winning the game despite a late Virginia surge and Notre Dame dominated the game from start to finish, owning the paint and forcing Jahlil Okafor to win the game by himself. Quinn Cook had an awful game and some uncharacteristically bad play from Justice Winslow undid Duke, despite a late attempt to steal the game. This post will take a look at some statistics, a key matchup, and then the key player for each team and ultimately, who will win the game.
Record vs. Top 25: UNC: 6-6, Notre Dame: 5-2
Points Per Game: UNC: 77.8 (18th), Notre Dame: 78.5 (14th)
Assists Per Game: UNC: 17.6 (2nd), Notre Dame: 15.1 (33rd)
Rebounds Per Game: UNC: 41.4 (2nd), Notre Dame: 33.0 (237th)
Shooting Percentages: UNC: 47.4 (29th), Notre Dame: 50.9 (2nd)
The Last Matchup:
When these two teams met on January 5th, they played in an instant classic, with Notre Dame pulling off the road win, 71 to 70. Notre Dame was up 11 with a little time to play, but Marcus Paige brought the Heels within one, before ultimately falling just short. Paige missed a layup with a minute left and a three pointer at the buzzer which could have won them the game. The Tarheels were able to hold Jerian Grant to just 1-8 shooting for 8 points but still couldn’t find a way to win. That is because forward Zach Auguste had an unusual offensive day, scoring 18 points. Notre Dame shot 46% from the field and hit 10-23 from three, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game, despite UNCs 43 to 26 advantage on the glass, including a 21 to 6 advantage on the offensive glass. UNC was just 4 of 16 from three and could not force turnovers and get out and run, as Notre Dame had just 8 turnovers. Kennedy Meeks was only able to play 17 minutes in which he had 12 points but he ultimately fouled out.
The Key Matchup: Marcus Paige vs. Jerian Grant
These are two of the best point guards not just in the ACC, but in the country with the two senior leaders carrying there teams for large stretches of games. Paige and Grant were both awful in these teams first matchups and I think that they will both play better today. Paige’s numbers are down from last year, averaging just 13.6 points and 4.6 assists per game but he is still the man who other teams are scared of. He is a great three point shooter and makes great decisions with the basketball. Jerian Grant has been phenomenal this year on offense and defense, averaging 16.6 points and 6.6 assists per game. If one of these two players significantly outplays the other, there team will likely win the game. I believe that they both will essentially cancel each other out, each having some great moments and putting up pretty good numbers.
The Key Players: Pat Connaughton (ND), Kennedy Meeks (UNC)
These are not the best players on each teams, as they were highlighted above, but I believe they are the two players who are most important to their respective teams tonight. Connaughton is a player who has a history of making big shots, and was able to hit one last night vs. Duke despite struggling all game. He is averaging 12.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and shoots an incredible 43% from three. If he can have a big game, Notre Dame will win. He needs to be efficient, and most importantly, he must hit the glass as UNC is relentless on the glass. For UNC, Kennedy Meeks is a player that has an advantage over every player on the Notre Dame roster. At 6’9″, 280 pounds, Meeks has the size and strength that no player on the Notre Dame roster can compete with. In just 17 minutes last matchup, he had 12 points and 4 rebounds. If Meeks can stay out of foul trouble and play his normal 24-26 minutes, I believe he will put up a double double and approach 20 points. He is a liability on defense as Zach Auguste is too quick and athletic for him so UNC will need to find a way to keep him on the court.
The Prediction: UNC 78, Notre Dame 73
This prediction is based more off of Notre Dame’s history of losing big games then anything else. I believe these two teams are very evenly matched, with great players at every position, star point guards, and great coaches. However, North Carolina has a history of winning these big games, with 18 ACC Titles, and Notre Dame has a history of losing big games like this. That is why I give them the five point edge. Paige and Grant will both go for about 18 and 8 and Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson will be the difference in this game. Make sure you tune into ESPN at 8:30 PM as this is sure to be a phenomenal game.