By Adam Lucas
Well, here we are again.
It’s only fitting that with an East Regional championship and a trip to the Final Four at stake, Carolina’s task tonight against Notre Dame will be one with which they are very familiar: stop the ball.
That’s been a season-long storyline for the Tar Heels. It was an issue in the first loss of the year at Northern Iowa, when point guard Wes Washpun carved up the Carolina defense for 21 points and eight assists after making repeated trips into the paint. It was again an issue in losses at Louisville and, yes, Notre Dame.
But then the Tar Heels showed improvement in wins over Miami, Duke, and throughout the postseason. It’ll be tested again by Irish guard Demetrius Jackson, who had 19 points and made nine trips to the free throw line in the Notre Dame victory over Carolina on Feb. 6, but was limited to nine points and 1-for-10 shooting in the ACC Tournament matchup.
“We did a better job of staying down on the floor instead of trying to block everything,” Joel Berry said of the defensive adjustments in Washington. “We did a great job of staying in front of our man and not letting him get into the lane. Jackson wants to penetrate a lot. We did a good job of staying in front of him, and we tried to play without fouling and play with our feet.”
Defending Jackson well is about more than just stopping one point guard’s penetration into the lane. Much of Notre Dame’s ultra-efficient offense—the Irish rank ninth in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency ratings, and were first in the ACC in conference games in that category—is created by Jackson’s dribble penetration forcing other defenders to help off their man, creating open three-point shots for the deep roster of shooters on Mike Brey’s team.
“We’ve always had guys who can make shots, so your spacing is going to be good,” Brey said. “We’ve always been able to stretch the floor. You can talk about spacing, but if you have guys out there who can’t make a shot, no one guards them and the lane’s jammed up. So we’ve always had enough threats on the floor.”
Allowing Jackson to get loose also opens another hole for the Irish offense, as Carolina found out multiple times in South Bend. Tar Heel post men had to help to prevent him from getting multiple layups in that game. That put them out of position to find their box out responsibilities, and Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson collected a whopping ten offensive rebounds apiece.
That led to the Irish, a team that was just middle of the league in offensive rebounding percentage in ACC games, holding a 23-13 advantage in second chance points. That category in the rematch in Washington, when the Tar Heels did a better job on Jackson: Carolina 20, Notre Dame 5.
Carolina wasn’t just guarding Jackson in that game—they were doing it without fouling. The Irish had shot a whopping 70 free throws in the prior two matchups to that one, both of which were Notre Dame victories. Playing defense without fouling had been a constant point of emphasis for Roy Williams. In March, his team finally appears to have internalized it. Notre Dame shot just 17 free throws in the ACC semifinals.
“We don’t even really speak about offense,” Berry said. “We say we have to go in and play with that defensive intensity that we had at the ACC Tournament. We’ve bought into it. Every time we had a meeting, it was about defense and not offense. It got to a point we got tired of it. We knew we needed to take it upon ourselves to change that, and that’s what we did.”
The result has been the best defensive performances of the season. They’ll be tested again with a very simple assignment tonight: stop the ball.
“When Jackson gets into the paint, it breaks down the defense and they have shooters all over the place,” said Justin Jackson. “In the last game, Joel, Marcus and Nate did a really good job keeping him in front of them and limiting his paint touches so everyone else could guard their man. When we do that, that’s when our defense is at its best.”