By R.L. Bynum
The way that Notre Dame coach Mike Brey sees it, Carolina basketball has “downshifted” under first-year coach Hubert Davis, and that had him doing double-takes when scouting the Tar Heels.
When his Irish (7–5, 1–1 ACC) play host to the Tar Heels (10–3, 2–0) at 9 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2), Brey won’t see the traditional double low-post offense that he knew well when they were coached by Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge and Roy Williams.
“I think it’s very interesting to watch the Carolina program that I’ve watched for a long time,” Brey said of seeing UNC often play four players outside with only center Armando Bacot in the post (although he pronounced his name “Bay-coat”).
What he has expected from Carolina for years has changed.
“We are going to pound you with two big guys and this is how we play” is how Brey described the old Carolina way. “And I think Hubert made a conscious effort to be a little bit more spaced out.”
When Brey takes one of the big men away from the post, he calls it downshifting.
“They downshift and play that way, and I think it makes them very potent offensively,” Brey said. “You look at the scoring and the numbers and the ways they can put the numbers on the board, especially when they’re downshifted? It’s impressive and it’s something we’re going to have to deal with Wednesday.”
It’s been a natural shift after Davis lost big men Garrison Brooks, Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe, who he called unbelievable players, in the offseason.
“But their strength was going around the basket,” Davis said. “And now you get Brady Manek and Dawson Garcia and now you’ve got guys that can finish around the basket but they can really stroke it from the outside as well. And, so, I think just adding some different pieces and more versatility — mainly amongst our bigs to be able to shoot the ball from outside — has really helped us out a lot.”
Whether Garcia or Justin McKoy will be part of that downshifting in South Bend, Ind., isn’t clear. Davis said neither would practice Monday and that he didn’t know their status for either practice on Tuesday or the game Wednesday.
McKoy has been in COVID-19 protocols and missed UNC’s 91–65 Sunday victory at Boston College. Garcia got caught in a scramble on the court early in the game and had an Eagles player’s leg hit his head. Garcia was complaining of headaches.
With the wacky state of college basketball this season, Carolina easily beat a Boston College team that blew out Notre Dame 73–57 on Dec. 3. The Irish won 66–62 against a Kentucky team that rolled over the Tar Heels 98–69.
It doesn’t make sense, and that makes predicting any game difficult, particularly when some players might be out because of COVID-19 protocols.
“I do think anybody can beat anybody and I also think this is the time where teams start to kind of figure out who they are on both ends of the floor in terms of their rotation,” Davis said. “At the beginning of the year, you’ve got not only freshmen but you’ve got a lot of transfers and so there’s a lot of personalities, systems that you’re just trying to figure out.”
If you’re wondering whether Davis’ tight rotation in close games will change in January, his comments Monday seemed to indicate otherwise.
“Usually around conference time, around January, that’s when your rotation is pretty much set,” Davis said. “Guys settle in or accept their roles and the rotations that they’ve been put in and then that’s when you see yourself, as a team, continue to get better and better. And, so, I think that’s what you’re seeing with Notre Dame and I think that’s what you’re seeing with us.”
Freshmen D’Marco Dunn (six points in 11 minutes) and Dontrez Styles (4 points in 10 minutes) both got season-high minutes Sunday, but that was in a blowout game.
It seems likely that the rotation for close games will stay at seven — including Caleb Love, RJ Davis, Leaky Black, Garcia, Bacot, Manek and Kerwin Walton — or eight if Anthony Harris continues to get more playing time.
It’s always hard to gauge because it came against a bad Boston College team but Hubert Davis loved the defensive effort Sunday in Chestnut Hill, particularly guarding the basketball and defending inside. He has preached to his team that he doesn’t want to give up layups, dunks, uncontested 3-point attempts or second-chance points.
There was good progress there against the Eagles except for their nine offensive rebounds in the first half.
“I thought we did that really well from a defensive standpoint, and I think our team is starting to understand and to accept and to realize that our success on the offensive end is tied to how well we play on the defensive end,” Davis said. “And when we play well defensively, it allows us to get out in transition. Our pace with the half-court is much better. We’re sharing the basketball and when we play good defense this year, we’ve played great offense.”
Notre Dame has plenty of experience in its rotation with the exception of 6–5 freshman guard Blake Wesley, who is averaging 13.3 points per game.
Of the seven players averaging at least 23 minutes per game, two are seniors (6–6 guard Dane Goodwin, the leading scorer at 14.9 points per game, and 6–9 forward Paul Atkinson Jr., 12.2 points per game) and four are juniors (6–5 guard Cormac Ryan, 6–3 guard Prentiss Hubb, 6–10 forward Nate Laszewski and 6–5 guard Trey Wertz.)
“So, they’re experienced,” Davis said. “They understand how to play. They understand their system and they can really shoot the basketball. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on us defensively.”
Davis said that on-the-ball defense will be important with the ability of Hubb and Wesley to drive inside and pass out to the Irish’s 3-point shooters. Davis said Atkinson is the only player in the rotation who isn’t a perimeter shooting threat.
“It puts you, from a defensive standpoint, in stretch positions to be able to guard,” Davis said. “But it’s something that we’ve done throughout the year and done a good job contesting threes as well. So, it’ll be a good challenge for us on our defensive end.”
Notre Dame is seventh in the ACC in 3-point shooting percentage at 35.5%. Goodwin is shooting 49.2% from 3-point range, followed by Laszewski at 39.1% and Wesley at 34.4%.
Davis says that UNC should be able to exploit its height advantage inside.
“They don’t really have the depth and the size that we have,” he said. “And, so, we have to use that versatility and use that advantage for us on the offensive end.”
It sounds like a chance for Bacot to have another big game.
UNC-Notre Dame series
UNC season statistics
Notre Dame season statistics
day, time, TV
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 3 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 18 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (5–1, 1-0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2||Home||Furman|
|18||98–69 loss, 8–3||Las Vegas||Z — No. 16 Kentucky|
|21||70–50 win, 9–3||Home||Appalachian State|
|January (1–0, 1–0 ACC)|
|2||91–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|5||Wednesday, 9, ESPN2||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||Saturday, 1, ESPN||Home||Virginia|
|15||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||Tuesday, TBA, ESPN||Road||Miami|
|22||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Road||Wake Forest|
|26||Wednesday, RSN||Home||Boston College|
|29||Saturday, 2, ACCN||Home||N.C. State|
|31||Monday, 7, ESPN||Road||Louisville|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Home||No. 2 Duke|
|8||Tuesday, 9, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Clemson|
|12||Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2||Home||Florida State|
|16||Wednesday, 8, ACCN||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Louisville|
|26||Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||N.C. State|
|28||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Syracuse|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Road||No. 2 Duke|
Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic
Photo via @UNC_Basketball