It’s not every day that you can make credible comparisons between high-level Division I basketball and driveway hoops, so here goes:
If Notre Dame was the high school first-year on Wednesday night, North Carolina was the older brother back from college. If the Fighting Irish were diving for every loose ball and careening off of the garage door, the Tar Heels were cracking jokes and teasingly holding the ball over their opponents’ head. One team was scrappy and well-intentioned; the other was domineering, almost to the point of ridiculousness.
In other words: for one night, at least, Notre Dame was to “boy” as North Carolina was to “man.” Even without senior forward Garrison Brooks, who sat out due to injury, the sixth-seeded Tar Heels’ 101-59 win on Wednesday over the eleventh-seeded Irish was its most dominant frontcourt showing of the season.
Pick a big man, any big man and you'll see just that. How about Armando Bacot, who led the Tar Heels in both points (20) and rebounds (13) while taking on the role of Brooks as resident defensive communicator and team leader? First-year Day’Ron Sharpe, who posted a double-double in just 19 minutes of playtime in his first-ever postseason game as a Tar Heel?
Or, most tellingly, how about Walker Kessler, another UNC rookie who finished with 16 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks against the hapless and undermanned Irish?
This, from the Tar Heels’ fourth most-prominent big man this season.
“He’s special right now, and he’s gonna be even more special down the line,” Bacot said. “He probably has the highest upside out of all the bigs. And he’s putting it all together right now.”
Kessler’s eight rejections were the most by any Tar Heel in an ACC Tournament game — the most, in fact, by any first-year in an ACC Tournament game. As a team, North Carolina swallowed up 25 offensive rebounds, fourth-most all-time in ACC postseason history. And the final 42-point winning margin was the Tar Heels’ largest ever in a conference tournament game.
Starting to get the picture?
UNC’s 14-point lead at the break wavered for the opening minutes of the second half, eventually settling at 12 with 15:27 to play. Then the scoring chart looked like this: Kessler hook shot, Sharpe jumper, Sharpe layup, Andrew Platek 3-pointer, Bacot and-one, Anthony Harris triple. Finally and mercifully, an Irish bucket ended the spurt, putting the lead at 25 and allowing North Carolina to rest on its laurels and cruise to a victory.
Except “rest” and “cruise” are pretty much the exact opposite of what the Tar Heels did. All told, the Kessler bucket jump-started a 'blink-and-you’ll-miss-it' 42-4 run.
Forty-two to four.
Hence the driveway comparison. Nothing says pickup hoops quite like absurd levels of overkill.
“It was win or go home,” Bacot said. “We knew we had to go out there and compete. Not having Garrison, we just knew we couldn’t let up on them.”
Given the night’s result, some might be tempted to point to Brooks as an Ewing Theory candidate. Even in his absence, though, he deserves some amount of credit; like iron against iron or big brother against little brother, the Tar Heel frontcourt improved by beating up on itself on a daily basis.
“It’s a lot of fun playing with guys who are just as good as you,” Sharpe said. “It challenges us to be better every day in practice, competing with each other.”
There’s no better exemplar of that process than Kessler, who came into the year raw, if incredibly talented, and now looks to be a key piece in UNC’s postseason puzzle. Even without a healthy Brooks, the Tar Heel corps of big men figures to be one of the most talented in college basketball.
And if and when he returns — on Thursday against Virginia Tech, or in the NCAA Tournament when it really counts?
“With him,” Kessler said, “we have the best frontcourt in the nation by far.”
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