North Carolina

Notre Dame putting one of Dean Smith’s old theories to test

UNC's Roy Williams explains his decision to go with a smaller lineup

University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams discusses his decision to go with a smaller lineup in the win over Boston College after back-to-back losses to Florida State and Virginia.
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University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams discusses his decision to go with a smaller lineup in the win over Boston College after back-to-back losses to Florida State and Virginia.

It was Dean Smith’s theory that a basketball team could survive, even thrive, one game without its best player.

Notre Dame’s trying to stretch one game into eight weeks.

So far, so good for the Fighting Irish (13-4, 3-1 ACC), who host No. 20 North Carolina (13-4, 2-2) on Saturday (6 p.m.).

The Irish lost All-ACC forward Bonzie Colson to a foot injury after a 68-59 win over Georgia Tech on Dec. 30.

They won their first two games, 88-58 over N.C. State and 51-49 at Syracuse, without Colson before losing 60-53 at Georgia Tech on Wednesday. The do-everything senior leads the team with 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.

The Irish have been missing senior point guard Matt Farrell since the first half of the N.C. State win, too.

Smith’s theory, which coach Roy Williams subscribes to, is that a team will rally around the absence of a star. Essentially, the available players will step up their games to replace what’s missing.

“Coach really believed in that and I saw it happen myself enough to make me think it’s a pretty good deal too,” Williams said Friday. “It’s almost like they rally around each other and say hey, let’s play our tails off until so -and-so gets back and not lose anything.”

Freshman wing D.J. Harvey had 17 points in the first game Colson missed, sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs had 18 in the win at Syracuse and senior forward Martinas Geben had 16 at Georgia Tech, so it has been a group effort without Colson.

Georgia Tech Notre Dame Basketball (1)
Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson (35) gets pressure from Georgia Tech's Ben Lammers on December 30, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin) Robert Franklin AP

It’s unclear if Farrell, who has missed the past two games, will play against the Tar Heels. Colson, who had foot surgery on Jan. 4, is expected to be out another seven weeks.

“They’ve done a great job of adjusting,” Williams said. “It’s hard to do that over the long term with the skills and talent that Bonzie has.

“Everybody in the league, when you start talking about playing Notre Dame, the first thing you want to think about is what to do about Bonzie. So over the course of time, getting guys together mentally and raising their level of play is harder to do over a length of time than it is for one game or something like that.”

The teams have split their past six meetings with Notre Dame taking the 2015 ACC title game and the Heels paying them back in the NCAA tournament in 2016 with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

Given the similarity in styles between the two teams, it’s always a fun game. UNC senior Theo Pinson said he would rather face the Irish at full strength.

“Just the challenge of him being out there would be fun,” Pinson said. “You never want to see somebody that good go down in the ACC play because that’s when it’s fun. But at the same time, Notre Dame’s still a good team. They’re still going to be a tough challenge going out there.”

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

No. 20 UNC at Notre Dame

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Joyce Center, South Bend, Ind.

TV/radio: ESPN, 106.1-WTKK

UNC (13-4, 2-2 ACC)

G Joel Berry 17.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg

G Kenny Williams 12.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg

G Cam Johnson 10.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg

F Theo Pinson 8.6 ppg, 4.3 apg

F Luke Maye 18.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg

Notre Dame (13-4, 3-1 ACC)

G T.J. Gibbs 14.6 ppg, 3.2 apg

G Rex Pfleuger 8.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg

F D.J. Harvey 5.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg

F Elijah Burns 2.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg

F Martinas Geben 9.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg

Storyline: UNC went small in a 96-66 win over Boston College and given the holes in Notre Dame’s lineup, Roy Williams is likely to stick with Cam Johnson in the starting lineup. The flexibility and floor spacing gives UNC’s offense an added dimension. It also seemed to kick-start Luke Maye’s interior scoring.