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Belated thoughts: Louisville 83, North Carolina 62

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Predictably late, but let’s have at it.

—I think Michigan State is still the best team Louisville has defeated this season, but winning by 21 points in Chapel Hill is unquestionably the most significant result the Cardinals have produced this year.

U of L’s third Quadrant 1 win (the same total it had entering Selection Sunday last year) jumped it from No. 32 to No. 23 in the NET Rankings that the NCAA tournament Selection Committee is utilizing this season. It also rose from No. 42 to No. 27 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, where its defensive efficiency ranking jumped from No. 82 all the way up to No. 59.

These are the types of metric leaps that you typically see in November and December, not in mid-January when the data has nearly hardened.

Sure, North Carolina has been wildly inconsistent this season, but this is still a team that handed Gonzaga its only loss and did so by 13 points. It’s still a team that won at NC State by eight leading into the Louisville game. And it’s still a team that is top 10 in virtually every metric that analyzes college basketball.

Regardless of what happens in the return game next month, this is a victory that is going to absolutely shine for Louisville from now through early March.

—Shoutout to the Cards fans who were in the Dean Dome and made their presence felt Saturday afternoon.

—Maybe I’m the only one who felt this way, but watching the final segment of this game was almost weird. I had spent the entire afternoon waiting for this huge North Carolina run that had always seemed inevitable. When it finally became fully apparent that no such run was ever going to come, it was like my sports brain couldn’t process it.

The only thing I can compare it to was the Florida State football game in 2016. We’d seen the Seminoles pull off these massive comebacks against everyone (including us) so many times that it just didn’t seem feasible that our team could possibly dominate from the first to last whistle.

The final three minutes that I expected to spend having a nervous breakdown I spend oddly quiet. Then they showed the graphic about the largest home loss in the Roy Williams era being 16 points, and there was something new to cheer for.

—There was a sequence about midway through the second half where Jordan Nwora’s on-ball defense forced a turnover, and he gave one of those guttural yells that we’re used to seeing from Dwayne Sutton or Darius Perry. It’s not that Jordan never shows emotion on the floor, it’s just that the emotion is usually a smile or a cocky stroll following a made three or a big dunk. This was different, and it was a nice change of pace.

I told my wife that if Nwora got an open look on the next possession there was a billion percent chance that he was going to bury it. Sure enough ...

—The VJ King tapping the ball out, Christen Cunningham stealing it back and throwing a lob to Steven Enoch sequence is probably the loudest I’ve yelled in four years. It was glorious. The Ryan McMahon corner three moments later might be the second loudest.

—As accomplished as he is, Luke Maye is still a pretty average (at best) defensive player. He entered Saturday’s game allowing 0.96 points per possession, the highest number of any player on Carolina’s roster.

It seems odd to say that Chris Mack arrived in Chapel Hill thinking he had an advantage in the matchup between the preseason ACC Player of the Year and a guy whose only D-I scholarship offer coming out of high school was to UNC-Asheville, but it certainly seems like he did.

Dwayne Sutton may have been the best player on the floor Saturday, flirting with a triple double at 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. He killed Maye (or whoever was guarding him) with straight line drives. He kept his defenders honest by banging a couple outside shots. He did his standard dirt work around the rim. He gave hell to whomever he was guarding on the defensive end, twice turning steals into easy buckets. He also played a huge part in limiting Maye to a season-worst 2-of-14 shooting from the field.

Thank God that guy’s mom was an employee at U of L so he could initially take him as a walk-on. It’s hard to imagine where this team would be if that hadn’t been the case.

—I didn’t say anything until after the game, but about two minutes before tip-off, I made the executive decision to move something up from the basement.


—The competition for playing time between our big men right now might be the best thing that’s happened to either one of them.

After slumping throughout December, both Steven Enoch and Malik Williams have delivered very important performances in recent weeks when their team desperately needed it. North Carolina’s biggest weakness has been its lack of a consistent frontcourt presence. Sterline Manley is out right now, and Garrison Brooks is solid, but not brawny enough to handle a guy like Enoch. Steven had a golden opportunity to dominate the post against a quality opponent, and he seized it.

We don’t need both Williams and Enoch to be All-ACC caliber centers every single night, we just need one of them to play well and utilize the advantage (strength for Enoch, versatility for Williams) that’s present in that particular game.

—When it became apparent late in the summer that Christen Cunningham was going to be this team’s starting point guard, the common thought was that he would serve as a calming presence on the floor, run the offense without turning the ball over, and that would be about it. There was nothing about his play at Samford that indicated that he would be one of this team’s top scoring threats or that he could get to the basket consistently against the five-star, uber-athletic guards of North Carolina. And yet here we are.

In his last five games, Cunningham is shooting 69.8 percent from the field, and 64.3 percent from the three-point line (9-of-14). It’s unbelievable how good this guy has been.

One of my favorite moments from Saturday was when UNC scored its last basket of the half with 36/37 seconds left. Sutton went to inbounds the ball, but CC made sure he held it for a few more seconds (game clock never stops in the first half) so that the shot clock could be turned off and Louisville could have the final possession of the half with 100 percent certainty.

It’s the little things.

—I’m not going to list them all again here, but the notable numbers and factoids from this win are extraordinary.

—Here’s the other major result of Saturday’s performance: Moving forward, no more excuses. No more “the talent just isn’t where it’s supposed to be,” no more “these guys have been through so much,” no more “just wait until Mack gets his guys in here.”

There are partial truths in each one of those statements, but that doesn’t mean that any of them should be utilized as justification for a lackluster effort moving forward. I’m not saying this team isn’t going to have bad games or that it isn’t going to lose to a team it’s better than at some point between now and the end of the season, I’m just saying there’s no excuse for the effort level to dip below what it was on Saturday. If your optimal focus and effort can result in a win over Michigan State — which hasn’t lost a game since — and the most lopsided home loss in the career of a Hall of Fame coach, then how on earth can you justify not bringing that same focus and the same effort to each game from this point forward?

This team has a shot to accomplish more than I would have ever imagined three months ago, and it’s going to be fun as hell watching that process.