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Louisville-North Carolina preview: Cards (finally) return to action

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And just like that, it’s late February and the games are massively important.

Louisville v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Louisville Cardinals (11-4, 6-3) at North Carolina Tar Heels (13-7, 7-5)

Game Time: 6:05 p.m.

Location: Dean Smith Center: Chapel Hill, N.C.

Television: ESPN

Announcers: Doug Sherman (play-by-play) and Cory Alexander (analyst)

Favorite: North Carolina by 5.5

Officials: Ron Groover, John Higgins, Jeb Hartness

Series: North Carolina leads, 15-7

Last Meeting: Louisville won 72-55 on Feb. 22, 2020 in Louisville

Series History:

Probable North Carolina Starting Lineup:

Statistics:

Relevant Videos:

About North Carolina:

Like virtually every team currently log-jammed in the middle of the ACC standings, North Carolina heads into the final stretch of February after an uneven opening three months of the season. The Tar Heels are squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble thanks to a resume that includes a 1-6 record in Quadrant 1 games (at Duke is the only win), but a 12-1 record against all other teams and a perfect 7-0 mark at home. UNC currently sits at No. 51 in the NET and needs to coddle together as many quality wins as it can between now and Selection Sunday.

Though not quite as anemic as last year’s historically inept squad, shooting continues to be an issue for Roy Williams’ team. North Carolina enters Saturday ranked 292nd in the country in three-point percentage (31.0 percent), 233rd in two-point shooting (48.1 percent), and 301st in free-throw percentage (66.0 percent). The Heels drilled 10-of-15 threes in their rivalry win over Duke a couple Saturdays ago, but then followed that up with a putrid 2-for-16 effort from deep against Virginia. Shooting will never be this team’s strong suit — they’re on pace to be the second-worst three-point shooting UNC team ever (behind only last year) — but they’ll still let it fly from deep enough to keep opposing defenses honest.

There are two things Carolina always does well regardless of the overall strength of their team: Score in transition and create second chance opportunities by dominating the glass. The 2020-21 Heels are no different. Though UNC is playing at a pace just a tad slower than most of Williams’ teams of years past, their tempo is still the fastest of any team in the ACC outside of Boston College. They average just 15.8 seconds per offensive possession, ranking 32nd in D-I. As for the other thing, North Carolina leads the nation in rebounding margin (+11.0), and is second nationally in offensive rebounds (15.1 per game).

Though it has some big names on its roster, North Carolina has gotten things done mostly by committee so far this season. Nine Tar Heels are averaging double figures in minutes, but none are playing more than 29 minutes per night. Eight UNC players are averaging at least 4.6 points per game, but none more than 11.7.

UNC’s most consistent player so far this season has been sophomore forward Armando Bacot, who leads the squad in scoring (11.7 ppg) and is second in rebounding (7.6 rpg). Bacot doesn’t do anything flashy, but he’s bigger and broader than any player Louisville has to try and handle him in the post. He scores mostly on dunks, layups and baby hooks, often in transition or off of offensive rebounds. U of L’s front court players will try to turn him into a midrange jump shooter, but that’s easier said than done.

Garrison Brooks was the preseason ACC Player of the Year, and while his numbers (10. 3 points, 7.4 rebounds per game) are fine, they’re also fairly significantly from his junior season. Brooks missed last year’s game against Louisville, but was very productive in two of the three meetings against the Cards in 2018-19. Even when he’s not at his best — which has been more times than not this season — Brooks is a double-double threat every time he steps on the floor.

One of the biggest reasons for North Carolina’s struggles early in the season was the erratic play of the freshman backcourt of R.J. Davis and Caleb Love — a player once heavily recruited by Louisville. Davis and Love have been significantly better in the heart of ACC play, but both are still prone to their fair share of freshman moments, especially Love, who still averages nearly as many turnovers (3.2) as assists (3.6).

Perhaps the team’s most naturally gifted player is 6’11 freshman Day’Ron Sharpe. Sharpe is far from a polished offensive player and he still loses his man far too often on the other end of the floor, but his combination of size and freakish athleticism still more than makes up for his youthful deficiencies. He’ll be a monster problem for Louisville’s equally youthful (although slightly older now) front court.

Another freshman, Kerwin Walton, is the the third guard Roy Williams starts. He’s been playing his best basketball over the last couple of weeks and has made at least one three-pointer in 12 consecutive games. UNC is 6-1 this season when Walton scores in double figures.

Leaky Black, Andrew Platek and Walker Kessler should all be names that Louisville fans are familiar, and names they’ll see a fair share of on Saturday. Kessler is averaging just 6.1 minutes per game, but has seen solid run in each of UNC’s last two games. He scored 10 points and had seven rebounds in Wednesday’s win over Northeastern.

Carolina may not have the shooters or the backcourt experience to be the ACC championship threat it typically is, but their front court is loaded and their natural ability is high enough to take down pretty much anyone in the conference on a given day. The shooting and the defense have been sporadic, but if you don’t rebound and you don’t get back on defense, it’s not going to matter. They’ll throttle you. Especially at home.

Notable:

—Louisville will be taking the court for the first time since Feb. 1, as it returns from its second extended Covid pause of the season. The Cards have had five games postponed or canceled since knocking off Georgia Tech nearly three weeks ago.

—North Carolina is 7-0 at home this season. The Heels are 4-0 at the Dean Dome in league play, and 3-0 against non-conference foes.

—Louisville is 1-3 all-time in games against North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Cards’ one victory came in their last trip, an 83-62 triumph in 2019. At the time, the game represented the most lopsided UNC home loss of the Roy Williams era.

—Saturday will mark the return of Louisville center Malik Williams. The senior co-captain has missed the whole season up to this point because of a right foot injury.

—North Carolina leads the nation in rebounding margin (+11.0), and is second nationally in offensive rebounds (15.1 per game).

—Louisville ranks second in the ACC in rebound margin at +6.1. The Cards are also second in the league in offensive rebounds per game.

—Louisville may or may not be without multiple scholarship players for this game. We don’t know. It’s not cool.

—These are two of the youngest teams not only in the ACC, but in all of college basketball. Louisville ranks 338th in the country in experience. North Carolina is 324th.

—Roy Williams has won 898 games in 33 seasons as a college head coach. He is two victories shy of 900 and five from surpassing Bob Knight for the third-most wins by a Division I head coach. Williams is No. 3 all-time among ACC head coaches in wins, regular-season ACC wins and ACC road victories.

—Roy Williams is 9-5 as a head coach against Louisville, and 8-4 against the Cards as the head coach of UNC.

—Louisville leads the ACC in field goal percentage defense (.401), is second in three-point field goal defense (.309), and third in scoring defense (64.2 ppg).

—Chris Mack is 2-2 as a head coach in games against North Carolina.

—North Carolina has grabbed 40 or more rebounds 12 times this season.

—North Carolina has finished first, first, first and second in the nation in rebounds per game in the last four seasons and in the top 10 nationally in rebound margin in each of the last six seasons.

—North Carolina is 6-4 in ACC games against Louisville.

—Louisville is undefeated so far in the month of February.

—Since 2004, Louisville is 126-0 when leading by more than 10 points at halftime.

—Louisville is 26-1 over the last two seasons when scoring at least 71 points, including 8-1 this season. The lone loss came at Miami.

—Louisville has won 162 consecutive games when holding an opponent under 50 points.

—Louisville has won 155 consecutive games when scoring at least 85 points in regulation.

—Louisville is one of just four schools which have won 20 or more games on the court in each of the last 18 seasons. Gonzaga, Duke and Kansas are the others.

Ken Pomeroy Prediction: North Carolina 69, Louisville 68