Despite being the decided undercard to the more highly anticipated Duke-Virginia game, Saturday’s ACC matchup between No. 13 North Carolina and No. 10 Louisville will still have plenty at stake. The Tar Heels won the teams’ first meeting this season when Marcus Paige’s driving layup with 8.5 seconds left capped off a UNC rally that saw Roy Williams’ team come back from down 13 with 8 1/2 minutes left in the game. But Louisville (17-3, 5-2 ACC) will be looking for more than just revenge. The Cards still have a puncher’s chance at the ACC regular-season title, but they can’t afford to not hold serve at home, a place where they’ve failed to play their best ball this season. North Carolina (17-4, 7-1 ACC) could likewise help their ACC regular season title chances with a big win on the road.
If this game follows the same narrative as the teams’ previous two matchups, it will likely come down to whether Louisville can recover from the unexpected storm UNC throws its way. Last season, UNC torched Louisville in transition as the normally defensively stout Cards were uncharacteristically lazy getting back. On January 10th of this year, North Carolina abused Louisville on the offensive glass, grabbing almost as many of their own misses as Louisville’s defense did.
If Rick Pitino’s team hopes to escape Saturday with a win that is sure to bolster a resume that can be described as no better than ‘solid,’ a big game from Montrezl Harrell would certainly help. While Harrell has the body and athleticism to abuse defenders who aren’t in his tax-bracket physically, he has yet to have a game becoming of a preseason first team All-American against quality competition (his 14 rebounds against Duke were certainly inflated by playing against a zone.) Additionally, if Terry Rozier and Chris Jones can translate their efficiency on the road (where both are shooting upwards of 55% from the field and 40% from the three-point line) to the KFC Yum! Center (where Chris Jones fails to reach the 30% mark from the field or beyond the arc, only slightly bettered by Rozier at 41% from the field and a shade under 30% beyond the arc.)
For North Carolina, the emergence of Nate Britt as a second long-distance threat to complement Marcus Paige is certainly a welcomed development. Paige has emerged from his early-season slump and is averaging 17.7 ppg and 6.3 apg in his last three games. Likewise, Brice Johnson has been a beast in his past three games, averaging 18 ppg, 10.3 rpg. Along with J.P. Tokoto’s emergence as a distributor, Roy William’s offense is peaking at the right time, appearing ready to live up to its lofty preseason billing.
Facing this team, which looks more and more confident each time it steps on the floor, is a scary proposition for a Louisville team similarly trying to find itself. If Pitino can get North Carolina to play the style of game he wants, the outcome of this game should reflect the first 31 1/2 minutes these two teams played in Chapel Hill. But if Roy Williams is able to take advantage of a previously unforeseen Louisville deficiency, as he has in recent matchups, look for North Carolina to emerge from the Yum! Center as a bona fide Final Four threat. And maybe even more.
*Section Photo credit to Andy Lyons, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Bob Donnan, USA Today Sports.