7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Louisville -1, Over/Under: 148.5
The top two teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference clash tonight at the KFC Yum! Center, as the Louisville Cardinals look to get back on track by handing the North Carolina Tar Heels their first loss in league in play. If it seems like Second-Ranked North Carolina (19-2, 8-0, 1st in ACC) may be flying under the radar, they have been; Head Coach Roy Williams sounded off on that very subject earlier in the week, with the team’s perceived lack of top-tier talent, or Green Room prospects, as ESPN has taken to calling them. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, a Green Room guy is simply someone that is invited to the NBA Draft. However, as we all know, possessing a cache of future lottery picks doesn’t always translate into National Championships, which Williams knows all too well. With that said, given the Tar Heels’ sustained success this season, it would be difficult not find a few guys on their roster that have a future playing in the league. Chief among them is senior Forward Brice Johnson, who simply put, has played out of his mind this season; the long, 6′-9″ big man leads a deep unit in scoring (16.8) and rebounding (10.2), while also averaging an impressive 1.3 blocks per game, all the while shooting a very healthy 62.3% from the field. He and his cohorts must have been inspired by Williams’ early week rant, for they absolutely annihilated Boston College on Saturday, smoking the Eagles 89-62 in Chapel Hill. Carolina did the majority of their work in the painted area, where they netted 60.0% of their fifty attempts, outscoring the visiting side by a staggering thirty-four points in that regard. In fact, the hosts attempted twenty-five more shots in that area than their opponent, who were relegated to hopelessly bombing away from beyond the arc (10-of-27, 37.0%). Think about that for a minute, folks; Boston College outscored North Carolina by twelve points from downtown, and STILL got beat by twenty-seven points. Turnovers were a huge factor Saturday, as the Heels forced a whopping twenty-three miscues, leading to a wealth of opportunities in transition, where Williams’ charges tend to thrive. Johnson led his team in scoring (seventeen) and rebounding (eleven), while Marcus Paige and Joel Berry reached double-figures with twelve and thirteen points respectively. Eleven different players etched their names in the scorebook, as Williams ventured deep into his bench as the game continued to get out of hand. Winners of a dozen consecutive contests, this team has dominated by virtue of imposing their style of play on the opposition, speeding up the tempo effectively turning the game into a track meet. This current incarnation of the Tar Heels is tailor made for such a game plan, with a rotation that extends nine-to-ten deep, with five of that number comprised of Juniors and Seniors. Midways through conference play, they lead the ACC in a number of offensive categories, including Points (83.8) and Assists (17.3), while forcing the action defensively with a league-best 123 turnovers (15.4 per game). Interestingly, they haven’t improved much from beyond the arc, where they only manage to net a miserable 24.3% of their attempts (15th in ACC), but that has been a facet of their game that has largely been rendered to the background in recent years. Keep an eye on Paige, who looks to finally be rounding back into shape despite sustaining a plethora of injuries that have threatened to derail his senior campaign; after four straight games shooting at least 20.0% from the field, the Preseason All-America shot a much healthier 44.4% Saturday against Boston College, nailing three of his eight attempts from three (37.5%).
Meanwhile, Sixteenth-Ranked Louisville (17-4, 6-2, 2nd in ACC) enters tonight’s contest looking to pick themselves off the mat as they were knocked out by the a surging Virginia side Saturday, blindsiding in a 63-47 beatdown at KFC Yum! Center. Kicking off a three-game homestand with the opportunity to prove their mettle against the league’s best couldn’t have started any worse for Rick Pitino’s charges, who were caught unawares virtually from the word go; the Cavaliers outscored the Cardinals 29-14 in the first half, en route to shooting a blistering 57.2% from the field. Everything the hosts attempted to do defensively proved ineffective, as the visitors assisted on a healthy fourteen of their twenty-six field goals, with all but five of that number coming in the paint. Louisville, on the other hand, couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean, shooting a dreadful 32.7% from the floor, including a miserable 12-of-38 from WITHIN the three-point arc (31.6%). Unable to take advantage of their opponent’s fifteen turnovers, the Cardinals committed eighteen themselves, disrupting an sense of fluidity on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, to give you an idea of just how bad they were in this regard, NONE of their five starters managed to score in double-figures, with the Bench outscoring the Starting Five 27-20. Reserves Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding accounted for over half of their team’s point total (twenty-four points). It’s safe to say that Pitino will likely burn the tape from that particular performance, but it goes without saying that he and his team will need a far more concerted effort on BOTH ends of the floor if they are to indeed topple the second-ranked team in the country. Success must start in the Backcourt where senior Guards Damion Lee and Trey Lewis must find a way to right the ship after accounting for a mere ten points on 3-of-13 shooting from the floor (23.1%), racking up more turnovers (six) than assists (two). Both players were high-profile transfers (Lee from Drexel, Lewis from Cleveland State), yet appeared to develop some solid chemistry on the fly, leading the team in scoring at 16.7 and 12.3 points per game respectively. Lee leads the Cardinals in scoring (16.7), three-point field goals (43), free-throws (89) and steals (1.6), while demonstrating tenacity on the defensive end. In league play he has become more a playmaker for others, increasing his assist production to 2.4 helpers per contest, up from the 1.9 he’s logged on the season as a whole. Lewis on the other hand, has seen his role diminish in the conference slate, averaging just 8.4 points on a poor 30.0% shooting, with Pitino favoring hometown sophomore Guard Quintin Snider moreso of late; the youngster out of Louisville, Kentucky has averaged 10.5 points and a team-high 2.8 assists in ACC play, along with a stellar 52.4% shooting from beyond the arc. With all that said, this continues to be a basketball team that relies on their effort on the defensive end parlaying into easy offense; a poor offensive team in the halfcourt, Louisville has struggled to 70.0 points (10th in ACC) on 43.7% shooting from the field (8th in ACC), including 46.7% from within the three-point arc (10th in ACC) and 35.2% from beyond it (10th in ACC), along with 11.6 assists (13th in ACC). Furthermore, they don’t get to the free-throw line much (20.5), sixth-fewest in the ACC, where they’ve only managed to make 70.1% of their attempts, good for eleventh in the conference. Thankfully, they’ve been a bonafide beast on defense, ranking tops in the league in a number of categories, including points allowed (64.8), field goal percentage allowed (40.4%), and assists allowed (10.3). Keep an eye on how they execute their myriad of press schemes, which has the potential to disrupt North Carolina’s primary and secondary fast break, for the more chaotic this matchup becomes, the more it will favor the home team.