9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: North Carolina -5.5, Over/Under: 153
ACC powerhouses meet tonight in Chapel Hill as the Eighth-Ranked North Carolina Tar Heels host the Seventh-Ranked Louisville Cardinals in a matchup ripe with the heaviest of league implications. With the dust now settled from the conference movement that increased the size of the Atlantic Coast Conference three years ago, this must have been what the proverbial Powers That Be had envisioned as North Carolina, Louisville, and Duke are all within a game of one another at the top of the standings. At the moment, Louisville (22-5, 10-4 in ACC) sits a game behind their opponent tonight, sharing Second Place with the Blue Devils, but with a win at the Dean Smith Center would secure the advantage of a tiebreaker with just four games remaining in the Regular Season, a very valuable poker chip. After getting absolutely pasted against Virginia at Charlottesville back on February 6th (71-55), Rick Pitino’s charges have since rebounded to three consecutive wins, each by the slimmest of margins. Indeed, the Cardinals’ trifecta of victories over the likes of Miami (FLA), Syracuse and Virginia Tech have come by a combined thirteen points. Developing a knack for pulling out close games is a particularly good sign this time of year, as the Cards outlasted Virginia Tech in a 94-90 affair last Saturday Night. Trailing at the Half, Pitino’s troops overcame an uncharacteristically poor defensive effort, as they allowed the visiting Hokies to shoot a blistering 59.2% from the field, including a ridiculous 17-of-26 from beyond the arc (65.4%). However, both teams found the bottom of the net quite often, as the home side connected on 51.5% of their attempts from the floor, drilling 12-of-22 shots from downtown (54.5%), effectively turning the contest into a track meet. In fact, Virginia Tech’s ninety points established a new record for an opponent at KFC Yum! Center, with their seventeen three-pointers the most relinquished by Louisville since 2005. The host’s Donovan Mitchell (15.6 PTS, 41.7% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 2.7 AST, 2.1 STL) led the way with twenty-six points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field, including 5-of-7 from three (71.4%), while Quentin Snider (12.5 PTS, 37.9% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 4.1 AST) and Jaylen Johnson (8.4 PTS, 60.0% FG, 6.4 REB) added another nineteen and sixteen points respectively. With that said, the difference in the game was on the offensive glass, where Pitino’s charges created a wealth of second-chance opportunities thanks to their insane effort on the boards; Louisville totaled sixteen Offensive Rebounds, leading to a decisive Plus-19 differential in Field Goal Attempts. Needless to say, these guys had better get this out of their system before traveling to Chapel Hill, for North Carolina has long been one of the finest offensive teams in not just the ACC, but the country overall. However, as we intimated earlier, this is typically one of the staunchest defensive units that you’ll find, as the Cardinals have allowed just 67.7 points (2nd in ACC) on 42.7% shooting from the field (2nd in ACC), including 48.1% from within the three-point arc (3rd in ACC) and 32.8% from beyond it (2nd in ACC), while permitting 11.1 assists (2nd in ACC) and accumulating 13.0 turnovers (3rd in ACC), 6.6 of which are steals (1st in ACC). Furthermore, they rank ninth in the country in blocked shots (5.7), while their tireless effort on the boards (particularly of the offensive variety) has helped grant them so many second-chance looks. While they’re far from a prolific offensive team, they get out in transition thanks to defensive pressure, and those aforementioned offensive boards help supplement their relatively average shooting percentages (45.% FG, 49.3% 2FG, 36.6% 3FG). But the one thing that must not go overlooked is that despite their propensity of taking advantage of turnovers and bad possessions allowing them to increase tempo, the Cardinals take remarkably good care of the ball, committing a league-low 10.2 turnovers per game, with their 10.9 overall the nineteenth-lowest figure in the country.
Meanwhile, sitting atop the Atlantic Coast Conference is North Carolina (23-5, 11-3 in ACC), who after being a dramatic buzzer beater away from earning another National Championship last March, have legitimate designs on closing the deal this March. After last week’s emotionally draining 86-78 loss at arch rival Duke, the Tar Heels have wasted no time recapturing their focus, obliterating league bottom feeder North Carolina State (97-73) and suddenly flailing Virginia (65-41) in quick succession. Granted, the Wolfpack have been mired in a season-long rut that just cost their Head Coach their job, but the win over the Cavaliers was something else altogether. Typically, competing against Tony Bennett’s charges is as physically draining a matchup imaginable, particularly given their knack for slowing things down to a crawl. Most teams would find such a meeting taxing their patience. Then there’s Carolina… Needless to say, Roy Williams’ charges did what they do best, and that’s speed the tempo up, which the visiting Cavs simply had no answer for. The hosts shot 46.6% from the field, including 20-of-39 from inside the three-point arc (51.3%), while assisting on a healthy seventeen of their twenty-seven field goals. However, the visiting side looked completely inept at various points of the contest, shooting a dreadful 27.8% from the field, including a ridiculously poor 13-of-34 from inside the arc (38.2%) and miserable 2-of-20 from beyond it (10.0%) en route to establishing a low-water mark for an opponent during Williams’ tenure at Chapel Hill. Seriously, which of those two percentages are worse? Things got so bad for Virginia that with only three minutes left to play in the Second Half, they had only amassed thirty-three points. On the night, Junior Forward Justin Jackson (186 PTS, 46.1% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 2.6 AST) led the Tar Heels with twenty points on 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), including 4-of-8 from three (50.0%), along with four rebounds and six assists, while Senior Forward Kennedy Meeks (12.6 PTS, 55.3% FG, 9.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.0 BLK) added another thirteen points on 6-of-10 shooting (60.0%), seven rebounds, and three blocks, with all of the big fella’s points coming in the final frame of play. As is typically the case with the Heels under the guidance of Williams, this team is large and fast, with the ability to dominate the glass (42.7, 1st in ACC, Plus-12.6), while creating second-chance opportunities for themselves courtesy of their effort on the offensive boards (16.1, 1st in ACC). Furthermore, their transition game grants them plenty of extra possessions, as they lead the conference in field goal attempts (67.4), field goals (31.7), two-point field goal attempts (46.0), and two-point field goals (23.9). With that said, what sets this current incarnation of the Heels apart from the previous few is that they’ve improved a good deal in shooting from the perimeter. Last year, North Carolina ranked dead-last in the ACC in three-pointers (4.8) and three-point percentage (28.3%), but in the span of a year has improved both figures to 7.8 three-pointers per game (9th in ACC) at a much more efficient 36.7% per clip (10th in ACC). Granted, that may not seem that impressive given that they’re residing in the middle of the pack in conference, but in comparison to the rest of the country they’ve grown by leaps and bounds; last season they ranked 268th out of 351 teams in three-point shooting percentage (32.7%), but have now shot 37.1% from downtown, good for 92nd overall. Junior Point Guard Joel Berry (14.6 PTS, 45.3% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.5 STL) and the aforementioned Jackson have spearheaded the three-point shooting movement, which has brought a far more balanced attack, particularly in half court sets, creating precious spacing for the bigs to operate in the paint and lanes for their wings to drive through.