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Game Preview: #2 UNC at #19 Louisville

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina at Louisville, 7:00 PM, ESPN

UNC heads to Louisville for the first of two tough games this week. Here are your focal points.

Which offense gets the better of which defense?

Obviously there is much to be made of UNC's highly efficient offense going up against Louisville's defense. UNC is 3rd nationally in offensive efficiency while Louisville is 6th in defensive efficiency. Based on those numbers this is a true strength on strength battle. Stylistically, Louisville has the type of defense that can slow UNC down so the game's tempo is less than ideal for the Tar Heels. It is also the type of defense that requires better half court offensive execution, much like playing against Syracuse does.

A peek at the ACC only efficiency numbers tells a slightly different story. UNC had a three game stretch in ACC play with an offensive efficiency under 110. That has drive the conference only OE down to 113.6 which is third. On the defensive end, Louisville is 2nd in  defensive efficiency at 96.8 second to....North Carolina. The Cardinals are just 11th in defensive efficiency at 104.2 with Saturday's 77.3 versus Virginia serving as a fat anchor on the Cards numbers.

The ACC numbers seem to indicate UNC's chances may very well come down to how well the Tar Heels can effectively shut down the Cardinals offense. UNC's defense has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the return of Kennedy Meeks and a favorable schedule. Prior to Meeks' injury, UNC had just four games giving up an offensive efficiency of 100 or better. The worst of that lot was Texas at 129.0. As we later found out, Meeks was laboring that game with the bone bruise that led him to miss the next seven games. UNC also had a DRB% of 59% in that game, one of only three times an opponent had an ORB% over 40% this season(UCLA and NCSU) During Meeks' absence five of seven opponents posted an OE over 100. The two that didn't were UNCG and Appalachian State. Since Meeks' return just one team hit 100 and that was Syracuse in his first game back. Since then, four UNC opponents have been below 100 and three below 90.

With Meeks' return UNC's defensive efficiency has rebounded to 95.9(42nd overall) from a high of 98.0 and ranked around 70th. The question tonight is whether UNC can keep that rolling in a meaningful way. The key will be the defensive rebounding which bit UNC versus Texas and could be an issue here given Louisville's ORB% of 42.2. Then again, Louisville's commitment to the offensive rebound could give UNC shots at transition not to mention avoiding a set pressure defense.

Taking care of the ball

Speaking of pressure defense, Louisville's is well known for its ability to force turnovers both in the full court defense and in the very active half court set. This will be a very stiff test for UNC which is one of the nation's best at taking care of the basketball. UNC's TO% is just 14.5 and in ACC play it is 14.4. Joel Berry has been a factor in that number with zero TOs in five of eight ACC games. Berry has committed just 10 miscues in eight games and five of those came against Georgia Tech. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.2 in ACC play and he has forced more turnovers(15 steals) than he has given up.

Clearly Berry is the key to keeping UNC in possession of the ball but also Marcus Paige and Nate Britt. UNC's point guard depth and array of competent ball handlers makes facing a team like Louisville a tad easier. The Tar Heels have the depth to keep the backcourt fresh against relentless pressure and the ballhandlers to effectively break it. Roy Williams can also use Berry, Paige and Britt at the same time if needed though Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks' passing acumen will also be beneficial.

The real concern is Theo Pinson who has a penchant for attempting high risk or downright ill-advisable passes. Louisville, like Virginia and Syracuse has players who can make plays on passes. Just because something looks open doesn't mean it actually is when the defense responds. Pinson could be susceptible to this as could less experienced players(Berry included.)

UNC's defense is capable of slowing Louisville down but if the Tar Heels give up the ball too often, it will make life very difficult.

Seize control or come back to the pack

Through the first eight games of ACC play, UNC has benefited from playing in highly winnable contests. The biggest potential bump in the road was the game at Syracuse. UNC handled business there then survived in Blacksburg on the way to an 8-0 ACC start for the first time since 2001. While UNC's schedule gets much tougher going forward, there is something to be said for winning the games you should. During a season of such volatility, doing that means breathing room in the ACC standings.

That breathing room will be threatened this week with UNC playing at Louisville tonight and at Notre Dame on Saturday night with ESPN's College GameDay in town. The conventional wisdom is UNC will split this week with KenPom calling for a three point loss tonight and three point win on Saturday. However the order of things matters greatly here. If UNC is destined for a split, which game they lose affects the standings in different ways.

If UNC beats Louisville but loses at Notre Dame, the Tar Heels will still enjoy a two game lead in the standings with eight games left. If the opposite occurs, the Tar Heels will be protecting just a one game lead over Louisville with the Cardinals claiming the tiebreaker if both teams end up with the same record. In that respect tonight's game would be the bigger fish to fry in terms of maintaining control of the top spot now and in the future.

There is also the possibility UNC wins tonight and again on Saturday. Should that occurs, the Tar Heels will have staked a three game lead with a three game home stand vs Pitt, Duke and Miami following a visit to Boston College. A win tonight puts UNC in the catbird seat for taking the regular season title. A loss draws the Tar Heels closer to the pack. Which one will it be?

Since nothing is ever easy, I think it will be this:

Louisville 78 UNC 73

Note: Post title changed to reflect newest AP poll.