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UNC vs. Louisville: Game preview

The top two teams in the ACC show down in Chapel Hill in a game with big postseason ramifications

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

With only four games left in the regular season, UNC holds a tenuous one-game lead over Louisville and Duke in the ACC. As luck and clever scheduling would have it, the final four-game stretch includes games against Louisville and Duke, including tonight’s matchup against the Cardinals, which makes it about as close to a must-win game as you’ll see in the regular season.

Louisville has struggled through some injury problems this year, with several players missing time at various points this year. At this point, however, they are nearly fully healthy with the exception of guard Tony Hicks, who remains out with a broken bone in his hand. Like UNC, Louisville is an extremely deep team; 9 players (excluding Hicks) average over 10 minutes per game. This facilitates their physical style of play; the Cardinals play tough defense and aren’t scared of fouling, which is compounded by their depth and ability to substitute at will for players who are at risk of getting in foul trouble. To illustrate this point, here’s a statistic: Louisville has no players who average over 2.7 fouls per game. They do, however, have five players who average 2.4 fouls per game or more. For comparison, UNC has one player above 2.7 fouls per game (Isaiah Hicks), but the next most foul-prone player, Joel Berry, averages 2.3, and only three Heels in total average more than 2.0 fouls per game. The Heels have struggled from the free-throw line in conference play, so playing a team that fouls often might present a challenge.

Statistically, Louisville is just about as similar a team to UNC as you’ll see. The teams are separated by 0.13 points in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Efficiency rankings, Louisville being approximately 2 points per 100 possessions better on defense and UNC just about matching that advantage on the offensive end. On tape, however, this matchup represents a clash of styles. The most striking aspect of Louisville is their team defense, which throws a lot of different looks at the opponent and switches between them seamlessly. Louisville has made significant use of man-to-man, zone, matchup zone, and half-court press in regular gameplay. The Heels have alternately dissected and struggled against zone defenses, so expect to see Louisville coach Rick Pitino test them with some zone looks early. The Cardinals’ defensive prowess certainly isn’t hurt by the team’s length. This Fansided article estimates that one of the team’s lineups, from positions 1-5, consists of players with no wingspan shorter than about 6’8’’, and that’s a lineup that doesn’t include Louisville’s two near-7-footers! This means that the Louisville defense easily creates traffic in the paint, where UNC likes to create most of its points.

On offense, Louisville employs a more methodical style than UNC, though it’s not quite as slow as the snoozefest offense that the Heels observed on Saturday against Virginia. While the Cavaliers average about 13 fewer possessions per 40 minutes than UNC does, Louisville averages about 3 fewer than UNC. It’s significant, but not at all comparable to Virginia. People have analyzed this game by comparing Louisville to Virginia, and in my opinion, that’s pretty lazy. They’re both well-coached on defense, and the similarities pretty much stop there. While Virginia lives and dies by London Perrantes, Louisville has several options on offense. Their two biggest scorers are guards Donovan Mitchell, one of the best players in the ACC, and Quentin Snider. Both are very good three-point shooters, perhaps not the deadliest UNC has seen, but dangerous nonetheless, and both are very high-volume outside shooters. Expect to see a lot of Theo Pinson on Mitchell. (As a side note, the matchup between potential ACC Players of the Year Justin Jackson and Donovan Mitchell figures to be one of the more entertaining one-on-ones of the season.)

Another function of the Cardinals’ methodical offense is that they don’t turn the ball over much, ranking first in the conference in total turnovers. On the other hand, they also don’t distribute the ball very well, ranking 14th in total assists. The key to stopping Louisville is making their guards uncomfortable with the ball, as they can both create their own offense easily if not pressured. Their forwards are big and effective rebounders, but with the exception of Jaylen Johnson, not particularly offensively skilled. UNC’s perimeter on-ball defense has typically been excellent this season, so this aspect of Louisville’s offense plays into one of UNC’s offensive strengths. If the off-ball defenders can maintain their discipline, they have the potential to catch Louisville’s offense in awkward positions and force bad shots or turnovers.

On offense, UNC will need possessions to be controlled by the perimeter, especially by point guard Joel Berry, whether that’s through ball movement leading to mismatches and open lanes on the inside or through perimeter shooting. The UNC forwards will not be able to simply “go to work” on the inside as they have against some other ACC teams, due to the aforementioned length and depth of Louisville’s lineup. They also can’t rely on offensive rebounds as they have this season. They’ll come, because UNC is the best offensive rebounding team in the nation, but not very easily, because Louisville has rebounded over 73% of their opponent’s misses in conference play. The Heels can also not be careless with the ball against a feisty defense, and will have to match the physicality of the Louisville defenders. UNC has done a good job of limiting turnovers recently, and have shown the ability to play through contact, though this has not been constant. If the Heels can bring this physicality to the Dean Dome tonight, they’ll have a fighting chance.

This figures to be a closely matched game, and it’s really hard to call it one way or the other. I don’t pick against UNC, so I’m predicting a Tar Heel win, but I wouldn’t put any money on this:

Prediction: UNC 74, UL 69

The game will be on ESPN at 9:00 PM.