After a hellacious stretch in which the North Carolina Tar Heels somehow managed to reel off three wins in five days, the subsequent four-day break comes to an end Saturday in Louisville.
Speaking of things coming to an end, the Rick Pitino era on the banks of the Ohio River reached an ugly (and, well, very much still ongoing) conclusion. In is David Padgett, whom many on this site will best remember for spurning Matt Doherty and the Tar Heels’ best recruiting efforts for Roy Williams’ Kansas team. At that time, the failure to secure quality post men to compliment Sean May was known as “the curse of the big man”. Padgett finished his college career at UL, so he is leading his alma mater and has likely done enough to secure the job at least for the short term, while the Cardinals sit at the center of the FBI/Adidas scandal.
The 33-year-old Padgett has done an admirable job navigating a very awkward situation, leading the Cardinals to an 18-8 (8-5) record. Almost without fail, Louisville has been a “beat who you should, lose to better teams” squad for 26 games. They tripped up against Purdue, Seton Hall (apparently they’re good again, finally?), and at Kentucky in the nonconference while beating nobody of note, and have lost road games at Clemson, Virginia, and Miami in the ACC— while still beating nobody of note.
Leading scorer/do-everything wing Deng Adel was on the shelf for Louisville’s two recent shellackings of cellar-dwellers Georgia Tech and Pitt, but is expected back for Saturday. With Adel in the lineup, the Cardinals’ length could pose an issue for the undersized Tar Heels. He rejoins a front line that goes 7’0 (Anas Mahmoud), 6’10 (Ray Spalding), 6’8. Ideally, the Heels would match Theo Pinson on Adel, but Cam Johnson should be able to neutralize him well enough.
Despite an NBA-sized frontline, Louisville ranks 198th in the country in rebounding margin at a paltry +0.4 per game. Carolina still ranks #1 in that category, so the Cardinals won’t necessarily be able to play volleyball off the backboard despite their imposing height.
The best Pitino teams were characterized by an aggressive, trapping defense. Padgett’s Cardinals are averaging 8 steals per game, right in line with recent years, and are imposing at the rim. Mahmoud averages over 3 blocks per game, while Spalding chips in 1.8. The defense should play into Carolina’s hands, as the Heels’ starting five boasts five capable ballhandlers and four good three-point shooters. Even as the game bogs down into the halfcourt, the game should see a frenetic pace with open looks for Carolina’s shooters. The key will be limiting turnovers, avoiding traps, and attacking the basket without fear of getting blocked.
Physical front lines have given the Heels fits all year, dating back to Michigan State. As in that game and subsequent losses to Florida State and Virginia, a major X-factor is the minutes Sterling Manley can provide off the bench. If he can play 15 minutes and be a positive factor, the Heels should have the upper hand. If not, it becomes a fast-paced, back-and-forth game where the 3-ball has to be falling for Carolina (call it 10+ made threes to win this game).
As with the end of the Pitino era, the Heels have an opportunity to end another one— an 0-3 record at the Yum! Center. We’ll see if they can get that elusive first W on Saturday.