The Tar Heels will return to the Dean Smith Center this Saturday for their first home game in ACC play against the Louisville Cardinals. After opening the season with back-to-back road games, the Heels are off to an impressive 2-0 start after beating NC State in the first of their two annual matchups.
A lot happened in that NC State game, for better or for worse, but one very important detail that was shared by Roy Williams after the win is that Cameron Johnson’s injury suffered in the second half was cramps. Johnson tried to ingest everything that he possibly could in the locker room to try and return to his team, but nothing worked quick enough for him to be able to return to the bench in time to help lead his team to victory. Needless to say, the Heels pulled off the win, so we can now look forward to the team having their best scorer return to the lineup against the Cardinals.
This year’s version of the Louisville Cardinals is an interesting one, but the obvious synopsis of the season so far is that things have drastically changed since Rick Pitino was fired from the program following the slew of trouble he got himself into with the NCAA and the FBI (he still to this day claims he knew nothing about players being paid). Under new head coach Chris Mack, the Cardinals are 10-5 for the season, and are 1-1 in ACC play following their loss to Pitt.
The player that UNC will want to watch out for that has been leading the Cardinals this year in scoring is sophomore forward Jordan Nwora. Despite coming off of a poor performance against Pitt, Nwora is averaging 17.3 points per game this season and is shooting 46.8% from the field. He also leads the team in rebounding, recording 8.3 rebounds per game. His growth when it comes to rebounding has been tremendous, as just last year he was only averaging 2.2 rebounds per game. In an interview with the Courier Journal, Nwora said it was a matter of realizing he’s 6’8 and that he didn’t focus on rebounding much before because he was always out on the perimeter. He does indeed like to live out on the perimeter, but this year he is making respectable 37% of his threes off of 186 attempts compared to the 43.9% clip he shot at last year.
Another player to keep an eye on during the game Saturday is senior point guard and Samford transfer Christen Cunningham. Cunningham is coming off of a 23-point performance against Pitt, and made an impressive 81% of his shots off of 11 attempts. After a relatively slow start to the season, Cunningham has scored 16+ points in 4 of the last 6 games that he’s played in (he missed the game against Robert Morris), and so Coby White and Seventh Woods may have their hands full depending on what kind of performance he brings with him to Chapel Hill.
As far as the entire team goes, the key for Louisville to come out of the Dean Dome with a victory will be on the defensive side of the ball. Pitt managed to shoot 52.5% from the field and 45% from three against them, and shot 33 free throws. Considering the fact that Pitt had made 30% from the field and 10% from three just four days prior against UNC, it paints a scary picture for the Cardinals as each starter for the Heels are coming off of double-digit performances against State.
For UNC, one of the keys to victory will be taking care of the basketball. They managed to win another 20+ turnover game, but betting on repeating that kind of performance is never not dangerous. There were a number of turnovers that were really silly, but also some those were a product of NC State’s pressure defense. I’d expect the situation to be better tomorrow afternoon, but how much better is anybody’s guess.
The other big key for UNC will be keeping Garrison Brooks out of foul trouble. It’s become very evident that teams are going to try to destroy Carolina in the paint when Brooks manages to pick up two fouls in the first half, and I’d expect nothing less from the Cardinals. They are shooting at a decent clip from the perimeter, but when Brooks is on the bench they will likely attack the basket whenever they can. With Manley questionable to play due to his sore left knee, the Heels will need Brooks to stay available for the full 40 minutes.
Overall, this game on paper looks like it could potentially be an easy one for the Heels. However, Louisville has played tough against some good teams this year, including their win against Michigan State during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Even in the loss against Pitt the Cardinals went on a 14-2 run to force overtime. I’d expect this to be a competitive game throughout, but UNC has a lot of firepower that I don’t think Louisville is built to handle. This shouldn’t be a blowout, but Cardinals fans should maybe brace themselves for a 1-2 start to ACC play.
Prediction: UNC 85, Louisville 76