On paper, UNC’s game against Louisville, should not be close. The Cardinals (10-5, 1-1) come into Chapel Hill for a 12:00pm contest, looking to extend a potential budding rivalry between the two traditional powerhouses. North Carolina (12-3, 2-0) will be looking to remain unbeaten in ACC play. Louisville is reeling from a close mid-week loss at Pittsburgh, where the Heels just scored a convincing win last weekend. That would be the same Pitt team that had lost 21 consecutive ACC games dating back to the 2017 conference tournament.
Fans would be unwise, however, to underestimate the second best team in Kentucky. Their 10-5 record is largely an effect of playing a schedule as difficult as North Carolina’s. For all the jokes about NC State and Pittsburgh’s weak scheduling, Louisville was the opposite. With the 38th toughest non-conference schedule in the country, any issues they have on Saturday will not be related to a hostile environment.
So, with that in mind, what can we look for on Saturday?
Back-up Point Guard
Through the first 11 games of the season, the duo of Seventh Woods and Coby White were a formidable 1-2 punch at point guard. Each complemented the other, picking up the slack when the other struggled in some facet of the game. We explored this dynamic here and here.
That narrative has been flipped since the loss to Kentucky. The past four games have seen Woods hit a minor slump that culminated in a incredibly lackluster performance in Raleigh. He was so ineffective against the Wolfpack he only played eight minutes, his fewest of the season. Through the first 11 games, Woods had 36 assists and 15 turnovers. In the previous four games, he has just 5 assists and 8 turnovers.
Fortunately, Coby White has upped his production. In those four games, White is averaging 15.25 ppg and 4.5 apg, both above his season averages. However, he’s only shot 6-24 from three and committed 14 turnovers during the same stretch. He is still very much a work in progress and not yet a cure-all at the position.
North Carolina will need stability at the point guard position, and that starts with a confident and healthy Seventh Woods. If he can’t shake this slump, then Leaky Black may be in line for more minutes at the point. Despite the growing calls from UNC fans to give Leaky more minutes, that’s a situation UNC prefers to avoid this season.
Despite some early season struggles, UNC is quietly (and quickly) developing into a defensive force. After allowing Texas, UCLA, Michigan, and Gonzaga score over 1.0 point per possession (PPP), they have held their past five opponents to below 1.0 PPP. That includes the high-powered offenses of Kentucky and NC State. Why does this matter?
Last season, all 11 of UNC’s losses came after allowing more than 1.0 PPP. It’s a pretty simple measuring stick to determine success or failure. Check out Dadgum Box Scores for a comprehensive list, dating back to 2003.
Then there is this tweet from Gary Marbry:
Quietly, UNC has put up an Adjusted D rating of <90 in 7 straight games, tied for their longest such streak since at least 2008 (using Bart Torvik @totally_t_bomb).— Gary Marbry (@nuggetpalooza) January 10, 2019
The longest streaks by ACC teams since '08:
8 - Duke (current)
8 - Va (2012)
ND longest last 10+ yrs? 2.
The AdjD (adjusted defensive rating) is the amount of points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted to account for the strength of opponent. Different sites may use different equations so it’s not an exact science, but the overall point is telling. Here are this season’s advanced stats box scores, courtesy of Sports-Reference with unadjusted defensive ratings (DRtg).
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that allowing fewer than 90 points per 100 possession combined with less than 1.0 point per possession, is often a recipe for overwhelming success. That’s even more true with an offense as explosive as North Carolina’s.
That will be put to the test again on Saturday, as Louisville brings a top-25 offense to the Dean Dome. Cardinal sophomore forward Jordan Nwora, who leads the team with 17.3 ppg and 8.3 rpg, is a major part of that success. As a team, despite struggling to grab 30.6% offensive boards and hitting just 34.9% from three, they earn 25% of their points from the foul line. That’s a lot of free points.
According to KenPom, they have an AdjO (Adjusted Offensive Rating) of 113.1. For reference, North Carolina State is 15th in the country with an AdjO of 115.0.
Tuesday night was arguably the most complete game Kenny Williams has played this season. A swagger and combative mindset against the Wolfpack that was noticeable from the opening tip. He also drew a season-high three charges to go with 15 points (tying a season high) and 10 rebounds (a career high). He was active, emotional, aggressive and just an overall pest to the Wolfpack players and, most satisfyingly, their fans. This was all accomplished in a season-high 34 minutes.
It’s no secret Kenny has struggled to get into a scoring rhythm this season (25.8% from three), but that has largely been helped with his 4.1 assists per game and overall solid defense. On Tuesday, he bounced back to remind everyone that there is indeed a third senior in the starting lineup, and opposing teams need to respect his presence on the court.
However, it was just one game against a non-rival who is 16-49 against the Heels over the last 30 years, in a building where KWill has never lost. On Saturday, Kenny will look to keep the momentum rolling and prove it wasn’t a fluke. With the bench in a state of flux and struggling to consistently produce, North Carolina would gladly welcome that much needed development.