The North Carolina Tar Heels are getting ready to take on the Louisville Cardinals tomorrow afternoon in the Yum! Center for round two of their home and home schedule. As we all very well remember (despite how badly fans want to forget), Louisville came into Chapel Hill mid-January and gave Roy Williams the worst loss any of his teams have ever suffered in the Dean Dome. The easy summary of why this happened was simply this: Louisville had everything right going for them, and the Tar Heels had anything and everything go wrong for them.
Since then, a lot has happened: Louisville is now the 15th-best team in the country, and Carolina has taken out every single opponent placed in front of them, including the beating they gave Virginia Tech, who was a top-10 opponent when they played. The Heels just returned from a road trip to Atlanta, where Coby White and Cameron Johnson’s heroics helped take down a Georgia Tech team that looked no better than the Heels did during the Louisville game. Carolina is entering the game Saturday playing the best defense they’ve played so far this year, and have started to get really good minutes from White and Nassir Little.
The question is, can the Tar Heels take this momentum and turn it into an improved game against the Cardinals? It’s a tough question to answer, especially after reverse engineering the formerly-incinerated tape from the first matchup to try to gain some clarity as to what exactly happened. The realization that was had while watching the film is that even though so many things went so badly the first go round, there are a few key things that the Heels have to focus on tomorrow afternoon. Let’s go ahead and dive in.
Dealing with Louisville’s frontcourt
When it comes to basketball at any level, the fact of the matter is this: it is a game of matchups, and sometimes your team is just not built to deal with a specific type of roster. Unfortunately, the Tar Heels this year and the team last year have one thing in common: problems stopping athletic / shooting frontcourt players from dominating the game. Look no further for proof of this than the first game against Louisville — Dwayne Sutton, Jordan Nwora and Steven Enoch each had 17 points, which accounted for 51 of their 83 points. Jordan Nwora also found ways to heat up from deep, making 62% of his three-point attempts.
During this game, it is going to be crucial for Garrison Brooks, Luke Maye, and even Nassir Little to stay out of foul trouble. Sterling Manley is still trying to get healthy after dealing with an injury, so the Heels need to find a way to conjure up some kind of interior defense. Lately the Heels have improved in this area, but the big question will be if they can get it done against Chris Mack’s big three.
The most concerning piece in this equation easily is Jordan Nwora. His ability to stretch the court proved to be a big problem, as he got what he wanted over Luke Maye and others all night long. Defending the ball screen better and UNC’s frontcourt contesting shots from the perimeter better than the first matchup will be crucial in not letting things get out of hand again.
The real Coby White
During the first game, Coby White picked up two fouls within the first three minutes of the game. This was instantly a huge problem for the Heels, but even worse than that, White struggled greatly when Roy Williams did put him back in the game. He finished the contest with four points, one rebound, two assists, three turnovers, and went 0-4 from the field.
The importance of his inability to get anything going is glaring in ACC play — since the loss, White has scored at least 15 points in each of UNC’s four wins. In the games against Notre Dame and Miami, the Heels won by a fewer amount of points than White contributed. To put it bluntly, Coby White needs to be productive if the Heels want any chance of coming away with a win.
The good news is that not only has White been better since the Louisville game, he was dominant against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. He flirted with an assist double-double in each game, and was just three points away from hanging 30 on the Hokies. His defense and facilitation skills have both seen some improvement, and tomorrow should be a big test to see if it has been competition-based, or if we indeed are seeing the McDonald’s All-American turn a corner and becoming the point guard that Carolina desperately needs to make a significant run in March.
Luke Maye has to show up
As was mentioned earlier, Luke Maye was one of a few Tar Heels that had a hard time dealing with Jordan Nwora. This alone is a problem that needs to be corrected, but there’s something even more concerning when it comes to the preseason All-American — he is coming off one of his worst games in ACC play. Honestly, it may have been one of his worst games this season.
Maye finished the game against Georgia Tech with four points, nine rebounds, one assist, and five turnovers. His inability to hold onto and/or distribute the ball without creating a bad play made for some ugly moments in the game, but thankfully the Heels were able to win comfortably regardless.
After the game, Roy Williams spoke about Luke Maye and his uncharacteristically rough performance:
”Well, yeah, I mean if you have five turnovers, I mean, my gosh. You can’t have that. I don’t care if you’re the center or the point guard or whoever you are, but Luke’s really had some big time games for us. I told him in our locker room, ‘Nobody’s ever seen Luke Maye play like that,’ and he got that out of his system. So, I expect him to be great on Saturday.”
Maye will have to play great this Saturday if the Heels want to be able to match blows with Louisville. At the very least, five turnovers cannot happen again against this team. If there’s one positive about what Maye has been able to do, however, it is that he has done a good job on the boards. He has only failed to pull down at least nine rebounds in ACC play once, which is huge for a team that is short one of their better rebounders.
Nevertheless, we need the real Luke Maye back. Just as the team as a whole couldn’t have had a worse game against the Cardinals in round one, Luke couldn’t possibly have a worse game than he had against Georgia Tech. Here’s hoping that the Tar Heels are able to get some revenge at the Yum! Center to start the month of February off the right way.