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Louisville at UNC: Three Things to Watch

The Cardinals will catch the Heels on a short turnaround looking for revenge

Syndication: The Courier-Journal By Pat McDonogh / USA TODAY NETWORK

After getting their first Quadrant 1 win of the season in Blacksburg on Saturday, UNC’s coming back home with the hopes of re-establishing the kind of momentum that’s been hard for this team to find at any point this season. On just a two-day turnaround for both teams, they’ll host the 12-14 (6-10 ACC) Louisville Cardinals, who just won their first game since the firing of Chris Mack. After a loss to Pittsburgh seemingly shut the door on March Madness in Chapel Hill, the win against Virginia Tech has the Heels back in the picture. But the margin for error is now nonexistent, and as Hubert Davis observed after the win in Blacksburg, this team’s had more trouble maintaining good play than bouncing back after losses. Will they be able to defy that trend tonight? Here are three things to watch in tonight’s game:

Revenge and Physicality

Usually, these articles list two tangible or at least semi-tangible factors and then a more intangible one to finish things off, but I think this is easily what’s at the top of my mind, and probably the minds of most fans on either side, ahead of this matchup. Louisville fans were irate, and mostly justifiably so, about the way the first contest between the two teams played out in the Yum! Center — I’m not going to recap what happened if only so we can avoid the nonsense the comment sections at the time. But a loss like that, on your home floor, has to smart, and even for a fairly identity-less team like Louisville this year, it’s the kind of thing that’s not hard to rally behind when you get the opportunity for payback. Louisville’s a pretty physical team generally already, and played UNC very physically in the first meeting even before chippiness got out of hand on both sides. The Heels have to be prepared to feel a lot of bodies tonight, and that brings with it a lot of challenges — they’ll have to keep their cool and refrain from retaliating, they’ll have to keep themselves from getting worn down by contact, they’ll have to make Louisville pay at the free throw line when given the opportunity, and they’ll need to not play scared of contact on either end. Playing through physical defenses has been a struggle at times for this team, especially in the frontcourt, but they’ve shown the ability to do so and will have to bring it despite short rest after a tough game where starters played nearly the entire second half.

A different look

The big story ahead of the last time these two teams met (other than Chris Mack’s midseason firing) was the absence of big man Malik Williams, who’d been suspended indefinitely. The result was a much more perimeter-oriented Louisville team than the rest of the season would have indicated — they took 29 three-pointers and made 8/19 in the second half, fueling a comeback that eventually forced overtime. Williams returned to full action against Clemson and scored 12 points in the Cardinals’ win, so we can expect to see him playing the majority of Louisville’s minutes at the 5 position, and consequently a more post-oriented offense that goes to what Louisville’s comparatively good at, rather than them hoping for anomalous three-point shooting again from guys like El Ellis. Armando Bacot and Brady Manek are going to be significantly more tested in this matchup and will have to defend well and keep their hands clean if UNC is going to take control of this one.

The Bench

It’s just about a broken-record topic at this point, but I think it bears repeating until something changes: Hubert Davis needs to trust his bench more. I understand that it’s tough when you’ve lost your #6, #7, and #8 guys (I’m not sure what Justin McKoy’s status is after missing the past two games with knee soreness), but this is urgent both for the short-term and the long-term. Dontrez Styles has been seeing more and more early time lately, which is good, but after being the first man off the bench against Virginia Tech, Styles barely got any run in the second half, and when he came in, he was substituted for R.J. Davis, giving the Heels a lineup of Caleb Love/Leaky Black/Styles/Manek/Bacot that felt awkward on paper and didn’t really play well in practice, as VT went on a quick 9-1 run that forced Hubert Davis to bring back R.J. Davis to stem the tide. It seemed obvious in that moment and also seems obvious generally that Styles’ best fit as a player and for the team is not as a guard but in relief of Manek, who’s a notably poorer-conditioned athlete than the rest of the UNC lineup and whose play on both ends drops off precipitously when he’s not able to give 100%. Sure, you don’t get Manek’s sure shooting, post entry savvy, or off-ball activity with Styles, but the freshman makes things happen in his own way, and you don’t really get those things from a tired Manek, either. Meanwhile, you have D’Marco Dunn and Kerwin Walton as options to play guard if you need to relieve one of them; Walton’s play has improved lately and Dunn seems to have disappeared from the lineup after earning important minutes earlier in the season.

In the long-term, you can drill your sets as much as possible in practice, but the confidence to execute cleanly in games is built in-game. Davis is doing next year’s team a disservice by not giving the guys we’ll expect to be veterans the opportunity to build the kind of experience you need from your veterans — we’ve seen the past several years players who struggle to lead or command attention because they don’t feel comfortable in themselves taking on big roles because their on-court roles haven’t matched that. I understand the pressure Davis is feeling to win now; his seat was hot from the moment it was given to him and as I said earlier, the margin between being a tournament team and not is razor-thin. But the only way to avoid this same thing happening next year is to trust your bench to give you a few good minutes, and not treat every minute your starters aren’t on the court as a net negative. It’s not true on the face and you only lose the trust of your bench by acting like it is.