As Louisville prepares for their historic first-ever ACC Tournament, a familiar foe awaits.
Scheduled to tip off at 2:00 pm (which will surely be about a half hour later, at earliest), the Cards will be playing North Carolina for the third time this season. The Tar Heels, fresh off an impressive 81-63 victory over Boston College on Wednesday, will be playing in front of a predominately home crowd in Greensboro, but they may be without big man Kennedy Meeks, who played well in each game vs. Louisville and is an outstanding outlet passer.
Louisville, on the other hand, is coming off a signature win over 2nd-ranked Virginia, but they also will be missing a key player from the first two matchups. In two contests vs. Carolina this season, former guard Chris Jones averaged 18 points, 4.5 assists, and shot 46% from the field, including 54.5% from three.
Can Louisville ride the momentum carried over from the UVA win to get a big win in a pro-UNC environment? Can the bigs take advantage of Meeks’ potential absence in the paint to control the glass and interior scoring? Can the backcourt contain UNC’s talented guards?
Here are some key matchups to keep an eye out for today:
- Quentin Snider vs. the UNC backcourt: The freshman Snider has filled in admirably following Jones’ dismissal and has been a valuable offensive player. The flow of the offense has been smoother and the starting five have looked more in sync with him running the point. Yet, he is still a work-in-progress on the defensive end of the ball, and he had trouble containing the talented Notre Dame backcourt of Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson, who are two quick and athletic guards. Will he be able to contain the always-difficult-to-contain Marcus Paige along with Nate Britt and Theo Pinson?
- Battle of the Bigs: Even sans Meeks, UNC still boasts an athletic, diverse frontcourt featuring the likes of Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson, and Isaiah Hicks. All three have the ability to score in the paint as well as step outside to hit jumpers. Forward Montrezl Harrell is athletic enough to keep up with them, but can Mangok Mathiang, Anas Mahmoud, and Chinanu Onuaku do the same? Onuaku did have 8 points and 8 rebounds in the first UNC matchup, but other than that, the young bigs have not played exceptionally well. Can they take advantage of a Meek-less paint? Onuaku at least has the frame to outmuscle the UNC bigs while Mathiang and Mahmoud have the height and length advantage. Louisville will need a solid contribution from this group in order to advance.
- Terry Rozier vs. “The Slump”: Ironically, it was directly after his 22 point performance in the come-from-behind victory over UNC when Rozier’s hand went cold. Since that game, he has shot just 34% from the field, 25% from three, and has scored 20 or more points just 3 times in 10 games. He played under much more control vs. UVA, limiting his shot selection and refusing to force things, so maybe it is only fitting to see him explode out of his slump vs. the team who triggered it in the first place. In two matchups vs. UNC, he has averaged 23.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2.5 steals, and shot 39% from the field. He is a player who plays well under pressure, and Louisville could certainly use a big game from him.
- Montrezl Harrell vs. UNC: It is no secret that Harrell, who grew up in North Carolina as a Tar Heel fan, has never taken kindly to the fact the hometown team never recruited him, and in three matchups vs. UNC during his career, he has appeared to take a unique approach to the games, for better or for worse. In his first two games vs. the Heels (last season and this season), Harrell combined for 6 of 15 shots for 14 points and 15 rebounds. In the most recent game, he bested that two-game stat line with 8 of 16 field goals, 22 points, and 15 rebounds. Louisville will need much closer to the latter for the Cards to advance.
- UNC Bench vs. Louisville Bench: UNC won the first matchup this season largely due to depth. Louisville did not get a single point from the bench that day while the Heels’ bench scored 20 points. They also outrebounded the Cards 10-4 in that area. Louisville fared a little better in the second matchup, but the bench was still outscored 21-11 and outrebounded 10-8. UNC will also be getting back Joel Berry II and maybe Theo Pinson, both of whom did not play in the second game. Rick Pitino has loosened the leash a little bit recently, giving players like Anton Gill, Shaqquan Aaron, Anas Mahmoud, and Jaylen Johnson more minutes, and each has made contributions. They will need to continue to do so in round 1 of the ACC Tournament, for while they do not necessarily need to dominate UNC in this regard, the bench has to provide valuable minutes. This will be a big test for those players.
This game could be the difference between Louisville getting a 4-seed and getting a 5 or 6-seed in the tournament. This team showed a lot of promise vs. Virginia, but they need to prove that team, and not the one who lost by 11 to Notre Dame, is the real Louisville. Winning the ACC Tournament is asking a lot, seeing as they would likely have to knock off both Virginia and Duke to get the crown, but taken out a very good (if inconsistent) North Carolina team could do a lot for their post-season seeding.