ACC Tournament Preview: (5) North Carolina vs. (4) Louisville
The North Carolina Tar Heels prevailed yesterday in a victory over the Boston College Eagles in the second afternoon game of the second round of the ACC Tournament. Their reward: A rubber match with the fourth-seed Louisville Cardinals.
North Carolina beat Louisville in the first match-up of the season between these two teams, winning a thriller in the Dean Smith Center after Marcus Paige hit an acrobatic lay-up in the waning seconds of the game. Louisville responded with a victory on its own floor in late-January, sending the game to overtime after trailing by 18 points in the second half, and defeating the Tar Heels by 10 in the extra frame.
It looks as though both teams will be missing key players from their regular season battles. Louisville coach Rick Pitino publicly dismissed Chris Jones from the Cardinals in February. Jones scored 18 PPG against North Carolina in the series, and was part of a backcourt duo (along with Terry Rozier) that absolutely lit the Tar Heels up in the regular season. North Carolina may also be missing Kennedy Meeks (as of this early-Thursday writing) due to an illness. Meeks averaged 11 PPG against Louisville this season, and his absence would mean one less big man to defend Montrezl Harrell, whose aggressive play in the paint will certainly draw some Carolina fouls.
In the regular season series, Louisville scored a total of just 10 bench points against North Carolina, including 0 in the game in Chapel Hill. With Chris Jones off the team and Quintin Snider starting in his place, that leaves the Cardinals with just three options off the bench that played against Carolina previously. To beat Louisville, the Tar Heels will need to look to draw fouls and force Rick Pitino to put his bench on the floor. North Carolina is far deeper than Louisville, and Roy Williams will look to make plenty of substitutions to keep fresh players on the floor, especially since Louisville is the better-rested of the teams. If either of Louisville’s guards finds themselves in foul trouble, especially Terry Rozier, the Tar Heels will have a big advantage as the game progresses.
Another factor in this game will be the play of Brice Johnson for the Tar Heels. In Carolina’s win against Louisville, Johnson posted a double-double, with 11 points and 11 rebounds. In the loss at the KFC Yum! Center, Johnson fouled out after scoring just 2 points on 1-2 shooting. This March, North Carolina will go where Brice Johnson takes it. In the regular season, North Carolina won exactly one ACC game when Johnson scored single-digits (at Georgia Tech). Johnson put together a 17-point, 9 rebound effort in Carolina’s ACC Tournament opener Wednesday, and played energetically early, which signaled that North Carolina would not take this tournament lightly.
The other player who has to succeed in order for Carolina to succeed is Marcus Paige. Paige is finally healthy after dealing with plantar fasciitis for the majority of the season, and it has showed in the past week. He scored 23 and 17 against Duke and Boston College, respectively, and hasn’t missed a two-point shot since the win at Miami on February 28. We all know Paige is the leader of this team, and now that he’s healthy, North Carolina looks a lot scarier in March. He’ll have a tough challenge tomorrow in the form of Terry Rozier, who has torched North Carolina this season.
If this game was condensed into an NBA Jam match-up, it would be Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier vs. Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. Given the recent play of North Carolina’s star duo, as well as the depth that Roy Williams has on his bench, I’ll take North Carolina to beat Louisville and finally exorcise the demon brought forth by the loss at the KFC Yum! Center.
The Verdict: North Carolina defeats Louisville, 78-71.
Photo courtesy of Spencer Herlong (@TarHeelPhoto, spencerfoto.com)