North Carolina hasn't exactly been challenged thus far in ACC play, but it seems that's about to change just as the calendar flips to February.
The second-ranked Tar Heels' best conference start in 15 years as well as a 12-game overall winning streak are on the line Monday night at Louisville, and the 19th-ranked Cardinals will be motivated to recover from easily their worst game of the season.
This contest kicks off a three-game road stretch for North Carolina (19-2, 8-0), which faces No. 25 Notre Dame on Saturday. The Tar Heels are yet to face a ranked opponent in the league, and the wins have come by an average of 13.2 points with a 75-70 win at Virginia Tech on Jan. 24 being the only one decided by fewer than eight.
They followed up the win over the Hokies with Saturday's 89-62 home victory over Boston College. Coach Roy Williams expects things to get more difficult, and he's also not terribly high on how his team has looked recently.
"Now we are in the process of going into not just the second half ... a bunch of the games are against those teams in the top half of the league," Williams said. "If we play the way we played the last four games, it will be very, very, very difficult to win any of those games.
So we've got to play better, and we talked about that. Even before the game today, instead of putting up some X's and O's up on the board, I said let's play to get better on defense, let's play to get better on offense and let's give the grade A effort and see if we are mature enough to handle this."
Brice Johnson had 17 points and 11 rebounds against the Eagles, while Marcus Paige scored 12. Johnson has averaged 21.0 points over his last three games, and Paige was 4 of 9 from the field after a four-game stretch on which he was 5 of 35 (14.3 percent) for an average of 3.8 points.
"I want you to go to the gym, miss 20-some in a row, then make one and have the whole arena cheer for you, just so you know how it feels," Paige said with a laugh. "I've never missed that many shots in a row in my life, so just to finally get people (cheering), it was very relieving."
North Carolina last started a conference slate with at least nine straight wins on an 11-game run in 2000-01, and it hasn't won 13 in a row overall since winning its first 13 in 2008-09.
The Tar Heels won two of three over the Cardinals last season. It was a tight series with North Carolina winning 72-71 at home on Jan. 10, 2015, followed by a 78-68 overtime loss at Louisville on Jan. 31 and a 70-60 neutral-site win in the ACC tournament on March 12. Paige has averaged 17.5 points in four career games against Louisville.
This meeting won't be that close if Louisville (17-4, 6-2) doesn't clean up its season-worst 32.7 percent shooting mark from Saturday's 63-47 home loss to No. 11 Virginia. When it's shot under 44 percent, Louisville is 1-4 with four of those games coming against the Top 25. Over 44 percent, it's 16-0, though those have all come against unranked teams.
"This game doesn't define us," said Trey Lewis, who was 1 for 6 with four points after matching a season-high 22 in Wednesday's 91-83 win at Virginia Tech. "There's no motivation needed. We got our butts kicked and now we have a big game coming up. It's just time to strap 'em up and play."
The Cardinals have lost nine of their last 11 against top-five opponents, and North Carolina has won five of seven against the Top 25 dating to the last meeting with Louisville.