Just three days after falling in a tough overtime game at Pittsburgh, Louisville marched into in Chapel Hill on Saturday and came away with an impressive 83–62 win over North Carolina. It was the Cardinals’ first-ever win (in four tries) at the Dean Dome, and the 21-point margin was the most ever in a home loss for the Tar Heels under Roy Williams.
Here are three thoughts on Louisville’s statement win:
The Cardinals Took Another Step Forward Under Chris Mack
Even before Saturday, Louisville had clearly overachieved in Chris Mack’s first season so far, with Wednesday’s loss to the Panthers having been its only one to a team that wasn’t in this week’s AP top 25. A late November home win over Michigan State was its clear marquee win of the season, but it can now add the big win in Chapel Hill to a résumé that also includes a road win over Seton Hall as it continues to make its case for an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
The breakout of sophomore Jordan Nwora has spearheaded the Cardinals season, and he was excellent again on Saturday, when he made 5 of 8 three-pointers as part of a 17-point afternoon. But the most impressive performance of the day belonged to junior forward Dwayne Sutton, who flirted with a triple double while posting a 17-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist and four-steal line. Junior center Steven Enoch also chipped in 17 points and 11 rebounds in the victory.
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Defensively, the Cardinals were able to shut down UNC’s powerful offense and hold it to just 34.5% from the field, including a 3-of-22 mark from three. Perhaps most importantly, they limited freshman point guard Coby White to a season-low four shots from the field—none of which went in (he finished with four points on four free throws).
With the win, Louisville moves to 2–1 in ACC play right as it enters a very favorable stretch of its schedule: vs. Boston College, at Georgia Tech, vs. NC State, vs. Pittsburgh and at Wake Forest. It’s entirely realistic that by the time these two teams meet again at the KFC Yum! Center on Feb. 2, the Cards are riding high either on a winning streak or having won the majority of their most recent games.
The Concerns Around UNC Are Real
The Tar Heels have been maddeningly inconsistent at times this season, but when they play at their best it’s been easy to feel like previous concerns about them were overblown (they did, after all, enter Saturday ranked No. 6 on kenpom.com and No. 8 in the NET rankings). A double-digit home defeat to Louisville was a reminder that when UNC isn’t clicking, the results aren’t pretty.
There’s a few different issues at play here: North Carolina, a team that plays at the nation’s fifth-highest adjusted tempo, has been surprisingly inefficient in transition this season, ranking in the 17th percentile on offense and 23rd percentile on defense, per Synergy Sports data. On defense, UNC ranks 346th in transition effective field goal percentage, the worst of all major conference teams.
The Heels have thrived in the half court on both ends but have shown a weakness on the interior, where they’re undersized (especially without the 6’11” Sterling Manley, who has missed the last four games). This isn’t helped by the fact that their best defenders, per Synergy data, have been guards. Good as Luke Maye can be on offense, his defense ranks as below average on Synergy, where he’s giving up a team-high 0.96 PPP. Louisville was able to carve up the Tar Heels in the paint, scoring 32 points there to go along with the 33 it got from the perimeter.
On offense, North Carolina turned the ball over 15 times Saturday while making only 20 shots from the field. White, the Heels' third-leading scorer, didn’t score until 34 minutes into the game, while Luke Maye shot 1 of 6 from three and finished with nine points. Freshman Nassir Little continues to be a bit of a non-factor on offense, and now has a total of 14 points across 54 minutes in his last three games.
The ACC Already Feels Like a Two-Team Race
While it’s too early to write off North Carolina’s chances at the ACC regular season crown, it’s hard to not view Duke and Virginia as the league’s clear top tier right now. Both teams are part of the country's elite and have shown themselves to be more complete than the Tar Heels and less susceptible to an upset, and given that it’s possible the ACC winner could have only one or two losses, anyone who suffers an early one is at a disadvantage.
There’s another potential wild card here—Virginia Tech, which has started 3–0 but has yet to face anyone in the ACC’s top half. That will change Tuesday, when the Hokies take the trip to Charlottesville to face in-state rival Virginia in a critical January matchup. Virginia Tech has one of the nation’s best offenses and has shown notable improvement on the defensive end, but it’s faced exactly one kenpom.com top-30 offense all season: Purdue, which even in defeat torched the Hokies for 1.20 points per possession. Until we see how Tech does against a balanced and strong Cavaliers team, it should be considered a dark horse at best.