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How good is UNC’s next opponent, Louisville? Can the Cardinals upset the Tar Heels?

North Carolina’s Roy Williams talks about the victory over NC State

UNC coach Roy Williams talks about the Tar Heels' victory over the NC State Wolfpack at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, January 8, 2019.
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UNC coach Roy Williams talks about the Tar Heels' victory over the NC State Wolfpack at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, January 8, 2019.

North Carolina seems to be hitting its stride at the right time.

After struggling on defense early in the season, No. 12 UNC (12-3, 2-0 ACC) has had some of its best defensive performances as of late. It has opened up ACC play with two road wins, an 85-60 victory over Pittsburgh last week and a 90-82 win over No. 15 N.C. State on Tuesday.

Each of UNC’s last four opponents have shot below 43 percent from the floor.

“We all have one common goal and that’s to win,” UNC freshman guard Coby White said. “We’re all playing for the name on the front of our jersey.”

On Saturday UNC will face Louisville (10-5, 1-1) at home at the Dean Smith Center, where the Tar Heels are 7-0.

UNC is currently ranked No. 8 in the NCAA’s new NET rankings, and ranked No. 6 by kenpom.com. The Tar Heels have the nation’s ninth-most efficient offense (points per 100 possessions) and 10th-most efficient defense.

Senior forward Luke Maye, who was recently announced as one of 25 players on the John Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 Watch List, has recorded a double-double in three of his last four games. He is averaging 14.8 points per game, and 10 rebounds this season.

Louisville has had some highs and recent lows in Chris Mack’s first season as the Cardinals’ head coach.

All five of Louisville’s losses have come against teams ranked in the top 100 Ken Pom rankings.

Louisville’s worst loss was last week against Pittsburgh (ranked No. 89). The Cardinals lost 89-86 in overtime to the Panthers at home. Louisville also lost at home to Kentucky (No. 15) by 13, on a neutral court to Marquette (No. 33) by 3, on a neutral court to Tennessee (No. 5) by 11, and on the road to Indiana (No. 38) by 1.

The team’s best win came against Michigan State (No. 3) on a neutral court 82-78. It also beat Seton Hall (No. 47) 70-65, and Miami (No. 65) to open ACC play 90-73.

But in Louisville’s last game against Pitt, the Panthers shot 48 percent (9-20) from behind the 3-point line, and 52.5 percent from the floor overall. Pitt also got to the free throw line 33 times in that game.

The Tar Heels are due for a good shooting performance. They have shot better than 45 percent from the floor just once — 45.3 percent against N.C. State — in the last five games.

What Louisville does well

The Cardinals have the nation’s 25th-most efficient offense. According to kenpom.com, they score 113.1 points per 100 possessions. They also do a good job of getting to the free throw line. The Cardinals have a 46.3 percent free throw rate, which is eighth-best in the country.

When they get to the free throw line, they convert those attempts too. The Cardinals shoot 76 percent from the free throw line.

Louisville’s leading scorer is 6-8, 215-pound sophomore forward Jordan Nwora, who is averaging 17.3 points per game and 8.3 rebounds.

The Tar Heels have a tendency to allow their opponents to get to the free throw line too often at times. Last week, the Panthers got to the line 32 times against UNC.

The Tar Heels were decent against N.C. State, allowing only 17 free throw attempts.

Where Louisville struggles

Louisville forces a turnover on only 16.6 percent of its opponents’ possessions, which is 301st out of 351 Division I teams.

The Tar Heels turn it over on 18.3 percent of their possessions.

Against N.C. State, UNC committed 23 turnovers, which was tied for a season-high. It has been one of the Tar Heels’ biggest issues this season.

“We had some turnovers that looked like we were a ninth grade basketball team at a bad school,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of the N.C. State game. “We’ve got to be tougher.”

UNC is 5-3 when the Tar Heels have the same or more turnovers than an opponent, and 7-0 when the team has less turnovers than an opponent.

Louisville at UNC

When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12

Where: Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill

TV: ESPN

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.

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