By: Mac O’Brien
Spread: UNC -5.5
5:00pm Central – Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
We’re sticking with the new format after picking up a W last time out. Let’s ride.
Louisville Cardinals (11-4, 6-3)
Last three trends: 2-1 overall in last three games; 1-2 overall in last three road games
Season ATS & O/U Road Splits: 3-3 road ATS; 3-3 over/under on the road
Last three ATS & O/U Trends: 2-1 ATS in their last three; 0-3 O/U in their last three
Three Key Factors
- Return of the Mack, Part II: Head Coach Chris Mack’s team is coming off their second COVID pause of the season in this matchup. The first time Louisville returned from COVID issues, they did so shorthanded, most notably without senior point guard and ACC Player of the Year candidate Carlik Jones (17.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 4.9 APG). The result, you might remember, was not pretty; U of L got their doors blown off by Wisconsin on the road by a final score of 85-48. This time could be a little different, though. From all accounts, Jones was not impacted by this latest COVID situation and is presumed to be active for the game against UNC. So is his backcourt running mate David Johnson (13.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.4 APG), who won’t be forced into a ballhandling roll like he was against Wisconsin. Arguably, unless something changes in the next 24 hours (which, in today’s environment, is seemingly more likely than not), Louisville will return closer to full strength than they were prior to this latest COVID hiatus, as senior center Malik Williams is set to make his season debut after suffering a right foot injury back in November. To that end…
- The Return of Malik Williams: Louisville couldn’t pick a better time to get their 6’11” senior center back from injury. Williams hasn’t appeared in a game this season due to that foot injury, and certainly questions abound about his fitness and stamina. It’s entirely likely he won’t start depending on who all is available for Louisville, and even if he does crack the starting 5, he may very well be on a minutes restriction. But, with sophomore big man Aidan Ingiehon (2.6 PPG, 8.2 MPG in just 5 GP) out due to a non-COVID illness, Louisville is in desperate need of a big body who can help mitigate the incredible length and size UNC has down low. This will be an incredibly tough first test for Williams, and don’t be surprised if it takes him a minute to get back into the swing of things. But, he is a senior who averaged 8.5 PPG and 6.1 RPG last season after all, so he’s not going to be totally lost out there. The Cards need Williams to be a monster on the boards, as UNC ranks 2nd in the country in offensive rebound rate.
- So… Who is Actually Going to Play?: In a press conference on Friday night, Coach Mack said the following: “As of right now, I don’t know who’s going to be available. We have a conflict right now with our medical people and the powers that be with their medical people. So right now I don’t know who’s going to be available for the game tomorrow.” Now, he did say Williams is a go. And it sounds like Jones and Johnson are bets to play, while Ingiehon stayed behind in Louisville. But, will Dre Davis and Jae’Lyn Withers be active? If so, does Withers come off the bench in favor of Williams? Or does Mack go with a bigger lineup to matchup with UNC in the frontcourt? I wish I had more answers to those questions, but my guess is that the uncertainty around the Cards’ roster right now is a big reason why the line has shot up 3-points in UNC’s favor since the Tar Heels opened as 2.5-point favorites.
North Carolina Tar Heels (13-7, 7-5)
Last three trends: 2-1 overall in last three games; 3-0 overall in last three home games
Season ATS & O/U Home Splits: 4-4-0 home ATS; 4-4 over/under at home
Last three ATS & O/U Trends: 2-1 ATS in their last three; 2-1 O/U in their last three
Three Key Factors
- Getting Back to ACC Play: Frustrated by a number of games being canceled in recent weeks due to COVID concerns, Head Coach Roy Williams scheduled Northeastern to come play the Heels this past Wednesday night. The game provided an opportunity for Williams to put another game on the schedule and help get rid of the bitter taste in his team’s mouth after they got thumped by UVA last weekend in a game in which UNC mustered only 48 points. But, the level of competition was obviously much different from what the Tar Heels should expect from Louisville tonight. Will UNC come out of the gates sloppy, or will their recent 20-point blowout win over the Huskies of Northeastern help jump start a fast start?
- To Three, or Not to Three: Opponents of Louisville’s typically score 35%+ of their points from beyond the arc, which is on the high side. UNC, however, shoots just 31.0% from three, which puts them at 294th in the country in that stat and 14th in the ACC. Coach Mack is excellent at taking away opponents’ ability to score near the hoop. UNC will need to either clean up the glass on their misses from outside or find its range from deep like it did against Duke to overcome Louisville’s stout defense inside the arc.
- Home Sweet Home: Due to the COVID issues surrounding UNC’s recently scheduled games, the Tar Heels haven’t played a home ACC game since January 23—a span in which they’ve played four road games and gone 2-2 over that stretch. Getting back into the friendly confines of the Dean Dome, in which UNC has gone 7-0 overall and 4-0 against ACC opponents, could help this team shoot better than it typically has on the season. In fact, UNC has put up 80+ points in each of its last four home games dating back to the Syracuse game on January 12.
There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Cards coming into tonight’s game. While Coach Mack likely learned some valuable lessons the first time his team returned from a COVID hiatus earlier this season, it’s always a challenge to see how guys respond to an 18-day layoff. Add in the fact that Mack will be introducing some entirely new lineups (regardless of how the medical staff determines his players’ availability, which sounds like it may still be up in the air) due to the return of Malik Williams, and this makes for a challenging test on the road for Louisville. Yes, getting Williams and his 6’11” size back into the lineup will be critical to contain UNC forwards sophomore Armando Bacot (11.7 PPG, 7.6 RPG), senior Garrison Brooks (10.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG), and freshman Day’Ron Sharpe (9.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG) on the glass. But Williams has never taken the floor in a game alongside freshmen forwards Jae’Lyn Withers, JJ Traynor, and Gabe Wiznitzer. Getting those guys to gel on the fly won’t be easy in a road game at the Dean Dome, even without fans.
On the perimeter, while UNC’s 3-point shooting percentage is poor as a team, freshman wing Kerwin Walton (7.4 PPG, 44.6% 3PT FG%) has provided a spark for his team from outside the arc in ACC play. He’s 12-23 (52.2%) from deep in four games during the month of February, and he’s a force that requires opposing defenses to avoid helping off while expanding the floor. Walton should help free things up inside for Bacot, Brooks, and Sharpe, who should all be able to get their usual impressive rebounding totals against a Louisville team that faces a number of questions about its frontcourt. Take UNC -5.5 (-110).
Mac is 15-15 on the season. All picks are one unit. A $100 bettor has a loss of $137.