North Carolina lost at home to Belmont last Sunday, continues to play without wings P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald and has been forced to use walk-ons and play big men out of position to compensate.
Everything about Sunday's Hall of Fame Tip-Off title game matchup screamed a Cardinals rout until the Tar Heels reminded us one of the great things about college basketball: Sometimes it makes no sense at all.
On an afternoon when even a closer-than-expected loss would have been hailed as a sign of progress, North Carolina accomplished far more than that. Marcus Paige scored 32 points and young big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks came of age as the Tar Heels rolled to a 93-84 upset victory over a Louisville team that last lost a game more than nine months ago
It's silly to make sweeping judgments about North Carolina and Louisville based on one November game, but this much is clear after watching the Tar Heels pull away midway through the second half and never let the Cardinals closer than seven down the stretch. North Carolina isn't as hopeless as it seemed the past two weeks without Hairston and McDonald and Louisville's full-court press, transition defense and effort level must get better to even approach last season's levels.
Though forward James Michael-McAdoo continued to look out of place at wing and didn't score his second field goal until the final five minutes, North Carolina got enough scoring from other spots on the floor to compensate.
Paige showcased his development since an up-and-down freshman season, sinking jump shots, finishing at the rim and teaming with fellow point guard Nate Britt to do a solid job handling Louisville's pressure. Johnson and Meeks both made cases for more playing time, the former running the floor, sinking 6 of 7 shots and protecting the rim and the latter using his girth, soft touch and deft passing to contribute 13 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
Louisville certainly felt the absence of graduated shot blocker Gorgui Dieng and foul trouble for forward Montrezl Harrell, but one of the biggest reasons for North Carolina's 54.2 percent shooting was the Cardinals' uncharacteristically feeble transition defense. Time and time again, the Tar Heels would leak out in transition and turn a missed Cardinals jump shot into an uncontested fast-break dunk.
There were plenty of errant Louisville jump shots too because North Carolina geared its defense to make the Cardinals win from the perimeter.
A zone defense limited driving lanes and the length of the North Carolina frontcourt altered shots when Louisville did manage to attack the rim. Guards Russ Smith and Chris Jones had 36 and 18 points respectively, but the Cardinals attempted 30 3-pointers and dished out only three assists as a team, not exactly the formula for solving a zone.
The good news for Louisville is that a soft schedule affords plenty of chances to work out the kinks before the next test, a Dec. 28 road game at Kentucky. As for North Carolina, this win is a crucial momentum builder with back-to-back games against improving UAB and Kentucky up next.
Just a few days ago, Roy Williams was lamenting that without Hairston and McDonald, this team was the least talented of his North Carolina tenure. The Tar Heels still probably need Hairston's wing scoring to contend in the ACC and nationally this winter, but Sunday proved they cannot be overlooked.
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