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ACC lead, possible No. 1 seed for NCAA tournament on the line as Cards meet hot Tar Heels

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — When Louisville’s basketball team was preparing to meet Virginia two weeks ago, coach Rick Pitino told the Cardinals they were playing for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Cards, minus suspended Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang, lost decisively, 71-55, but now they get another shot at that goal when they face No. 8 North Carolina (23-5, 11-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) Wednesday night in the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. (9 o’clock, ESPN).

Most bracketologists, including highly-respected ESPN expert Joe Lunardi, currently have the Tar Heels slated as a No. 1 and No. 7/6 Louisville (22-6, 10-4) on the No. 2 line. But many think the Cards would move up with a victory, although it’s all speculation at this point — especially with three more regular season games remaining, plus the ACC Tournament. At the least, it would be a huge boost to their resume’ and put them even more into the No. 1 conversation.

Most bracketologists, including highly-respected ESPN expert Joe Lunardi, currently have the Tar Heels slated as a No. 1 and No. 7/6 Louisville (22-6, 10-4) on the No. 2 line (UofL Athletics Photo)

“If they beat Carolina they’ll be a No. 1 seed because of the gauntlet of the ACC and the quality of their wins,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg predicted. “They’re finishing on a high note. They’re healthy. Their losses came when they weren’t whole. They’re playing better and they’ve emerged as a good offensive team.”

Although UofL hasn’t beaten a Top-25 team away from the KFC Yum! Center, losing at Notre Dame, Florida State and Virginia, and on a neutral court to Baylor, a win over the Heels would be its fourth against the RPI top-25. Only four other teams — Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas and Villanova — can claim such a feat.

Of course, the Cards would have to avoid a stumble in their final three games, all of which they’ll be favored to win. They’ll meet Syracuse at home Sunday in a rematch of their 76-72 overtime win in the Carrier Dome last week, travel to Wake Forest, then host Notre Dame in the regular season finale, hoping to reverse a 77-70 loss in South Bend on Jan. 4.

Along with the winner getting the inside track for a No. 1 seed, the outcome could go a long way toward determining the ACC regular season champion.

UofL enters the game tied with Duke for second place and holding the tiebreaker due to its 78-69 win over the Blue Devils on Jan. 14. Another game back in the loss column are Florida State and the Irish.

The Cards have a more favorable remaining schedule than UNC, which must play Virginia on the road and Duke at home, in addition to a game at Pittsburgh.

The Heels have won four of their last five, losing only at Duke (86-78), and are 14-0 in the Smith Center. They’re big, deep, versatile, explosive on offense and have become more serious about defense, as evidenced by their 65-41 rout of No. 14 Virginia Saturday in which they held the Cavs to 27.8 percent shooting.

But UNC’s identity is its firepower on offense. The Heels, who excel at transition baskets and second chance opportunities, are sixth nationally in scoring (86.9 ppg), third in assists (18.3 apg), fifth in scoring margin (+15.5), lead the country in rebound margin (+13.4) and are ranked No. 4 in adjusted offensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy.

“They can go on runs quickly with their transition offfense, their offensive rebounding,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “They’re a hard guard, they really are.”

It appears to stack up as an irresistable force (UNC’s offense) vs. an immovable obect (UofL’s defense). The Cards are allowing only 65.4 ppg in ACC games, rank 13th nationally in field goal defense (39.4) and 12th in blocked shots (5.7 bpg).

But UofL’s defense took a big hit in Saturday’s 94-90 win over Virginia Tech, in which the Hokies shot nearly 60 percent while hitting 17-of-26 three-pointers, and Pitino continues to insist that the Cards aren’t as good defensively as their statistics seem to indicate.

“I’ve been around this game too long,” Pitino said afterwards. “It’s nice to score 94 points, but it’s better in AAU basketball than it is in college. It’s fun for the fans, but for a 64-year-old guy who prides himself on defense, it’s not fun. If we don’t start playing better defense, we’re all going to be on vacation early. You are going to be covering somebody else. If you’re not a better defensive team than your opponent, then you’ll lose. You can’t rely just strictly on offense.”

Louisville’s offense has been operating at a high level lately, and the Cards have the hottest player in the ACC in versatile sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell. He scored 26 points against Tech, hitting 5-of-7 3-pointers, and has made 42-of-97 (43.3 percent) in his last 14 games. During that stretch he is averaging 19.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals and says his confidence is “sky-high.”

“He’s an elite-level player,” Tech coach Buzz Williams said after the loss. “He can score on all three levels. Great body. Great body control. Very physical. Becasuse he’s so strong, he’s deceptively, in my opinion, an elite level athlete.”

While still not satisifed with the Cards’ defense, Pitino isn’t complaining about their accomplishments after starting 0-2 in the ACC with losses to Virginia and Notre Dame and having played the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule.

“If you were to say to me 22-5 with our schedule, I would have said, give it to me right now, I’ll take it,” Pitino said. “I won’t sign with the devil, but I’ll take it. To have this record with the schedule we’re playing is awesome. We are 22-5 and going to step into North Carolina and play for first place, and that to me is an amazing feat by these young men in that locker room.”

–Pitino said on the ACC teleconference Monday that he expects freshman forward V.J. King to be available against North Carolina after missing the Virginia Tech game with a thigh bruise. Usually one of the first subs, King is averaging 7.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in ACC action. Overall, he leads the team in 3-point accuracy at 45.7 percent (16-35).

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