North Carolina Tar Heels: Montrezl Harrell

Heels, Cardinals set for matchup

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
8:15
PM ET

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – There’s no convincing Louisville players that they’re not about to face an elite North Carolina squad at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Most of the third-ranked Cardinals said they had not seen the Tar Heels play this season until they watched the Heels beat Richmond in Saturday's first game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Despite Carolina being a shell of the team ranked No. 12 in the preseason, the Cardinals are still showing respect for the name.

Maybe a tad too much respect considering P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald did not make the trip for UNC.

“We know they’re the real deal,” Louisville’s Luke Hancock said. “It’s always going to be Carolina, it’s a top program. Coach [Roy] Williams is going to have them ready to play.”

When the schedule was released, a potential Louisville-Carolina matchup looked to be the first real test for both teams. The reality is it will be more of a barometer for the Tar Heels.

With no word on the status of Hairston and McDonald, whose eligibility is under review by the school and NCAA, Carolina will be playing with its current rotation for the foreseeable future. It’s about to hit a rough five-game stretch that includes a Dec. 4 trip to No. 1 Michigan State and a Dec. 14 home date against No. 4 Kentucky.

“We’re definitely going to try to show up -- well, we will show up -- and compete like we did today,” UNC forward James Michael McAdoo said after Saturday's 82-72 victory over the Spiders. “We’ll start focusing on games like this which are definitely huge games for us going into conference play.”

The Cardinals had the kind of win against Fairfield that coach Rick Pitino can use to grab his team's attention. After winning their first four games by an average of nearly 34 points, Pitino called their 71-57 victory on Saturday their “poorest game of the season.” He even hinted that the Cardinals might have been looking ahead to UNC.

Louisville’s postgame locker room reflected his sentiment. Players sat slumped into their lockers, the entire room void of the laughter and energy usually associated with winning. On the contrary, the Cardinals had the look and feel of a group that had just lost.

“It’s eye-opening for us just to not play as well as we want,” Hancock said. “This type of effort will lose against a lot of teams.”

Forward Montrezl Harrell, who led Louisville with 14 points and 12 rebounds, said the Cardinals played like they didn’t respect Fairfield, and it showed early.

“We should have come out and been prepared to play from the very beginning,” Harrell said. “But we weren’t and got burned for it in the first half. Playing against a team like North Carolina, if we start off like that we can really get burned and not be able to bounce back.”

Pitino even elevated the praise for the Heels, after watching his team shoot just 38 percent and his starting backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones commit a combined eight turnovers.

He said North Carolina's size could give the Cardinals problems, especially with the Heels' offensive rebounding.

“You’re going to see a close game [on Sunday] -- if we don’t get blown out,” Pitino said. “If we play this way, there won’t even be a game.”

Just two games ago, Carolina players were thinking they might not belong on a court with Louisville after struggling to a 62-54 win over Holy Cross. McAdoo joked afterward that if the Heels played that poorly against the Cardinals, all he could do was “hope that Louisville played bad, too.”

The bad news for the Heels is Louisville might have gotten that one out of the way.

“We’ll come back,” Pitino said. “I don’t expect us to have two bad games in a row.”
It goes without saying the games against Duke won’t take a backseat to any opponent this season. Here are five games that could gauge how good, or average, this season will be for the Tar Heels:

5. at Virginia, Jan. 20

The Heels lost for the first time in five trips to John Paul Jones Arena last season. This game could be determined by style points. The Cavs want to use their slow, methodical pace while Carolina wants to run. The difference with this Virginia team is it doesn’t have to play slow to be successful. UVa has the talent to make a move into the upper echelon of the ACC. And with the only regular-season meeting between these two, the outcome could end up serving as a tiebreaker.

4. vs. Louisville, Nov. 24

Both teams have to win in order to face each other (the Cards against Fairfield, UNC against Richmond). But if this game comes to fruition as it should, it could be like an NCAA Tournament game in November. Even without Chane Behanan, Louisville will have a formidable frontcourt led by Tarboro, N.C., native Montrezl Harrell. Surprisingly, the biggest test for Carolina won’t be seeing how Marcus Paige and Nate Britt will handle the Cards’ formidable pressure. It will be seeing if the defense has improved on stopping dribble penetration. If they can’t Louisville’s Russ Smith is going to give them fits.

3. at Syracuse, Jan. 11

Carolina and Syracuse have faced off seven times (the Heels hold a 4-3 edge), but ironically six of those meetings have come on neutral courts. Only once have they played a true road game and that came the final season Michael Jordan donned Carolina blue in December 1983. This will be the only regular-season meeting with the Orange in their inaugural season in the ACC. In anticipation, Orange fans have already purchased more than 30,000 tickets for the game that’s quickly headed towards a sellout. It’s one signal that the ACC will no longer just be measured by the Carolina-Duke rivalry.

2. Kentucky, Dec. 14

After a one-year hiatus, it will be great to see two of college basketball’s marquee programs back at it. The Wildcats, who are No. 1 in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll, have a tough non-conference schedule, too. I don’t expect them to waltz into the Dean E. Smith Center with an undefeated record, despite coach John Calipari openly discussing the possibility for an undefeated season as a goal. But it will be UK’s first true road test and Carolina’s first home game against a ranked opponent. The last three regular-season games in the series have been determined by a basket.

1. at Michigan State, Dec. 4

This game, more than any other non-conference matchup, will be an early season barometer for North Carolina. Remember last year’s disaster on the road at Indiana? Well, the Breslin Center can be as loud and intimidating for opponents as Assembly Hall (or Cameron Indoor Stadium for that matter); if the Heels aren’t ready it could produce similar results. Carolina will see exactly how far their stable of big men have matured going against State’s Adreian Payne. The Heels can use a lineup that matches up with the Spartans, so the bigger question will be how they will handle a top five team on the road.

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