UNCASVILLE, Conn. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville got the big-name matchup it wanted when North Carolina advanced to the championship of today's Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena (1 p.m., ESPN). Now the Cardinals need to play a big game.
For U of L, which has won its first five games by an average of nearly 30 points, it represents the season's first real challenge -- though less of a challenge than it would have been had North Carolina guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald made the trip to Connecticut. Both players are out because of NCAA investigations.
Still, the Tar Heels have some quality size -- particularly with 6-9, 230-pound junior James Michael McAdoo. They also start 6-10 sophomore Joel James and come off the bench with 6-9 Kennedy Meeks and 6-9 Brice Johnson, who had 24 points and 12 rebounds in a semifinal win over Richmond.
For the Cardinals' interior players, Chane Behanan, Montrezl Harrell, Stephan Van Treese and Mangok Mathiang, the challenge will be to keep North Carolina off the offensive glass while avoiding foul trouble.
"They've got a lot of size, but that's something we're going to have to deal with all season with the better teams," U of L forward Montrezl Harrell said. "We just have to play to our strengths, too."
If the game figures to swing on how U of L will handle North Carolina's bigs, it swings as much on how the Tar Heels will handle U of L's pressure. Guard play has been a struggle without Hairston and McDonald. The Tar Heels have averaged 13.5 turnovers in their first four games, though they seemed to find some answers against Richmond, probably their best game of the season in an 82-72 win.
U of L is coming off its worst effort of the season, a 14-point win over Fairfield, which coach Rick Pitino no doubt has been using to send his players into today's matchup with the proper "starving dogs" mindset.
"If we bring this game tomorrow, it won't even be a game," Pitino said. "Their size is going to give us a little trouble. They do a lot of good things defensively. They offensive rebound very well. They lost to Belmont and missed 19 free throws. You make your free throws and that doesn't happen. It's part of the game, though."
Williams said he has great respect for Pitino, who joined him in the Hall of Fame this past September.
"They are really, really good so they present challenges for you in every area," Williams said. "They play extremely hard, they defend like crazy, they can score. They really come at you. It's a big-time team. Rick Pitino is one of our great coaches in our game, high school, college, every level. And he's got great players that do what he asks them to do. It's a recipe for success that he's played for a long time. They're a really, really good team, and they're fun to watch, but I don't like to watch them when we're playing against them. But they're really a fun team to watch and had a great run last year winning a national championship in an emotional time for their whole team. Just a great coach and a good bunch of players."
The last time U of L met North Carolina was in the 2008 NCAA Regional Finals in Charlotte, with the Tar Heels winning 83-73. North Carolina leads the overall series 8-3. Eight of the 11 meetings have come at neutral sites, but that will change next season with U of L joining the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Stats guru Ken Pomeroy ranks U of L's schedule so far among the 20 weakest in college basketball -- at No. 333. Today's game represents a dramatic step up, even if North Carolina isn't at full strength. The Tar Heels are No. 26 in his index.
"It's a big game, no matter what," U of L senior Russ Smith said. "We've got some guys in this locker room who have played some big games, but we've also got some new guys, so it should be a good experience for everybody. We won't have two off games in a row."
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