The No. 3 Louisville Cardinals may have been just slightly outside of the national championship conversation to start the season, though some may have put them in it, especially those who thought it could be at 10- to 15-team race. But others, like myself, may have been thinking that South Carolina and UConn were borderline prohibitive favorites and that the only three legit challengers were Stanford, Maryland and NC State.
Here's what I wrote in an article prior to the season:
After Stanford, Maryland and NC State, there is a drop-off in terms of returning talent when you get to No. 6 Louisville, which lost Dana Evans to graduation and No. 7 Baylor, which lost DiJonai Carrington and DiDi Richards to graduation. So if there are to be challengers to South Carolina and UConn, it will most likely be teams three through five, though Baylor does have a single great player in NaLyssa Smith.
Louisville has proved me wrong as it currently sits ahead of No. 10 UConn, No. 13 Maryland and No. 4 NC State in the rankings, behind only No. 1 South Carolina and No. 2 Stanford. The Cards, who have made it to at least the Elite Eight in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments and were projected as a No. 2 seed by Swish Appeal in 2020, are 22-2 with their only losses coming to No. 8 Arizona in overtime as they were just getting warmed up and NC State in a game where they led by 16 with 14:25 to play.
Since its loss to the Wolfpack, Louisville has won seven in a row, most recently blowing out a very good team in No. 19 Notre Dame. Its leading scorer, Hailey Van Lith, went 1-of-19 from three through the first six games of the season, but went 6-of-6 with 34 points at Clemson on Feb. 3. Van Lith is great at driving into the paint and finishing. If she’s also hitting from three to keep defenses honest, she is a real weapon.
Louisville also has Kianna Smith, who is a better outside scorer than Van Lith and is the team’s second-leading scorer. And the team has gotten great play out of transfers Emily Engstler and Chelsie Hall, who before the season gave me pause about my statement that Louisville was a tier below the Top 5:
Dana Evans will be hard to replace, but Louisville hopes that the addition of impact players Emily Engstler (Syracuse) and Chelsie Hall (Vanderbilt) and No. 12 Hoop Gurlz recruit Payton Verhulst will keep it near the top of the ACC. Sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith could become the team’s best player. She wasn’t asked to score a ton last year because Evans was so prolific, but she was capable of doing a lot more. She was the No. 7 Hoop Gurlz recruit in 2020 for a reason and could become a big star as a sophomore.
Next on the Cards’ schedule is Thursday’s matchup with the No. 24 UNC Tar Heels. The game is at 6 p.m. on ACC Network Extra.
As I wrote, UNC didn't have any bad losses entering its Jan. 27 matchup with Duke and it still doesn’t have any. Its most recent contest resulted in a loss, but it was to a Virginia Tech team that was receiving votes and it now ranked 23rd.
Deja Kelly (15.9 points per game) and Alyssa Ustby (13.1 points and 8.7 rebounds) are the players to watch for the Tar Heels. Kelly is a great all-around scorer and Ustby is listed as a 6-foot-1 guard, but really plays like a forward.
No. 3 Louisville Cardinals (22-2, 13-1 ACC) vs. No. 24 UNC Tar Heels (19-5, 9-5 ACC)
When: Thursday, Feb. 17 at 6 p.m. ET
Where: Chapel Hill, NC
Key to the matchup: Getting to the foul line. UNC scores more points per game (74.3 to 72.8) but shoots far worse from the field — Louisville’s advantage there is 45.9 percent to 41.1 percent. The explanation for this is that the Tar Heels get to the line way more than the Cards, making 14.3 free throws per game to the Cards’ 9.4. UNC scores 19.2 percent of its points at the charity stripe (98th in the nation). Louisville, on the other hand, registers 12.9 percent of its tallies there (345th in the nation). The Tar Heels need to continue getting to the free throw line frequently in order to upset the Cards, whereas the Cards could benefit from being more aggressive on drives and drawing some more fouls.