To start, there's the clash of two of the game's top coaching icons – Rick Pitino and Roy Williams. Both coaches have taken five teams to the Final Four. Both have won a national championship. And you can bet both are hungry for a trip to the Big Dance's big party in San Antonio next week.
There are also plenty of star players on both sides. For Louisville, David Padgett, Terrence Williams and Earl Clark. For North Carolina, Tyler Hansbrough, the national player of the year, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington.
"I think they're a great basketball team," Pitino said. "They played a tough schedule. They are ACC champions. They're the premier team in college basketball right now. They've got great balance and multiple players. They have a great assist-turnover ratio and they don't beat themselves."
Louisville to the Final Four against North Carolina
The matchup for a regional title has a national title game feel. No two teams left in the NCAA Tournament are playing any better than the Cardinals and Heels. Both teams have stormed through the East Region on their way to the Elite Eight. Louisville won their first three games by 19 (Boise State), 30 (Oklahoma) and 19 (Tennessee). Not to be out-done, North Carolina has belted their tournament opposition by 39 (Mount Saint Marys), 31 (Arkansas) and 21 (Washington State).
"No matter who you are playing it's tough to prepare for anybody when you just have one day," David Padgett said. "It's tough, especially in the Elite Eight. But at the same time the other team only has one day too. So that's what makes it fun and that's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament."
But while the Cardinals and Tar heels are dominating the opposition in the tournament, the two teams are doing it in very different ways – Louisville with stifling defensive pressure, North Carolina with explosiveness on the offensive end.
While Louisville held high scoring Boise State (82 points per game) and Tennessee (83 ppg) to 21 and 23 points below their season average, North Carolina was busy scoring more than 100 points in their first two NCAA contests.
The Cardinals have proven capable of stopping high powered offensive teams in the tournament. Louisville did a number on Oklahoma in round two, holding the Sooners to just 48 points and 31 percent shooting. Against Tennessee, one of the most explosive offensive clubs in the country, the Cardinals limited the Vols to just 33 percent shooting, including 25 percent from the three-point line, while forcing 17 turnovers (six steals) and blocking seven shots.
But North Carolina will test Louisville's full-court pressure and half court defensive sets like no one else. With Hansbrough (22 ppg.) down low and Ellington (16.6) and Lawson (12.9) on the perimeter, North Carolina is a uniquely dangerous opponent. Add sixth man Danny Green (11.4) off the bench and the Tar Heels have plenty of explosive scoring options.
What makes the Tar Heels so explosive is that they get the ball off the glass – statistically they lead the country in rebounding margin at plus-11 per game – and go. North Carolina, which averages 87 points, is the best fast-break team in the country.
"They handle the ball well and make the extra pass. That's why they're the No. 1 team in the country," Pitino said. "They do it with great team-work and speed and terrific athleticism. When you watch them on film you're very impressed."
Because of North Carolina's strength on the boards and in the transition game, the Cardinals will certainly place heavy emphasis on rebounding – Louisville out-rebounded Tennessee 42-24 – and playing with great effort on defense, particularly in transition.
"Even though they have a great fast-break attack we're not going to change anything defensively as far as our principles," McGee said. "We're still going to stick to what got us to this point. There are going to be a few adjustments with guys having to rotate quicker with the ball being moved so fast. But we're still going to play out style."
"It's going to be a war on the glass," said North Carolina forward Deon Thompson. "That's where the game is going to be determined."
Defensively, North Carolina should probably expect Louisville to apply strong full court pressure. In three close wins over Clemson – two of which were decided in OT – North Carolina struggled with the Tigers pressure defense. In those three games, UNC committed 59 turnovers. Two of those games were with starting point guard Ty Lawson in the lineup. In those two contests, North Carolina committed 20 and 19 turnovers, respectively.
In three NCAA Tournament games, Louisville has forced 52 turnovers.
"We'll still try to press and turn them over," Jerry Smith said. "They're willing to run and we're going to try to speed them up even more and get the ball."
"Louisville's press is really, really good," added UNC coach Roy Williams. "We are going to attack but we have to make sure we don't turn the ball over."
If playing the nation's top-rated team for a spot in the Final Four wasn't enough pressure, North Carolina also has the added advantage of playing a virtual home-game in Charlotte's Bobcat Arena. UNC is 7-0 in NCAA Tournament games played at Bobcat Arena and are 24-1 in NCAA games played in their home state. Though UNC coach Roy Williams has down played the home court factor, Pitino knows his team faces a very difficult challenge.
"Tell Roy to get on a plane for the first time and let's play the game in Freedom Hall if he feels that way," Pitino said. "I don't think there's a home-court advantage. I think those are mostly mannequins dressed in powder blue. There's a very strong home-court advantage but they deserve it. But that doesn't mean we can't win."
The stage is set. Both Louisville and North Carolina will catch their collective breath Friday in preparation for Saturday's East Region final. There's 40 minutes to go and two teams left standing. Late Saturday night, Louisville or North Carolina will be headed to San Antonio next week for the Final Four.
Tip-off is scheduled for 9:05 p.m.