Three years ago I drove five-plus hours through some treacherous weather to catch the second half of the Carolina game in Charlottesville. The Heels squeaked out their first victory in John Paul Jones arena – still not named after the guy you read about in history class – in a rough game in retrospect, as Carolina would finish atop the ACC and UVa would end up 5-11. After another season, coach Dave Leitao would be out of a job, and Tony Bennett would be brought in to teach that slow, slow style of play he picked up in the Big Ten. The Heels haven't been back to Charlottesville since Bennett came to town, but didn't need to hit the road to be humiliated. Virginia came to Chapel Hill in their only meeting last season, and beat Carolina by 15.
That game was arguably the low point of the season. It was the Heels' lowest offensive output to date, although they would finish the season with three games where they didn't break sixty points. The Cavaliers at one stretch scored eighteen unanswered points, had three players in double figures, and held the Heels five frontcourt players to 7, 4, 4, 2, and 0 points, while being grossly undersized. This Virginia wasn't good, either. They finished with an identical conference record to Carolina and didn't even make the NIT.
Luckily, the guard that tore apart the Heels last season left for greener pastures, leaving the team to Mike Scott and an assortment of shooting guards. Scott, who lead the team in scoring, rebounding, and name recognition has missed five of the last six games and is probably out for this one. This leaves a team that will primarily rely on their outside shooting, which is OK, and a couple of stiffs underneath to recover the misses. They'll naturally continue to try to slow the game to a crawl – only six teams in the country play slower.
The good news is that the slow play hides Virginia's defensive woes. The team gives up perimeter shots easily and doesn't force much in the way of turnovers. Expect Leslie McDonald to have another big game, and to leave you still wondering how he'll perform against top-flight competition. Also expect John Henson and Tyler Zeller, the latter who missed last years debacle, to make up for the poor showing a year ago. The Cavs will send Assane Sene and Will Sherrill after them, but the former gets in foul trouble quickly and the latter isn't much of a defender.
Virginia has two respectable wins this season, and one of them is against a Minnesota team that beat the Heels. That was another game where the perimeter shots fell, as Joe Harris and Mustapha Farrakhan had 24 and 23 points, respectively. Farrakhan was equally explosive against Howard earlier this week, hitting eight of nine three pointers, but he can just as easily go cold from outside. UNC's perimeter defense has been strong this season, so they should be able to keep this team in check pretty easily.
This is a good first conference test for Carolina. It's a road game that allows one of last year's more embarrassing efforts to be avenged, but not a particularly tough team to start, allowing them to ease in to things. The way this team is laying they should win easily, but there will be no easy wins until the Tar Heels can prove they're truly free of a disastrous 2010. A big win here would be a good start, though.