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The Game After Disaster: Previewing Virginia

There are typically two ways you respond to a game like last Wednesday's. You can come out flat and listless in the next one, physically and mentally exhausted, struggle and possibly lose a game you shouldn't. Or you can play in a white-hot rage, obliterate your opponent, burn down their arena and dance in the ashes to the lamentations of their women[*].

However, I don't really see UNC doing either of these things today. Because the Tar Heels play Virginia, the slowest basketball team known to man.

Alright, that's a slight exaggeration. There are six teams in the country playing basketball at a slower pace than the Cavaliers, making the slowest team Wisconsin, where UVa coach Tony Bennett got his coaching start. But the sentiment rings true. Virginia averages just over 60 possessions a game, a full 14 less than what Carolina manages. Think about that – UNC on average makes almost a full quarter more trips down the court than the tortoises in Charlottesville. It's like they're playing two different sports, and any rage UNC brings into this game is going to be tempered a bit by the inchworm pace the game will be dragged into.

Running a slow pace when you have the ball is easy; you just don't try to score until the shot clock hits single digits. Keeping the pace to glacial-speed when the other team wants to run the ball is more difficult, requiring a really tough half court defense. So it's no surprise the Cavaliers have one of the best in the country, and the best in the ACC, beating out the Tar Heels by a hair. This is the first UVa team that Bennett has truly been able to run the style he did at Washington, built around a trapping defense and a maniacal fixation on defensive rebounds. Carolina learned this lesson the hard way last year, when unheralded center Assane Sene stymied Zeller and Henson, pulled down even boards, and would have derailed the game had he not spent so much time on the bench in foul trouble. Sene will miss this year's game with a fractured ankle, and it's no coincidence that two of their three ACC losses and their two closest wins came in his absence; this is a huge blow for UVa. Without Sene, the Cavaliers have most had to rely on Akil Mitchell, who was much less of a detriment to the Heels, and all-around superhero Mike Scott inside. Carolina should have an easier time shooting this year.

Virginia's offense, of course, centers around Scott as well. He's the team's leading scorer and rebounder, taking a huge number of the team's shots and making most of them. It'll be interesting to see how he handles being defended by most likely John Henson, although possibly Harrison Barnes. Scott missed last year's game, and was only mildly successful as a sophomore against the 2010 team. That squad was Sylven Landesberg's through-and-through though, so on his own I'd expect him to do a fair bit of damage. It helps that he has a protege in Joe Harris, the slightly smaller wing player who places second in all those stat categories Scott dominates. He did OK facing Barnes last season, and has improved as a sophomore.

If you've been following the Tar Heels, or just saw the Duke game, you're more worried about Virginia's three-point shooting. Especially so if you remember Sammy Zeglinski's 5 of 8 performance two years ago. Zeglinski, now roughly 45 years old, is still hanging around, but the team as a whole shoots a lot less threes than in years past. Last year, the Cavaliers had a host of three-point options; this year outside of Zeglinski and Harris, there's only the freshman Malcolm Brogdon coming off the bench. Built like P.J. Hairston, he gets a lot of minutes for his defense, but of late has been good for 5 to 10 points a game.

Speaking of Hairston, the freshman guard will miss today's game with a sore left foot. This provides practically no support for Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock; I'd expect the Heels to occasionally go big and move Barnes to the shooting guard spot while playing a lot more Justin Watts than anyone is comfortable with. Of course, here is where the slow pace could help Carolina, keeping their legs fresher than they'd be otherwise, but I would think UNC will still push the tempo. The Cavaliers rarely play more than eight and really only six play significant minutes. If UNC can put a couple of their big men on the bench with tired legs or fouls, it will make the game a lot easier.

Virginia hasn't really had a lot of luck dragging UNC down to the Cavs' preferred pace since Tony Bennett arrived. I don't expect this team to have much more success. The match-ups are very favorable for the Heels, and unless Mike Scott has a big night and the perimeter players light up the Dean Dome, UNC should get the win. It won't be cathartic destruction everyone wants after this week, but it should keep the Heels atop the ACC race. The wanton bloodletting can wait; there's still other rivalry games on the schedule.