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Game Preview: #12 UNC vs #3 Virginia

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina vs Virginia, 7:00 PM, ESPN

The grind of the ACC schedule continues unabated for both these teams as UNC and Virginia attempt to bounce back from having blown second half leads to Louisville and Duke respectively. In UNC's case it was an 18 point second half lead early in the second half that disappeared followed by three empty possessions with the game tied at 60 before losing in overtime. Virginia looked to be in complete command up 58-50 late in its game against Duke at home before a 19-5 run by the Blue Devils gave the Cavaliers their first lost of the season.

The question going into Monday's key league match-up is how does either team respond? UNC, with injuries on the perimeter was taken to its physical limit on Saturday with fatigue and foul trouble playing a significant role down the stretch. While both teams played on Saturday the quick turnaround is undoubtedly a bigger concern for the Tar Heels than it is Virginia.

The stakes for this game are also fairly high. UNC is presently tied in the loss column with Notre Dame and Louisville with Virginia a game ahead and Duke a game behind. A win here creates a four way tie atop the ACC standings. A loss for the Tar Heels drops UNC back into a three loss tie with Duke and shores up Virginia's grip on first place despite having lost on Saturday. At this stage there are clearly five top teams in the ACC and at the end of the day one of those teams is going to end up being the #5 seed in the ACC Tournament earning it an extra game. Avoiding that is paramount as is picking up a top ten win. At present UNC's best RPI wins are Louisville and Ohio State. Adding a win over Virginia would serve to bolster UNC's seeding placement in the NCAA Tournament.

Virginia under Tony Bennett continues to be one of the more frustrating teams to play in the ACC. The Cavaliers are to ACC basketball what Georgia Tech is to ACC football. The tempo drains the game clock while a highly patience and well executed offense finds open shots which Virginia usually hits. UNC has been a solid defense for most of the season with ACC play being less kind. Tar Heel turnovers and fouls are partly to blame there. Assuming the Tar Heels can keep those in check, stopping Virginia boils down to disrupting Virginia's half court execution. One factor in UNC's favor is if the Tar Heels can force missed shots, Virginia will likely eschew offensive rebounding in favor of keeping the UNC out of transition.

On the offensive end, UNC will be facing Virginia's oft discussed "pack-line" defense. If you are unfamiliar with this defense, College Basketball Talk has a great primer here. Rob Dauster succinctly states what this style of defense does best.

Conceptually, it’s pretty simple. Encourage dribble penetration into help, takeaway post touches, force contested jumpers over the top of the defense and clean up the defensive glass.

In other words, Virginia's defense does exactly what you want to do when facing this version of UNC's offense. The strength of the Tar Heel offense is on the interior while the perimeter shooting can be suspect at times. If the Tar Heels can get the type of outside shooting UNC got last week versus Syracuse it would certainly make things easier. If not and the Tar Heels get another game where the post production is limited, this could be a long evening.

Ideally UNC can muster enough transition looks to negate the effectiveness of the pack-line defense but in half court sets, the Tar Heels will need to find a way to muster offensive production against it. Given the nature of Virginia's defense, UNC will rely heavily on Marcus Paige's basketball acumen for execution. It also puts a great deal of pressure on J.P. Tokoto to show some patience and not force bad passes. Tokoto is a high risk/high reward passer and lately it has been too much of the former and not enough of the latter. The Tar Heels getting a disciplined and smart game from the perimeter players will be crucial not to mention knocking down those contested jumpers.

A win in this game would be a nice feather in UNC's cap especially with just two games over the next 12 days. UNC can go to Boston College and Pittsburgh with a top ten win under the belt and two long breaks between games to get rested and healthy.

UNC 64 Virginia 62