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Game Preview: #7 UNC at #3 Virginia

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina at Virginia, 6:30  PM, ESPN

UNC head to Virginia for a top ten showdown with the Cavaliers. Here are the focal points.

High stakes

Even high stakes might not do this game justice since the result impacts the race for the ACC regular season and NCAA Tournament seeding. Virginia is at a point of desperation on the former with five ACC losses already and a sixth eliminating them from contention to finish first. A sixth loss could also put Virginia in peril regarding the double-bye in the ACC Tournament and put the Cavaliers in a position of facing Duke or Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. Since Game Day is in town, John Paul Jones Arena will be, as the kids say, "lit"

For the Tar Heels, the ACC lead is on the line. A loss pulls the Tar Heels into a tie with the winner between Louisville and Miami being played at 2:00 PM Saturday. A win would keep the Tar Heels one step ahead with games at home versus Syracuse and at Duke next week. The bigger prize however is a #1 seed and placement in the Raleigh pod for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. UNC has just one loss ever in NCAA Tournament games played in North Carolina making that an important prize to grab.

Generally speaking, the Tar Heels have yet to register a signature win this season. The blowout of Miami was impressive but came at home as did the Tar Heel win over Maryland in December. UNC winning on the road versus a top ten team would be a very nice statement indeed and give this team the look of Final Four contender.

Dealing with Virginia's Defense

Virginia's pack like defense has become one of the more difficult defensive fronts teams face in ACC play. The Cavaliers exert a great deal of energy on the defensive end(one of the reasons they play a slower tempo offensively) and it pays off in an uncanny ability to make it seem like there are more than five defenders on the court. As Mike Rutherford noted in his very nice primer on the Virginia pack line defense, the point is to force teams to take contested, outside shots while doubling the post and cutting off penetration.

The interior defense is what stands to give UNC the most trouble. Since the Tar Heels rely so heavily on the post offense, getting the ball into the middle will be difficult. Even when UNC accomplishes that, a double team is likely coming. That means Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks must sense the double team and be prepared to make a clean pass out of the post. The concern for UNC is the double teams could force bad shots or bad passes. In two games against Virginia last season, Brice Johnson had 14 points in the loss in Chapel Hill and 13 points in the win over Virginia during the ACC Tournament. Meeks had 11 and 7 respectively in those games. Both will be important, especially Meeks for his passing skills. The real X factor could be Isaiah Hicks who has had just nine points in two games but this season has been a revelation off the bench as an offensive spark.

The real key will be Justin Jackson. In Greensboro last March, Jackson had perhaps the best game of his UNC career going 4-5 from three and scoring 22 points as Carolina advanced to the ACC Championship. His play of late has been key in this team looking more and more like what we thought it was going to be before the season started. UNC's ability to score on Virginia will require a full team effort but Jackson could very well be the linchpin.

UNC 71 Virginia 69