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UNC basketball: Only beating Duke is sweeter than beating Virginia

Since Tony Bennett came to UVA and revolutionized the program, the Cavaliers have been a frustrating, suffocating thorn in UNC’s side.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

What a beautiful Washington, D.C. day back in March 2016. London Perrantes was nowhere to be found, Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC’s Player of the Year, got completely shut down and Joel Berry II began asserting himself as one of the best young point guards in the country. And, oh yeah, UNC won its first ACC title since 2008 61-57 over UVA by strangling the Cavs offense in the closing stages.

For a lot of UNC pundits and fans, that’s one of the best Carolina wins in the era since Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson left. A conference foe pushing for a No. 1 seed? Check. An ACC player of the year who beat out Brice Johnson? Check. A massive stage to decide the conference’s best? Check. Outside of a few Duke wins or tournament wins here and there, that’s as sweet a victory as the Tar Heels have had in a while.

Such a feeling, although on a smaller, regular-season scale, was replicated this past weekend in Chapel Hill. Again, the Tar Heels put up one of their best performances of the season, absolutely crushing the Wahoos 65-41. It was the fewest amount of points given up in the Roy Williams era. It sent Virginia crashing down the ACC standings on a three-game losing streak, the longest such streak since February of 2011. It reasserted UNC as the team to beat in the ACC and potentially as a Final Four favorite. It was glorious.

Excluding the Blue Devils, is Virginia now UNC’s biggest rival/competitor in the ACC? It’s hard to say no with the program having become extremely consistent and deadly under Tony Bennett. His ability to recruit and develop intelligent, athletic players for his complex, deliberate system has elevated him to being considered among the elite coaches. Along with Duke and UNC, there’s been no better program over the past few seasons in the conference, with apologies to Louisville. Simply, there hasn’t been an unimportant Virginia-Carolina game in a while.

Since Bennett took over in the 2009-10 season, Virginia is 5-7 against Carolina, which isn’t a great record by any means. However, what that record doesn’t suggest is just how different the program has been since the 2013-14 season, the year that Virginia won the ACC and made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. In that time? The schools are an even 3-3 against one another with another crucial matchup in Charlottesville next week.

As UVA’s rise in the past few years, spearheaded by an exhausting defense and experienced, capable shooting, has tormented the ACC, it has also affected the Tar Heels’ quest for conference glory. One of the reasons it was so gratifying to see UNC limit UVA to 41 points was because the Heels rarely score more than 65 points or so when playing Virginia. To see them completely overwhelm the UVA offense, much like has happened to them in the past, was a welcome sight.

Coupled with those low scores and defensive battles, just watching a Virginia-Carolina game has become somewhat of a brutal, self-flagellating slog. These games are fatiguing, much more so for the players, but even the fans have grappled with sheer frustration and annoyance. Losing to UVA isn’t really like losing to other teams in the conference, where maybe they’re just better or matchup problems decided the whole outcome. Instead, losing to the Wahoos is having their soul-crushing will imposed on the other team.

A final reason why Saturday’s big win was ever so fulfilling is how it situates both programs for this season. Once UVA found its groove a few seasons ago, Bennett and the players didn’t look back… until now. This is the first year since Virginia became a legitimate ACC power every year that the school is experiencing some shakeups and problems. Most likely, the Wahoos are already out of the ACC title race, not destined to reach a Final Four and will again lose some valuable, hard-to-replace seniors. Bennett and Virginia are learning just how hard it is to stay a top-three team in the loaded ACC year in and year out.

For UNC, the Heels are right back in the thick of the national contender conversation, as well as that much closer to winning the ACC for the second season in a row. There are a lot of similarities between these two schools, both in the midst of seasons following tremendous heights last year: UNC obviously made the National Championship game, while UVA reached the Elite Eight. Both are also still grappling with the losses of Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill. UNC has been the one able to replace the large holes left behind by stellar seniors and, as the season has worn on, Perrantes and company haven’t reliably been up to the task in the daunting ACC.

All that said, for now, there really is no more satisfactory of a win than Virginia other than Duke. Sorry, not sorry NC State. You’re not quite there, Louisville. But UVA? Now that’s slowly becoming a big rivalry among stylistically opposing conference foes. This time around, at least until next week, the Tar Heels are on the right side of things.