The North Carolina Tar Heels (16-4, 5-2) travel to Blacksburg to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies (13-6, 2-4) in what will be the Heels’ second game in three days. Everything didn’t go exactly according to plan against Georgia Tech on Saturday, but domination on the boards allowed Roy Williams’ bunch to earn a comfortable 80-66 victory. Carolina will look to extend their four-game winning streak to five tonight, but of course, road games in the ACC are rarely easy.
Virginia Tech is coming off a tough stretch with losses at Louisville and vs. Florida State. Defense has been a problem, as each of those teams eclipsed the 90-point mark. The Hokies rank 99th in the country in defensive efficiency, allowing 0.978 PPP (points per possession) as well as 1.152 PPP over their last three contests. They must improve that if they want to stave off the revitalized small-ball offense of the Tar Heels.
Meanwhile, the Hokies rank 13th in the nation with 85.6 points per game, and have largely won their games to this point by outscoring their opponents. Their scoring attack is extremely balanced, with their starting five of Justin Bibbs (13.6), Justin Robinson (12.2), Ahmed Hill (14.7), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (11.5), and Kerry Blackshear Jr. (13.4) all averaging double figures.
Perhaps most crucial towards their chances of winning this game is the Hokies’ ability to stroke it from outside. Va Tech currently sits at 23rd in the country with a three point percentage of 39.7. Their entire starting lineup is shooting 37% or better from deep, while two of those guys (Hill and Blackshear) are shooting 47% or better. This could present a massive problem for a Tar Heel team that has struggled all season long to guard the perimeter.
Conversely, the Hokies’ fast-paced offense could be something that plays into Carolina’s hands. Va Tech’s 74.7 possessions per game ranks them 14th among power conference teams, putting them just below UNC, who is 13th with 74.8 possessions per game. Typically, the Tar Heels have fared much better against teams who like to push the pace rather than those who don’t (Virginia and Michigan State come to mind). Things could get out of hand for the Hokies if they try to turn this one into a track meet.
The Tar Heels are coming off a relatively ugly win over Georgia Tech. They were able to combat their 14 turnovers by securing a 46-25 edge on the glass. While the game was in Georgia Tech’s favor for a decent portion of the first half, the Heels eventually focused in and starting taking care of the ball, which allowed them to jump out to a seven-point halftime lead. From there, the game went largely as expected. The Yellow Jackets made a couple pushes but were never able to bring it below a three-possession game. The home victory capped a solid week for Carolina, who also defeated Clemson for the 59th time in a row in Chapel Hill.
One of the biggest takeaways was the continued emergence of Sterling Manley, who recorded 9 points (4-4 shooting) and 3 rebounds in just 12 minutes. Knowing he can get positive play out of his bench gives Roy Williams much more confidence in rolling out the small lineup.
Speaking of going small, the Tar Heels are 4-0 since inserting Cameron Johnson in the starting lineup in place of Garrison Brooks. Surprisingly enough, their rebounding margin is +12.75 since that point, just above their season average of +12.2 which leads the nation. After losing the likes of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Tony Bradley, many expected the powerful rebounding team that won the 2017 national championship to be a shell of its former self. Instead, Roy Williams has his team crashing the glass just as effectively, a huge testament to his coaching.
Moreover, Cam Johnson seems to have found his stroke as a starter, shooting 8-13 (62%) from three over the past two games. The Tar Heels will need Johnson to knock down some perimeter shots in such a hostile environment.
Lastly, UNC has proved it can win games without Joel Berry having to go off. Berry shot 4-12 and 3-17 in wins over Clemson and Georgia Tech, respectively. The Tar Heels are better when the scoring is spread out. They’ll need help from multiple people if they want to steal a win in Blacksburg.
Don’t be surprised if the Tar Heels come out cold on the road. Rebounding and turnovers, as usual, will be a big key in this one. If they can crash the glass and create some steals, Carolina can neutralize the high-scoring offense of Virginia Tech. Furthermore, taking care of the ball themselves will be instrumental in keeping the Hokies from generating momentum in front of their home crowd.
Ultimately, the Tar Heels halt a couple late runs from the Hokies and even up their away record in the ACC.
North Carolina - 91; Virginia Tech - 82