When #12 North Carolina (12-3, 1-1) visits #8 Virginia (13-1, 2-0) later today, they will look to get above .500 in conference play. As is common in the ACC, this will be another top-25 matchup in what has become one of the better rivalries in recent years. Both teams had to replace key leadership from last year’s squads, and yet they have maintained their position atop the basketball landscape.
The Heels will be trying to win in Charlottesville for the first time since 2012. The Cavaliers will look to solidify their place in the early conference standings and get a key win against the defending national champions. For those Tar Heel fans who enjoy watching players actually score points, you will be happy to know this is the only regular season game between the two teams.
Conference play has arguably been a mixed bag for the boys from Monticello. They escaped a surprising upstart Boston College squad 59-58 last weekend at home, only to wallop their intra-state rival Virginia Tech 78-52 on Wednesday night in Blacksburg. Notice that neither one of their opponents scored 60 points. Only three teams this season have broken 60 points against Virginia -WVU, Davidson, and VCU. Nobody has scored 70.
Virginia’s identity starts and ends with defense and limiting the total number of possessions a team has. As mentioned yesterday in my Three Things to Watch, UVA ranks dead last in Division-I basketball in adjusted tempo with 61.1 possessions a game. Virginia strangles opponents by disrupting offensive timing, defending outside the three point line, and maintaining incredible discipline inside the paint. The Cavaliers are not overly physical or threatening—they just mentally wear down opponents and force them into poor shots (36%) or turnovers (14 per game).
Offensively, they are a three headed monster on the perimeter with Kyle Guy (15.5 ppg), Devon Hall (11.6 ppg), and Ty Jerome (9.9 ppg). Most will remember Guy as the, uh, guy with a “man bun” who demolished UNC when they visited John Paul Jones Arena last season.
The “man bun” is now gone, but Guy is still firing on all cylinders. He’s shooting 46% from three, while attempting 6.2 three points per game. Not just a one trick pony, he has diversified his game and, along with Hall, leads the team in two-point attempts as well.
Both Hall (42%) and Jerome (47%) add to the long-distance firepower, on a combined 7.3 additional three point attempts per game. Against Boston College, Jerome went off for 31 points thanks to hitting 6 of 9 attempts beyond the arc. If you’re sweating or shouting profanities at the inevitable onslaught that all Tar Heel fans expect -especially after Wednesday night’s first half-- here’s some good news.
Virginia only have two players taller than 6’9. Starting center Jack Salt stands at 6’10, and averages 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. Reserve freshman, 6’11 Jay Huff, averages 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game when he plays. He has only played in 9 games, despite no known injuries. Their only true threat in the post is 6-8, 205-pound senior forward Isaiah Wilkins. He leads the team in rebounding with 7.3 a game. There are weaknesses to exploit.
However, despite their heavy reliance on the perimeter players, UVA still is a highly efficient, fine tuned offense that is just as fatiguing as their defense. With the 35th most efficient offense in the nation, they don’t make mistakes and take good quality shots.
As we all witnessed on Wednesday, UNC is coming off a frustrating performance in Tallahassee. Once again Joel Berry had the ball in his hands on UNC’s final realistic possession, only to see his shot bounce off the rim. There is certainly no shame in a one-point road loss to a top-25 team, but there are clear cracks starting to show in UNC’s armor. I apologize for the gloom that is about to follow.
Joel Berry may be the go-to scorer at this point in the season (which may not be a viable long-term solution), but this team thrives when Theo Pinson is on the floor. Douglas Valentine touched on this issue yesterday. The Heels have overcome poor shooting performances from Berry, Luke Maye, and Kenny Williams but they have not survived a game where Theo Pinson struggles (Wofford) or is kept out for long stretches (Florida State). As the team leader in assists, third leading rebounder, and most versatile defender he has to stay on the court.
Also concerning was Berry, Maye, and Williams continuing their high rates of usage, as they all topped 34 minutes of playing time. With the exception of Cam Johnson, the Heels’ bench continues to provide minimal or inconsistent production. Jalek Felton’s playing time has dwindled to 5 minutes in each of the last two games, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman often require specific match-ups, and Andrew Platek and Brandon Robinson have struggled to make positive impacts. For example, using the very messy metric of +/-, Platek was -19 in only 8 minutes of action against FSU.
Additionally, through two ACC games, the Heels have not looked comfortable as they continue to integrate so many new parts. Perhaps most surprising has been their vulnerability to allowing quick explosive spurts of scoring. Whether it was Wake’s three consecutive three’s that killed a 9 point advantage, or FSU’s CJ Walker to go on his own personal 8-0 run the Heels have struggled to stop teams from getting and keeping momentum at key junctures. Against UVA, a 10-point deficit may as well be a 20-point shellacking.
What to expect
Ok. Now the good news. Acknowledging UNC’s recent struggles, this matchup is more favorable than it seems. Due to the relative lack of size on UVA’s front line, if Roy Williams was so inclined, UNC could assume some risk by pushing out on their perimeter defense, and let UVA try and beat them inside. With so few possessions being likely, and no noticeable inside threat, trading two point attempts for three’s may be a key to winning.
That same size advantage may actually open up opportunities on offense. In previous years UNC has struggled to consistently dominate UVA in the paint because the Heels lacked multiple perimeter threats. Virginia could just pack their defense into the paint. That is not the case this year. With so many three-point options, the young big men (and Luke Maye) may find some success if the Cavalier defense overextends.
Finally, the Heels were surprisingly secure with the ball against the frantic Seminoles. If they can replicate that performance and limit the turnovers against a less athletic UVA team, the tempo and fewer possessions can be mitigated.
Final Score: UNC 68 - UVA 63