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UNC vs UVA: Three Things to Watch

Big men, finding free possessions, and ball movement

NCAA Basketball: Miami-Florida at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With a short turnaround after the heart pounding win on Saturday, UNC will host Virginia tonight. The top-10 match-up comes after an intense weekend that saw both teams stumble in home games. The Heels were able to eek out a victory, but the Cavaliers lost to Duke for the second time this season.

A win for the Heels will provide some breathing room in an effort to the make the race for the ACC regular season title a two-horse race. A win for the Cavaliers, and the league will remain a three-headed monster battling for supremacy. Whichever teams leaves with a victory will also be in prime position to battle for a #1 seed over the coming weeks. Aside from ACC ramifications, what else can we look for tonight?

Brooks, Huffman, and Manley (?)

This could also be labeled “rebounding”, but that seems obvious to even the most casual fan. However, after getting out-rebounded 39-32 against a Miami team that starts just one player over 6’7”, the 48-hour turnaround isn’t a lot of time to mentally re-focus on crashing the glass. Both UNC and Virginia are almost identical rebounding teams, except Virginia has three regular rotation players over 6’8”. North Carolina does not.

Though they have shown improvement against an admittedly weak early conference slate, the Heels are still vulnerable to teams with multiple big men. Virginia is one of those teams with Jay Huff (7’1”), Jack Salt (6’10”) and Mamadi Diakite (6’9”). That size has helped Virginia lead the league with allowing the lowest percentage of offensive rebounds in ACC play. Teams grab just 24.2% of potential offensive boards. For context, UNC is second in the league by allowing opponents to 25.1% of potential offensive rebounds.

It’s no different on the offensive end of the floor. In ACC play, UVA gets 33% of their possible offensive rebounds, while UNC grabs 34.1%. Simply put, both are elite rebounding teams. (All stats courtesy of

UNC’s guards certainly have to be active, but Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, and maybe Sterling Manley (who was at least dressed out on Saturday), have to hinder Virginia’s big bodies. If the big men can neutralize Huff, Salt, and Diakite then the rest of the Heels will have a better chance to limit the damage of UVA’s leading rebounders. In ACC play, DeAndre Hunter (5.7) and Braxton Key (6.9) lead the team in rebounds.

Extra Possessions

The likelihood of forcing UVA to increase their tempo (which ranks as the slowest in the nation), is low. As we saw last year in the NCAA tournament in their opening round loss to UMBC, the Hoos often lack the ability to find a second gear when they fall behind. That was on display again against Duke on Saturday, as they never could quite close the gap after falling behind by 10 points. For as methodical and efficient as their offense is, it is almost inversely explosive.

Finding extra possessions for the Heels will be critical against their stout defense. It’s no coincidence the last three games against UVA, all losses, have had fewer than 60 possessions. As mentioned above, winning the rebounding battle will help. UNC has also shown improvement in ball security and that will once again be critical against the Hoos. You may remember last year’s loss in Charlottesville was partially due to mind-numbing turnovers in the first half that led to easy UVA buckets.

The blueprint, however, might be in Duke’s two wins. Compared to previous versions, UVA lacks the multiple ball-handlers and interchangeable parts that have become familiar. When this UVA team is pressured by players of equal or greater athleticism, they can struggle to respond. Turnovers or poor offensive possessions are often the result.

This is one way NC State almost pulled the upset two weeks ago and how Duke swept them this season. In fact, the last three games against State, Miami and Duke, Tony Bennett’s squad is averaging 14 turnovers per game – well above their season average of just 9.1. Now they have to travel and play again with less than 48 hours to recover.

North Carolina has the athleticism and length on the perimeter. If they can show some defensive discipline and communication, which have proven inconsistent at times, a comfortable win is possible.

Ball Movement

Without a physically imposing inside presence and only one true play-creator on the perimeter, North Carolina’s strengths of balanced scoring and ball movement have led to an ACC-best 62.9% assist rate on made field goals. Yet, for whatever reason, playing in Chapel Hill has elicited some less-than-impressive performances with the offense going missing for long stretches (Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami). Many times, this has come from poor shot selection, lack of inside-out ball movement, and players standing around the perimeter.

Virginia’s defense is known for clogging passing and driving lanes so teams force outside shots or take contested mid and close-range shots. That leads to frustration and teams respond by getting away from their preferred offensive style. Duke overcame this on Saturday with red-hot shooting from deep, which North Carolina is plenty capable of doing.

However, that isn’t the only way to defeat Virginia, and relying solely on three-point shooting is not UNC’s preferred method. There are differences in finding Cam in the corner or Kenny at the top of the key off freelance motion, compared to Luke or Coby attempting a falling-away pull-up with 24 seconds still on the shot clock (late game offense against Miami, notwithstanding). The most memorable plays this season have been when four or five UNC players touch the ball on a given possession (like the loose ball scramble in Louisville that led a dagger three at the top of the key).

That same ball movement has also helped Garrison Brooks lead the team in assists three times in ACC play. Those three games were all Tar Heel wins, proving that the inside-out method is still an important part of UNC’s success. Against Virginia, that patience and discipline will be put the test.