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UNC vs. Virginia: Three Things to Watch

Can the Tar Heels snap a six-game losing streak to the Cavaliers?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the good news: The North Carolina Tar Heels are 103-40 all-time against Virginia. UNC holds a 72 percent winning percentage versus their longtime foes.

The bad news is that losses number 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, and 40 have come in the last six games versus the Cavaliers.

The eventual 2017 national champions were the last team to beat UVA, and they were the first loss in this six-game skid.

Carolina’s win last Saturday helped them stay on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Imagine what a victory over the ninth-ranked team in the country will do to UNC’s season resume.

It will not be an easy task. Outside of Virginia’s talent and team play, the distractions off the court have caused another idle week. The last time UNC had a week between games, the Tar Heels had their worst game since late December.

With eight games left on the schedule, just three are against ranked teams. Carolina can make a statement tomorrow night and likely solidify their postseason bid. Conversely, a “good loss” does not sink them on the road versus a top ten team.

With these factors in mind, here are three things to watch tomorrow evening.

Can the Offense Keep it Going?

Here are a few statistics that demonstrate how well the offense performed against Duke:

  • UNC scored a season-high 91 points
  • Carolina’s 50 second half points were a season-high
  • The Tar Heels scored 91 points on 89 possessions, a season-high 1.02 points per possession
  • UNC shot 53.1 percent from the floor, their second-best effort this season

No one, not even the Tar Heels, is expecting this type of performance Saturday against the stout UVA defense.

Once again this season. Virginia is leading the conference in scoring defense while holding the top scoring margin in the ACC.

Since their 24-point victory over the Cavaliers in 2017, the Tar Heels have lost in a fashion typical of UVA opponents during the Tony Bennett era.

UNC has averaged 54 points per game in these six losses, with an average loss of eight points.

The fast break and secondary break, staples of the Roy Williams offense, are typically touted as ways to defeat the pack-line defense.

Cole Anthony’s quickness last season almost took down UVA, but the Tar Heels fell by two points.

Caleb Love, coming off his top offensive performance of the season, and RJ Davis are speedy enough to run an effective break. Yet, the typical Carolina transition basketball has not shown up consistently this season.

So how can the Tar Heels break the pack-line?

UNC will have two big guys in the frontcourt. With Garrison Brooks getting more mid-range buckets to fall last game, will this draw some defenders down?

If so, Carolina’s ball movement will need to be on point tomorrow night. UNC cannot shoot over UVA and expect to win. But if Love and Kerwin Walton can get set by working the ball inside-out, another 10-15 night from three will be a big help in knocking off the Hoos.

Who Wins the Turnover Battle?

UNC’s turnover woes have been well-documented on this site, and there were crucial moments against Duke where those turnovers were costly. The Blue Devils scored 20 points off turnovers.

The good news is that Duke had the same number of turnovers as Carolina, but the Tar Heels were better at converting by scoring 28 points off those miscues.

Virginia has struggled with turnovers the last two games, at least by their standards.

UVA was down at the half against Georgia Tech thanks in part to 11 first half UVA turnovers. The Cavaliers eventually secured an eight-point victory, but their 17 turnovers were a season-high.

The game against Pitt was closer on the scoreboard than it should have been, and nine second half turnovers were a contributing factor.

With UVA’s deliberate offense, turnovers hurt worse than an offense that seeks to maximize possessions. Can Carolina make it hurt for UVA?

In last year’s two-point loss, UNC actually won the turnovers per 100 possessions battle. This becomes even more important when the offense is forced to play another style than its preferred way.

If the Tar Heels can find a way to win the turnover battle and capitalize on those turnovers, UNC could have a shot a finding a victory on the road.

Focus on the Game

The players have taken their licks in the media and social media, and there is no doubt that the Tar Heels are looking forward to getting back on the court.

It will undoubtedly remain a storyline during coverage tomorrow night, so UNC fans should prepare for that.

But how will Carolina respond? The team needs to focus on the task at hand and do what they can to take down a top ten team.

UNC cannot afford to have a slow start at John Paul Jones Arena as they did at Littlejohn Coliseum. If Carolina creates a hole for themselves, Virginia will do what they can to bury them.

When facing a halftime deficit, this team has responded this season out of the locker room. The key is if they are able to sustain that efficiency on offense and aggressiveness on defense beyond the 10:00 minute mark of the second half.

It is time for this team to dig deep, especially in the wake of the players’ mistakes off the court. Once again, Carolina faces another season-defining moment on a Saturday night.