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UNC vs. Virginia Tech: Three Things to Watch

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The Tar Heels look to keep it rolling as they enter the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels opened up the ACC tournament with a resounding 101-59 victory over Notre Dame last night. The win was encouraging from a few different perspectives. For one, the Heels made much crisper passes and managed to turn the ball over just eleven times. Also, they were able to win like they did despite the fact that Kerwin Walton didn’t have his best outing with just three points on 1-5 shooting. Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, and Anthony Harris did their best to make up for it, each knocking down at least two triples.

It was the Carolina big men, however, that made the biggest impact in that one. Their persistence on the backboards and in the paint really wore the Irish down throughout the game, but more on that later. Without further ado, here are three things to watch tonight when the Tar Heels take on the Hokies of Virginia Tech.

How Legit Are the Hokies?

No team in the country has been immune to the craziness that has resulted from the pandemic. However, Virginia Tech has been especially effected by it. The Hokies played 20 regular season games and just 13 conference games (tied for least in the ACC). Five of their last seven scheduled matchups were canceled.

With all of that being said, it’s still difficult to know just how good this team actually is. A 9-4 conference record was good enough for a third place finish in the ACC, but seven of those wins came against teams in the bottom half of the conference. Alas, who knows what would’ve happened if they were forced to play those games that were canceled? I don’t mean to in any way discredit what Virginia Tech has done this season. It’s just hard to tell if they are truly as legitimate as their ACC tournament seeding indicates. Regardless, they’ll have a chance to put this speculation to rest by taking down a hot Carolina squad.

The Young Bigs

With Garrison Brooks out with an ankle injury, the Tar Heels young big man trio of sophomore Armando Bacot and freshmen Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler put on a clinic against the Irish. All three players recorded a double-double. Bacot finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks. Sharpe added 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists. Kessler actually flirted with a triple-double, posting 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 blocks.

Kessler’s performance was especially significant as his emergence of late has taken the Heels to another level. It’s been a while since Carolina has had a true rim protector, but Kessler is proving to be just that as he continues to get more comfortable. As long as he was in the game, the Irish got nothing easy in the paint. Those aforementioned eight blocks don’t even tell the whole story as he affected even more shots and his mere presence was enough to make an impact.

Bacot and Sharpe were the main ones responsible for giving the Heels their lead in the first place. The team wasn’t shooting particularly well in the first half, but it didn’t matter because those two were crashing the glass and cleaning up just about every miss that rolled off the rim. Carolina finished with 25 offensive rebounds for the game with 15 of those coming from Bacot and Sharpe.

It’s unclear at the time of this writing if Garrison Brooks will be able to suit up in this game. If these young bigs can play like they did last night, though, it may not matter. Rebounding and feeding the ball to the paint will be keys versus the Hokies.

Consistency

Every time it seems like this Tar Heel team has turned a corner with a big win, they usually follow it up with a dud outing. Granted, the Heels have now won two straight by 18 or more, but the point still stands. After its first win over Duke, Carolina turned around and mustered just 48 points against Virginia. They looked like a potential final four team in an emphatic 45-point win over Louisville. The next game, they lost by 13 at home to a Marquette team with a losing record.

Inconsistency is to be expected with such a young team, but it can be frustrating given not only the size and talent on the roster, but also the stretches of great basketball we’ve seen them play. At its best, this team is capable of competing with anybody in the nation. It’s just a matter of putting together a full 40 minutes of inspired play.

Arguably the biggest reason for the Heels’ inconsistent play has been the turnovers. They have a propensity for going on cold streaks here and there, but the rough shooting is oftentimes masked by the team’s elite-level rebounding. The turnovers, on the other hand, not only prevent the Heels from getting a shot up on the rim but they also regularly lead to points on the other end. They coughed the ball up just 11 times in the 41-point victory over the Irish. When the Tar Heels take care of the ball, they can be a difficult team to beat.