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UNC vs. Virginia: Three Things to Watch

Is Hubert Davis’ scheme built to handle Tony Bennett’s Pack Line defense?

North Carolina v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Following UNC’s loss to Notre Dame, fans, coaches, and players all were extremely frustrated. Fans were frustrated for numerous reasons, primarily the fact that switching on ball screens let Nate Laszewski feast more than he had all season long. Players were frustrated because they expect more out of each other. For Hubert Davis, though, he just wants his team to not only execute, but play Carolina basketball. We all know what that means by now, and we’ve seen it come and go all season long.

Here’s the bright side: that loss was UNC’s first “bad loss” of the season, which is pretty impressive for this being Davis’ first season as a head coach. Of course the three losses prior, “good” or not, amplifies the frustration, especially when knowing that the Tennessee and Kentucky games went way worse than they should’ve went. The past has to be the past though, because now the Tar Heels have to gear up to take on Virginia in the Dean Dome Saturday afternoon. This is a much less impressive Cavaliers team than we’ve seen in years past, but they are still not to be slept on. Here are three ways that Carolina can avoid back-to-back losses for the second time this season.

Playing for 40 minutes

Sometimes the simplest solution is the correct one, and in the case of the Tar Heels, it is absolutely the case here. Against Notre Dame, the only players who were able to get anything going in the first half were R.J. Davis and Armando Bacot. Caleb Love and Brady Manek were weirdly quiet, which just can’t be the case while Dawson Garcia and Kerwin Walton are out. Both players managed to ramp up their games in the second half, but it mostly felt like too little too late despite the 10 seconds the Heels managed to take the lead.

Here’s the thing: Virginia is not going to let Armando Bacot have anything easy near the rim, let alone anybody who thinks they’re going to find a way to drive to the basket. We’re all way too familiar with their Pack Line defense, and the big reason Roy Williams struggled coaching against it is because it was basically built to destroy the way he liked his team to play. Caleb Love, Brady Manek, and R.J. Davis have to be ready to play right at the opening tip and make Virginia pay from the perimeter. If they don’t, this is going to be a long, sloppy, long, agonizing game like it has been so many times in the past. Did I say long? I may not have mentioned long.

Solving the ball screen issue

Following the Notre Dame loss, Hubert Davis talked about how the problem with their defense was less about switching on ball screens, and more about how it was being executed. While I kind of disagree with that — though I’m also not a coach so what do I know — the fact of the matter is that whatever went wrong against the Irish needs to be fixed immediately. Like, immediately immediately. Tony Bennett likes to use a lot of screening action, perhaps more than most coaches in the ACC. They like to use ball screen action, they set screens as someone is sprinting under the rim, and then there’s one more guy waiting to set another screen so the runner can get to the perimeter, etc. It’s a lot, and UNC has to be ready to deal with it.

What’s even more agonizing about how Bennett’s offense is ran is the fact that they are more than willing to run out the shot clock to get the shot that they want. The Cavaliers don’t play basketball with a sense of urgency, but like they are trying to beat a sibling in Monopoly, and they are willing to make the game last for a week if it means that they buy up everything on the board. I’m sure by now it’s easy to see that I don’t love how this team plays (that’s an understatement), but it has gotten the desired results, and it will get the desired results if Davis can’t figure out how to get the Heels to defend screens effectively.

Will we see the four-guard lineup more often?

In the second half of the game against the Irish, Hubert Davis finally did what all of us (including the announcers) were thinking and switched to a four-guard lineup. It was clear that having Bacot and Manek on the floor at the same time was a bad idea, as the Irish were picking on both of them at the same time on the perimeter. Truthfully, I think Manek was the weakest link between the two, but because of this, the Heels looked a lot better when the four-guard lineup was on the floor. What happened when Davis inexplicably went back to two bigs? Things fell apart quickly thanks to Nate Laszewski.

Am I saying that Hubert Davis should go with a four-guard lineup to solve all of the Heels’ defensive problems? Absolutely not, but what I am saying is that it may be something to revisit for the game against the Cavaliers. Because of how UVA plays, it would be good to not only have someone quicker than Manek on the floor, but is almost as big. Having Leaky Black at the four spot would keep Jayden Gardner in check, who is coming off of a 23-point game against Clemson. I would love for Manek to prove me wrong and he has a much better defensive performance (no seriously, I’m begging for it because he needs to be out there), but Hubert Davis is going to have to get out his short leash for this one if they want to take down the Cavaliers for the first time since 2017.