This North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team just does not make any sense. Four days after one of the best first half offensive performances in recent memory, Carolina does the complete opposite against one of the worst teams in the league.
UNC’s NCAA Tournament hopes are evaporating, and Saturday’s game in Blacksburg should make Carolina fans uneasy. The Tar Heels have lost their previous two games at Virginia Tech, and the Hokies are on a tear. VT has won six straight with an average margin of victory of nearly 14 points.
The factors for Saturday’s game are much of the same after these disappointing losses, but let’s dive in.
Find the Toughness
A frustration of this team is that it has shown toughness, defensive intensity, and offensive efficiency. This team could be a Sweet 16 squad, but UNC does not bring it every game.
Against Pitt, the Tar Heels were bullied from the opening tip until a futile effort near the end of the game.
This is what head coach Hubert Davis had to say after the loss to Pitt:
And at the end of the day, there’s been more times than not that we don’t handle and we can’t respond to that type of physicality. And so what can we do against that to fight that is to be physical ourselves. And that’s something that — that’s a narrative and a reputation that we’re going to have to change. And that’s something specifically that we’re going to have to change really quickly.
In mid-February, is this team really going to change? Unfortunately, the roller coaster will continue until an exit from the NCAA Tournament or NIT.
Here’s a scouting report: Virginia Tech forwards Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts are going to bring it Saturday. In the first meeting between the teams, Aluma and Mutts scored 19 and 18 points, respectfully.
The Tar Heels need to be ready for battle.
Win the Coaching Battle
When the worst offensive team in the ACC plays on the road in an arena in which the home team led by 40 points in the previous game, what is the game plan?
The 16-point scoring average differential between UNC and Pitt was a large mountain to climb, especially with the Panthers holding the worst scoring margin in the conference.
How about some bully ball? The physical effort by Pitt, combined with the sheer complacency of Carolina, led to the third-biggest halftime deficit for the Tar Heels in 36 years at the Smith Center.
Who could have seen this game plan coming?
Here’s Hubert Davis postgame:
Pitt came in with the game plan and the mindset to be physical, to make this a very tough, will and want-to type of game where it was physical, a lot of contact. And that’s who Pitt is, that’s what they’ve done all season. And we knew that that’s what they were going to bring.
Pitt’s identity is a physical team that has done that all season, and the Tar Heel coaching staff knew they were going to do that?
The rookie head coach has been out-coached many times this season. The Pitt game was another example. How much is this particular team? How much is growing pains? How much is Davis himself?
We will not know the answers to these questions for a couple years, but let’s look at Saturday’s game.
When Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young was the head coach of mid-major Wofford, his teams were 2-2 against UNC during his tenure with the Terriers. This includes a victory over a fifth-ranked Carolina team in 2017, marking the first ever win over a top 25 team for Wofford.
Young made it happen with SoCon Wofford against Roy Williams. What will happen Saturday? The Pitt game looked like another example of taking a hammer to the round peg in a square hole, hoping something would just change on the court. The hope is Davis will be able to make the proper in-game adjustments to give UNC a shot.
Stop the Hot Hand
There will be a lot of focus on Aluma and Mutts. During VT’s six-game winning streak, Aluma was the leading scorer in four of those contests. The combination of Armando Bacot’s performance against Pitt with Aluma and Mutts in the front court, there could be trouble.
However, the two games when Aluma was not the leading scorer, he tallied just four and six points in those two games. Senior guard Storm Murphy was the leading scorer in VT’s win at Pitt.
In Virginia Tech’s win over Florida State, junior guard Hunter Cattoor popped off for a career-high 27 points. He was 9-11 from three in that game, and is shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc this season.
Cattoor is a sleeper pick to make some noise against UNC.