Man, if you actually stayed up until/past midnight to see who UNC would be playing tonight, only to be treated to the atrocity of a basketball game that was Virginia’s 51-50 win over Louisville, I don’t know whether to be commiserative or impressed, or both. Either way, that game means that we Heels fans will watch our team take on the Cavaliers at the same time tonight. After breaking a streak of 7 straight losses to Virginia earlier this season, this game is a chance for Hubert Davis to start a streak of his own against the guy who’s arguably been the best coach in the ACC for the past 5 years. Here are some things to keep an eye on tonight, if you can keep that eye open:
1. Perimeter Defense
Looking back, UNC’s loss to Pittsburgh was in part a culmination of a worrying trend — the Heels’ last 5 opponents before Pitt had all shot 40% or better from three-point range. Pitt, of course, who were a terrible three-point shooting team, went 10/17 from behind the arc to pace their win (groan). In the three games directly after, perimeter defense seemed to have been a renewed point of emphasis for this Heels team: Virginia Tech was just 5/26, as UNC denied any of the Hokies’ primary scorers good shooting opportunities, Louisville was 7/28, and N.C. State was 9/27, many of those makes coming in garbage time. The last two games haven’t looked as good as that, with Syracuse hitting 10/25 (40%) and Duke hitting 7/19 (37%), but Syracuse was buoyed by an unconscious shooting day from Cole Swider (7/11) — the rest of the team was just 3/14 — and Duke’s shooting at reasonable efficiency was alleviated by defense that forced a low volume of outside shots.
Virginia comes into this game after winning one in which they made zero three-pointers, which just made me throw up in my mouth a little. The ‘Hoos aren’t much of a shooting team generally; they rank last in the conference (and nearly last in the country) in three-point shooting rate and only hit about 32% of the threes they do take. But going 0-fer is an aberration even for them, and with UNC’s luck, they’re due for some positive regression unless they’re pressured on the perimter. Shooting guard Armaan Franklin hasn’t shot well this year but was a great shooter at Indiana last year, and point guard Kihei Clark is their best shooter at 36% on nearly 5 attempts per game. The Heels will have to keep up their good defensive play on the perimeter from recent times to avoid becoming victims of regression to the mean, and do so without giving up driving lanes to guards or post position to Jayden Gardner.
2. Armando Bacot
This might surprise you if you haven’t had a close eye on the rest of the ACC this season, but Virginia’s defense, normally Tony Bennett’s calling card, has not been very good this season. Per Kenpom, they’re just 73rd in the country in defensive efficiency, and they don’t really seem to have any one weakness; they’re more just mediocre in most aspects. Their two-point defense and three-point defense are below average for the ACC and they don’t force a ton of turnovers; teams are more able to get good shots against them than normal. In the two teams’ regular season matchup, Armando Bacot was the primary beneficiary, exploding for 29 points and 22 rebounds as UVA just had no answers for his size, strength, and touch around the basket. If that was the best game of Bacot’s career, he’s coming off one that’s got to be at least top-3, a 23-point performance against arguably the best interior defender in the country. He’s also got to be smarting a little from being snubbed (in his and his teammates’ mind, at least) for the ACC Player of the Year award, so he’s coming into this game with a great precedent, in great form, with something to prove, and opposition not really known for stopping opponents. All the ingredients are there for another big night for the big man.
What won’t shock you about this year’s Virginia team is that they’re dead last in the country in tempo, under 60 possessions per game. Bennett has always been good at forcing his opponents to play the game at his preferred pace, which has historically been a problem for a UNC system predicated on finding quick offense in transition and in the halfcourt. Even this year’s Heels, who don’t force a ton of turnovers and don’t get a ton of transition opportunities, aren’t exactly slow, ranking 40th in the country in adjusted tempo — they like to find their spots quickly even in the halfcourt. In the last game, the difference, besides Virginia’s shot-contesting not matching its ability to slow down a game, was that Hubert Davis’ sets-heavy offense seems to make it easier on his team to slow things down when necessary and still get the shots they’re looking for, allowing for a more tempo-free team. But we all know they’d still like to run and dictate a faster pace, if possible, not only because it’s more fun and makes it easier to put a game away but also because that’s something Virginia isn’t used to. So this one’s kind of a two-pronged thing to watch — Can UNC flip the script on Virginia and force them to play a faster brand of ball, ideally in early catch-up mode, and if not, can they make like the first meeting and stay patient enough to find the shots they’re looking for, even if slowed down?