The Virginia Cavaliers are coming off a tough 10-point home loss against Duke on Saturday night. Now, they face one of, if not the hardest turnaround of the entire college basketball season tonight when they travel to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels just 49 hours following the Duke game. The Tar Heels themselves almost fell victim to the classic trap game on Saturday at home, surviving in overtime against the Miami Hurricanes.
After the game, Coach Roy Williams was upset with his team’s performance, despite getting the win. He questioned his team’s physicality, saying, “I questioned our kids’ toughness throughout he whole game, and still was doing it at the end, but I think they answered it pretty well down the stretch.” He continued, “I called more plays in the last five minutes than I’ve called the entire year. Don’t like doing that because I think we need to be able to play basketball.” He was critical of the performance of star forward Luke Maye, who still ended the game 7/15 from the field with 20 points, 6 rebounds, 2 turnovers, and 2 fouls. He was also critical of starting point guard and freshman Coby White, who committed three turnovers in the first six minutes of the game and found himself on the bench for an extended period of time in the first half. While White did not commit a turnover for the rest of the game, it was evident that he and the rest of the Tar Heels overlooked Miami on Saturday.
I know that Virginia lost at home to a better Duke team, while North Carolina needed overtime to beat an inferior Miami team as double digit favorites. I know that Virginia has not lost two games in a row since 2017, when they lost four straight (a home loss to Duke, followed by a road loss to UNC, sandwiched in between a 2OT loss to VT and an OT loss to Miami). However, I still find myself liking the Tar Heels tonight.
When two elite teams go toe to toe, it is difficult to find a true edge. Obviously, Virginia’s defense is the cream of the crop. But the Tar Heel offense is as elite as the Virginia defense. This is a true clash of styles, in that Virginia is one of the three slowest teams in the country while UNC is one of the three fastest. Something has got to give. I dove deep into this match-up and I believe I found an edge for the Tar Heels.
I looked through Virginia’s schedule this season and circled four games, Maryland, N.C. State, and the two Duke games. These were the four games that Virginia struggled in, as they beat Maryland and N.C. State by a combined 6 points and lost to Duke twice. I found some interesting similarities between these teams and the Tar Heels, and think that those similarities are the reason why Virginia struggled with these teams.
The Tar Heels are an elite rebounding team. They rank 25th overall in offensive rebound rate (34.9%), and they rank 13th overall in opponent offensive rebound rate (23.6%). Further, they rank 21st overall in offensive rebounds per game and 3rd overall in defensive rebounds per game. These numbers are comparable to the rebounding numbers of Duke, N.C. State, and Maryland, especially on the offensive end. Duke ranks 5th overall in offensive rebound rate and 2nd overall in offensive rebounds per game. N.C. State ranks 7th overall in offensive rebound rate and 13th overall in offensive rebounds per game. Maryland ranks 22nd overall in offensive rebound rate and 78th overall in offensive rebounds per game. Virginia had trouble rebounding against these teams, as they recorded more offensive rebounds than their opponent in only one of the four games. The second Duke game was the only game in which the Cavaliers were able to hold these elite rebounding teams to under 10 offensive rebounds. Moreover, The Tar Heels are a better defensive rebounding team than each of the three previous opponents mentioned, which will help them further neutralize the boards against Virginia, who ranks 65th overall in offensive rebound rate, 167th overall in offensive rebounds per game, 32nd overall in opponent offensive rebound rate, and 60th overall in defensive rebounds per game.
Roy Williams made offensive rebounds a point of emphasis after the win against Miami. He mentioned that the Tar Heels missed 22 field goals in the first half but were only able to secure 2 offensive rebounds. Because Roy called them out, I expect the Tar Heels to be very aggressive on the glass tonight, especially early.
It makes sense that the Tar Heels are such a good rebounding team, considering the fact that they only have one rotational player that is under 6’4”. In fact, the Tar Heels rank 16th overall in average height, according to Ken Pom. For reference, Duke ranks 7th, Maryland ranks 47th, and N.C. State ranks 167th. Take a look at the UNC rotation:
Luke Maye, 6’8” forward, 74.5% of minutes
Cam Johnson, 6’9” wing, 70.7% of minutes
Kenny Williams, 6’4” guard, 69.5% of minutes
Coby White, 6’5” guard, 61.8% of minutes
Garrison Brooks, 6’9” forward, 53.7% of minutes
Nassir Little, 6’6” guard, 48.3% of minutes
Seventh Woods, 6’2” guard, 30.1% of minutes
As you can see, the Tar Heels’ core is a big group of guys. The perimeter size is a true advantage in this match-up. Not only because of rebounding, but because of how the size negates the pack-line defense of Virginia. It’s not like Virginia is the smallest team in the country, or even close to it, because they are not. However, Kyle Guy (6’2”), Kihei Clark (5’9”), and, to an extent, Ty Jerome (6’5”) are going to have difficulty defending the versatile and athletic back court of the Tar Heels in the half-court. The bigger UNC guards should be able to back down the Cavalier guards into the paint, which will allow them to kick the ball out for more uncontested threes than Virginia is accustomed to allowing, much like the Duke game.
Tempo, Fouls, and Increased Possessions
As I previously mentioned, UNC is the third fastest team in the country on offense. Their average offensive possession length is a cool 14.1 seconds. Out of all of Virginia’s Power 5 opponents, UNC, Duke, and N.C. State are the most up-tempo. Virginia, a team who allows opponents to score an average of only 54.1 points per game, allowed Duke to score 72 and 81 points respectively and allowed N.C. State to score 65 points (despite horrible shooting percentages). The Cavaliers even allowed Marshall, who ranks 6th overall in average offensive possession length, to score 64 points. I find this pretty interesting, as it seems like Virginia struggles to get back and get their defense set up in match-ups against these fast opponents.
I expect the Tar Heels to start this game FAST. The way to beat Virginia is to not allow them to dictate the pace of the game. They are comfortable walking the ball up the court and playing offense for 20+ seconds. If the Tar Heels want to beat the Cavaliers, they will have to be the ones to control the pace. The best way to do that is to start the game fast, get some easy transition buckets, draw some fouls, and force the defense to play on their heels (no pun intended).
Duke, N.C. State, and Maryland each attempted more free throws than Virginia in their respective games. Not only that, but Virginia, a team who ranks in the top 100 in defensive free throw rate, committed 37 combined fouls in the two Duke games, 19 fouls against Maryland, and 22 fouls against N.C. State. To me, this confirms that Virginia has trouble defending these up-tempo teams. The high tempo puts the Cavaliers in an uncomfortable position, while giving their opponent more opportunities to score. As for the Tar Heels, the absence of Sterling Manley and Leaky Black hurts their depth, but Luke Maye and Cam Johnson play very disciplined on defense, as they average 3.6 and 2.0 fouls committed per 40 minutes, respectively.
North Carolina has lost three straight to the Cavaliers, but won their last home game against them 65-41. In the three losses, North Carolina had less than 60 possessions. In the home win, they had 61 possessions. Why is this relevant? Because North Carolina really turned up the pace this year. The Tar Heels are averaging 79.1 possessions per game overall, a number that jumps up to 80.8 at home. This is a huge increase from last year’s 73.8 possessions per game. The increase in possessions is crucial in this match-up, as it is going to give the Tar Heels more opportunities to score against arguably the best defense in the country.
Three Point Shooting
Virginia owns the second best three-point defense in the country on paper, but this North Carolina team is an interesting shooting team. The Tar Heels rank 37th overall in three-point percentage (37.9%) and 2nd in ACC play (39.8%), while ranking 276th overall in three-point rate, as only 34.9% of their shots come from deep (37.4% in conference play). Surprisingly, Virginia is less than impressive as far as opponent three-point rate goes. The Cavaliers allow opponents to shoot 39% of their shot attempts from three (ranks 193rd), and that number rises to 42.5% in conference play, which ranks 13th out of 15 ACC teams. On top of that, the Tar Heels rank 9th overall in assist rate, as they record an assist on 62.4% of their made field goals. So, what does all of that mean?
To me, this means that the Tar Heels are an extremely EFFICIENT three-point shooting team. They don’t shoot a lot of forced threes like you see so many of these teams do in college nowadays. They work the ball around the court, looking for good shots. If the shot is not there, the ball keeps moving. This is key against the Virginia defense, a unit who tries to force the ball to stick and force opponents into bad shots.
The way to beat up-tempo teams is to turn them over and give yourself easy buckets on the other end. The problem is, Virginia is not a defense that turns over their opponent at a high rate. They rank 190th overall in opponent turnover percentage, and 14th out of 15 in the ACC. Not only do they not force opponents into turnovers, they do not create turnovers themselves, as they rank 13th in the ACC in steal percentage. The North Carolina point guards are young, but Roy Williams has done his best to make it clear that turnovers are not acceptable, as evidenced by the Coby White benching in the first half against Miami.
Virginia is a very difficult team to beat, especially the first time you see them during the season. If you want to beat them, you’re going to have to come out of the gates “guns a-blazin’.” I think the Tar Heels absolutely have the ability to knock the Cavaliers out of their comfort zone in the first 5-7 minutes of the game. It’s one thing to have to play in Chapel Hill just two days after a game against Duke, but it’s another thing to have to play against a Tar Heel team that loves to push the pace and score, score, score. This is a very good Virginia team, but I still feel like this team is too systematic. I do not think they have enough athleticism to keep up with the Tar Heels for 40 minutes, especially after taking another loss to Duke. It seems that this Virginia team had redemption on its mind going into Saturday, and now that they were left disappointed, I expect a hangover affect for them tonight. I think the Tar Heels are going to be the ones to dictate the pace, behind a rowdy home crowd at the Smith Center. I expect the Tar Heels to out-rebound the Cavaliers, get the ball to the outlet, and get out onto the break often in this game. Look for the speed of the Tar Heels to create defensive lapses for the Cavaliers, leading to excessive fouls and open three point shots. Look for the UNC guards to use their size to their advantage in the paint and on the boards as well. It is going to take a collective effort to beat this Virginia pack-line defense, so the Heels will have to hit their open shots. This is one of those games where the first team to 70 is most likely going to win, and tonight, I think that team is the Tar Heels.
The Pick: North Carolina ML to win 2 units
*This Tar Heel team is flying under the radar due to the constant praise of Duke, Tennessee, and Gonzaga. Roy Williams is quietly off to his best start in ACC play as the UNC Coach, and this offense is really starting to find its groove. Keep an eye on this squad. I think they have what it takes to win it all if they keep this up. Tonight will be a great way to measure where they are at in their quest for a title.