Virginia vs. North Carolina Basketball: The BIG PREVIEW

The back end of perhaps the toughest two-game stretch any team will play this year is upon us. The Virginia Cavaliers face the North Carolina Tar Heels less than 48 hours after their game with Duke ended. The game with Duke was immensely hyped, with Charlottesville hosting ESPN’s College GameDay and (seemingly) the entire college basketball world focused on the rematch.

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Streaking the lawn

The Hoos, of course, fell to Duke for the second time this year. At 8-2 in the conference, Virginia now sits in third place in the ACC standings, behind Duke and UNC at 9-1. However, Duke and UNC still have to play twice. That gives Virginia a puncher’s chance to win the regular season, but they’ll need to win this game.

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It seems like the Heels are having a bad year seeing as they’ve lost four games. But only one of those (Texas, ranked #23 on KenPom, on a neutral court) is a “bad” loss. The Heels rank eighth on KenPom right now, which is a reflection of their overall quality of play. They seem to be getting better, though they struggled badly at home against an undermanned Miami team on Saturday, needing overtime to win by 3.

A year ago, UNC was led by Luke Maye in a bit of a surprise. As a sophomore, Maye averaged 5 points and 4 rebounds per game in just 14 minutes per game. As a junior, he averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds and was first-team All-ACC. This year, both of those are down, but he’s still averaging 15 and 9. His usage rate is also down (as are his minutes), and he’s taking more outside shots. After making 43% last year, he’s down to just 33%.

The reason for a lot of that is Coby White. White broke the all-time North Carolina High School scoring record. He’s very quick and can basically get anywhere he wants on the floor. He’s kind of like Miami’s Chris Lykes in that vein, but at 6’3” he’s more capable of finishing inside.

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He’s also a capable outside shooter (38.8%), though he shoots too many threes. He’s taken over half his shots from downtown.

This is really not a good shot. That’s deep for NBA range, but White has that ability.

Amazingly, White was not the top recruit for Roy Williams this year. That honor went to forward Nassir Little. Little is a long, athletic wing who runs the floor and can also play inside a bit. He averages about 10 points per game despite shooting just 27% from downtown. Most of his points come in transition. He’s also a solid defender. (White has quick hands, but isn’t a particularly good man defender.)
As you probably know, UNC plays at one of the fastest paces in the country. They want to run, and in doing so have become the fifth fastest team in the country. They’ve played just one game with under 70 possessions. Virginia has played just one game above that.

When UNC gets the ball, they push. It could be a made basket, a miss, or a turnover.

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This fast break comes without White even on the floor. Four guys are involved. It starts with Little, who is great in transition, and ends with Maye, who isn’t seen as a “run n’ gun” type.

UNC is ninth in the country in assists per field goals made. That is a big part of why their offense is seventh in the country. However, a lot of that comes in transition. In the half court, they often turn into a one-on-one team. Usually, that’s White, but others chip in as well.

The Heels are 276th in three point attempts (as a percentage of overall shots). Much of that is how many transition points they get. But other than White, there’s really only one shooter on the team, Cam Johnson. How is Johnson still around? He debuted for Pitt in November of 2014. Johnson is a career 40% shooter, but he’s up around 47% this year. He’s getting a lot of open looks, with White and Little getting so much attention from defenses. More than half his shots come from downtown. Some, from way downtown:

Shooting guard Kenny Williams is also a shooter, but his shot has deserted him this year. He made over 40% last year, but he’s down around 30% this year. He has made 42% from deep over UNC’s current seven-game winning streak.

One of the interesting things about UNC, especially coming after the Duke matchup is how deep the Heels are. Only Maye averages 30 minutes per game, and ten guys average over ten minutes per game. That includes a pair of big men, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley. Manley, though, is out with a knee injury. That means Brooks is really the only interior player (other than Maye) around. Maye is a capable interior scorer and is very strong on the glass. But he’s not an interior defender and really prefers to play on the outside. Virginia could have a big advantage on the inside.

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Against Duke, most of the interior minutes went to Jack Salt and Braxton Key. Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff combined for just 24 minutes. That’ll change this time out, because of UNC’s athleticism. Salt doesn’t really have a place in this game when Brooks is out (or even when Brooks is in). Both Diakite and Huff are better weakside shot blockers and could help protect the rim against White’s drives. Both also provide more offensive game inside, and Virginia will need that to keep up with the high octane UNC attack.

Ultimately, UNC wants to run. That is usually hard to do against Virginia, but the Hoos have been turnover prone over the past few weeks. If that continues to be the case, UNC will have a big advantage, especially with Virginia coming off such a tough matchup. But if Virginia can keep this game in the half court and keep it down around 65 possessions, they get the advantage. The games that UNC has lost have all come to excellent defensive teams who kept UNC under one point per possession. That’ll be a key stat this game. If UNC is under that number, Virginia should win.

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Following this game, Virginia gets a bit of a break with four full days off. However, they have another Saturday-Monday set next weekend with Notre Dame at home and Virginia Tech on the road. These back-to-back games will hopefully get Virginia ready for tournament play, which runs on a similar schedule.

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