Games don't get much bigger during the regular season than the showdown between the #3 Virginia Cavaliers and the #7 North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC sits two games ahead of Virginia in the ACC standings and, with a win, can eliminate the Hoos from their quest for a third straight ACC regular season title.
Here are three key areas to watch for Virginia to gain the upper hand.
Force UNC to shoot from outside
Carolina's insane offensive efficiency—the Heels enter the game with a KenPom ORating of 119.8, 5th in the country—is in large part because it takes and makes high percentage shots from the interior. Only 26 percent of UNC's shots are three pointers, 339th of the 351 Division I teams this year. Two-point baskets account for more than 62 percent of North Carolina's points; only ODU boasts a higher percentage nationwide.
This plays into the strengths of the Pack Line. Even though it's been leaky at times this year, the focus of Tony Bennett's defense is preventing interior shots in the first place, contesting them aggressively if they go up, and daring teams to win with low-percentage shots from deep. When a team goes unconscious from deep (see: Miami, 2/22/16), that's a risk that's baked into the scheme. But Carolina would need to have a total alter-ego show up: the Heels are only 31 percent from beyond the arc this year, among the 50 worst teams in the country. Virginia needs to force the ball outside and take Carolina out of its comfort zone.
Control the defensive glass
Part of why UNC is able to take so many shots from inside comes from their dominance of offensive rebounds. The Heels snag 39 percent of their misses, ten full points above the national average. Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks are all among the top 200 players nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Virginia's bigs will have their hands full with the Heels' front court.
Which brings up sort of a subpoint: Isaiah Wilkins's noggin and Evan Nolte's toe may be the two most important body parts in Charlottesville today. If those guys are healthy, they add athleticism and length that can quell some of the matchup nightmares posed by UNC. If they can't go, the Hoos face a pretty serious uphill battle.
Play Virginia basketball
This game is a titanic clash of styles. UNC's offense has the 11th shortest average possession time in the country; Virginia's defense forces the 2nd longest. The old adage in basketball is that it's easier to slow a game down than to speed one up. And Virginia needs to prove that adage true. Every time the Hoos have beaten UNC from 2013–15, the game was under 65 possessions. Carolina's only two wins in that span—a 93-81 regular-season win in 2013 and last year's ACC Tournament semifinals win—came in the only two games over 65 possessions.
For the Hoos to hold serve on their home court and keep their conference title dreams alive, they'll need to dedicate themselves to the style that's gotten them this far and has taken them even farther the past two years.