The University of Virginia men’s basketball program has not lost three games in a row since February of 2011. That is a very impressive streak. It is also very possibly going to come to an end this weekend. The Hoos have lost back to back games with a double overtime loss at Virginia Tech and falling to Jayson Tatum’s hot hand and Duke, and now Tony Bennett and Co. head to Chapel Hill to face the #9 Tar Heels. ESPN's College Gameday will air from Chapel Hill tomorrow morning starting at 11am, with tipoff scheduled for 8:15pm on ESPN.
As we know, the Hoos have been a very good road team under Tony Bennett, and their last trip to Chapel Hill was a successful one with a 75-64 win in 2015. A loss is far from certain, but the Heels have not lost a home game this year and are currently in first place in the conference. They also look like a very difficult challenge for the Hoos because of their interior depth.
UNC has four big men, none of whom average more than 23 minutes per game. That is a lot of bodies they can throw at an undermanned Wahoo front court. Roy Williams starts a duo of seniors in Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. Meeks is one of the best rebounders in the nation, averaging over nine boards per game in his 23 minutes. He’s also a solid post defender, although that doesn’t mean much against the Hoos. Hicks isn’t quite as much of a beast on the boards, but he’s a better scorer and is an outstanding FT shooter for a big man. Hicks isn’t as good a defender, but he’s still an adequate shot blocker. Most likely, Hoos will start the game with Jack Salt on Meeks and Isaiah Wilkins on Hicks. Wilkins may not be able to stop Hicks, who is bigger and stronger.
Behind that duo are a pair of youngsters, sophomore Luke Maye and freshman Tony Bradley. Maye did not play very much last year and his minutes have been up and down this year, but he’s a stretch four and we saw on Wednesday what that type of player can do to the Hoos. Maye has taken just 21 treys this year, but he’s made eight (38%). He’s also solid on the glass and can score in the mid-range. Bradley was the #3 center in the nation last year and has size and skill inside. He can score with his back to the basket and he runs the floor well, but he is still developing both his body and his game. He is UNC’s future and should be one of the top players in the ACC next year once Meeks and Hicks are gone.
The Heels will also, at times, go small with Justin Jackson at the four. Jackson is a 6’8” 210 wing, who shoots the ball very well (38% from three), but can also score inside. He’s not the most athletic of wings, but he uses his strength to get by his man and his length to get his shot off. Jackson leads the team with over 18 points per game and he also leads the team at over 31 minutes per game. Jackson, though, is not a good defender and he rarely commits himself on the glass. That could be an advantage for the Hoos, who do have the big wings that can bother Jackson’s perimeter game. Both Devon Hall and Marial Shayok are capable of frustrating the Heels' top scorer.
The loss of Marcus Paige off last year’s team removed their best playmaker in the backcourt. Joel Berry is the PG now, but he’s not the player Paige was. He’s a solid passer and leads the team in assists, but he simply doesn’t have the ability that his predecessor had. Berry, though, is a very good outside shooter (42% from three) and is one of the top FT shooters in the nation.
Berry has cycled through several backcourt mates this year. Most recently, junior Theo Pinson has been starting. Pinson was a top 10 player in the 2014 recruiting class and is one of the more athletic players in the country. He’s very strong in transition and going to the rim, but his lack of a true perimeter game has hurt his development and his playing time. He also suffered a broken bone in his foot during fall practice, which kept him out until January. Pinson received his first start of the season on Wednesday against NC State and finished with 12 points and four assists. He bring a different dynamic to the team with his explosion and ability in transition.
The injury probably cost Pinson a starting gig this year, but he’s also found himself behind sophomore Kenny Williams on the depth chart. Williams is a shooter (though he’s made just 33% of his treys this year) and that shooting ability helps open things up for the big men down low. Williams had knee surgery this week and is out for the season.
Let’s not forget about senior Nate Britt, who it seems has been around forever. Britt is a shooter, but can also make plays off the dribble. He’s small (6’1” 175), so he has trouble finishing inside (under 40% on 2s for his career), but he’s a capable passer. Britt is the primary backup to Berry at the point, though Roy Williams will play the two together at times. Also backing up at PG is freshman Seventh Woods. Woods is another uber-athlete, but he is still developing his basketball skill. Woods is shooting just 34% from the field so far this year, and turns the ball over way too much.
UNC is not a particularly good defensive team. They try to force turnovers and they are good on the defensive glass. That is their strength, and neither of those things affect the Hoos very much this year. The Hoos do not turn the ball over much, and generally do not hit the offensive glass, especially against a team that likes to run. The Hoos are likely to find some open shots in this game, and they’ll have to knock them down at a higher clip than they have been of late.
The Heels like to run, which isn’t a new development as UNC has been one of the faster teams in the nation for the entirety of Roy Williams’ coaching tenure. They’re just 45th this year in tempo and were 94th last year, though. Most years prior to that, they were in the top 20. The reason for the slowdown is, at least in part, a drop in steals. The Heels need to be able to get out and run and they want to do that off live-ball turnovers. Another reason for the slowdown is the lack of a true PG. The presence of so many big men also slows things down a bit.
The Hoos, of course, are not going to run with UNC. They are going to slow the game down. The Hoos have more depth in the backcourt and on the perimeter. They also have the height and length to slow down the Heels’ perimeter players. The key is going to be inside. UNC is #1 in the country in offensive rebounds and one of the most interior oriented teams in the nation. They rank 317th in percentage of shots taken from behind the arc. The Hoos have historically been a very good defensive rebounding team, and this year is no different (#4 in the nation). The Hoos have been hurt this year by 3 point shooting and specifically by bigger players who can shoot the 3. That makes Justin Jackson and Luke Maye big keys for the Heels. If the Hoos can keep those two guys from going off, and limit UNC's second chance points, they have a real shot of pulling the upset.