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THE BIG PREVIEW: No. 8 Virginia vs. No. 12 North Carolina

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The Hoos have a chance for a statement win over the Heels.

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Hoos are coming off a dominating win in Blacksburg, but there’s no time to relax as they welcome the defending national champion Tar Heels to Charlottesville on Saturday at 1PM. Of course, this year’s UNC team is nothing like last year’s title winner. For starters, three of the top four scorers from last year are gone. Those same three players were also the leading rebounders. The Heels are ranked 11th in the current Coaches Poll and 12th in the AP Poll, but that was before they lost to FSU on Wednesday.

The top returner for UNC is PG Joel Berry II. You may have heard that Berry broke his hand by punching a door after losing a video game. Berry is probably still the best player on the team, but he’s not the leading scorer. Former walk-on Luke Maye is the surprise of the ACC and is leading the team at just over 18 points per game. He’s also averaging over 10 rebounds per game and over a block per game and he’s making 45% of his threes. When considering those numbers, remember that UNC plays at one of the fastest paces in the nation, averaging over 75 possessions per game. More possessions equals more points, more rebounds, and more blocks.

The Hoos will try to run Maye off the three point line and make him try to create his own shot. He is far less dangerous putting the ball on the floor, though he can score inside. Maye is a strong defender inside, but the Hoos aren’t likely to go down low to Isaiah Wilkins. Wilkins’ quickness will be a tough matchup for Maye on the boards.

Maye operates as a stretch-four or stretch-five most of the time. At 6’8”, 240, he’s ideal for that role. The Heels have a few strong interior players, but they are young and inexperienced. The best of these is freshman Garrison Brooks, a 6’9”, 215 pound center. Brooks has proven adept on the offensive glass, but hasn’t shown much else. Fellow freshman Sterling Manley is similar, though he isn’t as mobile and he’s still developing his game. Neither of these big men are going to score much against Jack Salt’s defense, but Salt will have to work hard on every defensive possession to ensure that the Hoos control the defensive boards. Effort isn’t often a problem for the Kiwi, but he’ll have to be extra vigilant because of the strength of UNC’s bigs.

Berry is averaging just under 18 points per game, but isn’t as efficient as Maye despite using more possessions and taking more shots. Berry is making just 36% of his threes, which is right on his career numbers. He’s not great from inside either, as he’s under 40% from the field. But, he’s an outstanding FT shooter, making 88% (it’s just too bad he doesn’t get to the line very much). Maye gets the line quite a bit, but makes just 60% of them.

Along with Berry in the backcourt is 6’4” Kenny Williams. Williams is an elite shooter, who is making over 46% of his threes this year, after just 34% last year. Last year he was getting inconsistent minutes, so considering his reputation, 46% isn’t surprising. Williams doesn’t do much other than shoot, and isn’t a very good defender. This hopefully means the Kyle Guy can get on track. Guy has been struggling a bit, though he made 5-of-10 against Virginia Tech including three treys. Guy’s defense on Williams will be key. If UNC is able to get out in transition, Williams will try to spot up on the perimeter for open jumpers.

The wild card for UNC is Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson. He’s only been eligible for the past four games, but he’s averaged over 10 points per game in about 23 minutes in those contests. He’s also chipped in five boards and a steal per game. He’s not starting, with senior Theo Pinson in the starting five, but since he’s been eligible, Pinson’s minutes are down. Pinson is a better defender, but Johnson has more offensive game. Pinson is a stronger playmaker than Johnson, but Johnson isn’t bad in that category and he’s a much better scorer.

As in past seasons, UNC has done two things vry well. One is that they get out in transition and generate easy buckets. The other is offensive rebounding. They still play at an extremely fast pace, and use that to get easy buckets. This year, more of those “easy” buckets are threes, because of the number of shooters they have. They are also 24th nationally in offensive rebounding. Of course, the Hoos do not allow many transition points and they are 20th in defensive rebounding. Additionally, the Hoos are used to seeing teams try to speed up the tempo, having faced a ton of high-powered teams so far, including Wednesday in Blacksburg.

There’s a reason why the Hoos held UNC to just 43 points in last year’s JPJ matchup. Don’t necessarily expect that same exact result, but look for the Hoos to control the game again. UNC’s offense may not be quite as deadly as it has been in the past, but their defense may be better. The key for the Hoos is going to be making shots. The defense will be there, but if the Hoos struggle to score as they did against BC, they’ll lose this one. UNC is a much better team than BC, even accounting for BC’s strong backcourt. If the Hoos play like they did in Blacksburg, they’ll come out on top.