By their usual standards, North Carolina has had a disappointing season. After finishing 33-7 and winning the national title last year, the Tar Heels have lost nine games already this season. That includes a home loss to Wofford, along with home losses to NC State and Miami. But, they also beat Duke twice, including last night’s ACC semi-finals win. That sets up this ACC final between long-time rivals.
For most of the season, UNC was led by Luke Maye. The former walk-on is averaging 17 and 10 and shooting over 43% from downtown. But recently, senior PG Joel Berry has been coming on and he’s actually overtaken Maye for the team lead in PPG. Berry takes over half of his shots from behind the arc, but shoots just 35% from deep. Berry is just 6’0, 195, so chances are he’ll be guarding Kyle Guy as he’s too small to guard the 6’5” Ty Jerome. Berry was the Heels’ best player in the first matchup, with 17 points on 7-for-17 shooting. Thirteen of those points came after halftime, when the Heels never got closer than five.
That leaves junior swing-man Kenny Williams on Jerome, and that is an advantage for the Hoos. Williams isn’t as good a defender, and at 6’4, 185, may struggle with Jerome’s strength off the dribble. Williams, though, is an outstanding shooter and can also make plays off the bounce. He is, at best, the third option. But he might actually be the most dangerous player the Heels have because he’s such a good shooter.
The Heels are fifth in the nation in offense, but they don’t actually shoot the ball particularly well. They grab a lot of offensive boards (2nd in the nation) and don’t turn the ball over much. Those two things mean extra possessions and that’s why they’re so good offensively. The Hoos, of course, also don’t turn the ball over much and generally do a good job of preventing offensive boards. Keeping UNC’s bigs off the glass will be very important here.
This year, that starts with Maye. Up front, the Heels don’t have the depth that they’ve had in past years. Maye often ends up playing the 5, as UNC goes with smaller lineups. Maye is not a true big man, and at 6’8, 240, he spends a lot of his time around the perimeter. That is, in part, because he can’t bang with big guys like Jack Salt or Isaiah Wilkins.
Pitt transfer Cam Johnson plays the 4, though he’ll also spend time at the 3. He’s also 6’8, but he’s just 210. He shoots more than half his shots from downtown, making about 35%. Johnson is not a particularly good defender and when DeAndre Hunter is in the game they’ll likely be matched up. Johnson is an ACC vet who’s been through numerous ACC tournament battles before, whereas Hunter is a freshman who won the ACC 6th man of the year award. It’ll be an important matchup, because both are versatile guys who can score in a hurry. Both are also long and spend a lot of time at PF even though they are perimeter guys.
UNC’s “true” bigs are freshmen Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley. Manley has been getting more minutes, mostly because he’s bigger. He’s got a nice tough inside and he can block some shots. But he struggles with fouls and he’s a poor FT shooter. Brooks is more athletic and excels in transition, but he doesn’t have the power game that Manley has. Brooks actually started the UVA game (and every game up until that one), but hasn’t started since as Roy Williams has gone with a smaller, veteran lineup.
The final guy I haven’t mentioned is senior wing Theo Pinson. Though he’s 6’6, 220, he’ll often run point with Berry playing off the ball. Pinson actually leads the team in assists and is also second in rebounds and fourth in points. He’s a solid all-around player, but he is at his best in the open court and in an up-and-down game. He isn’t a shooter (25% on 47 attempts from deep), but he’s big and quick and can finish inside. He’s also a very good FT shooter and one of the best in the nation at drawing fouls. Again, much of that comes in transition, which isn’t likely to be a big part of this game.
That’s really the key here. The Hoos have generally played UNC tough, because they’re so adept at controlling tempo. UNC is 50th in the nation in pace, averaging over 70 possessions per game. The Hoos, of course, are dead last in pace, averaging just under 60 possessions. The first matchup between these teams totaled just 59 possessions, which is (quite obviously) a big benefit to the Hoos. If the game is played at around 60 possessions again, the Hoos are in good shape. If it’s played at closer to 70 possessions, it’ll be tough for Virginia to win.
The game tips off at 8:30pm an will be televised on ESPN.