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The Big Preview: First place Virginia gets North Carolina at home

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Hoos host a Tar Heel squad that’s trending in the right direction.

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 10 Virginia at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Two times this year, the Virginia Cavaliers have been outplayed for much of the game by Georgia Tech, and both times they came away with a win. This last one, in Atlanta, was a big win as it allowed the Hoos to open up a two-game lead in the ACC standings. With only about three weeks remaining in the regular season, that’s big.

What was surprising about that game was that the Hoos did not perform well on offense. But they shut down the Jackets, putting together their best 40-minute defensive performance of the season. One reason the Hoos struggled offensively was that GT put PG Jose Alvarado on Hauser and worked hard to deny him the ball.

The strategy makes a lot of sense, since Hauser is more of a perimeter player than an interior player. Look for more teams to do that in the future, considering how successful it was. Of course, not all teams have a competitor like Alvarado, who isn’t big, but is quick and strong and used his lower base to help keep Hauser from getting good position. And if Hauser gets these matchups, he has to be willing to play in the post.

He may start a bit farther out than he would like, but this is likely a shot he could get any time with a smaller man on him. Hauser has a good eight inches on Alvarado, and there’s just no way the smaller man can contest that shot. It’s not an easy shot, but Hauser is obviously quite capable of knocking it down.

UNC has improved over last year’s dismal performance, currently sitting fifth in the conference standings, at 7-4. They are 12-6 overall. They have struggled on the road, losing to GT, NC State and Clemson, but they’ve won two of their last three, including a big win over rivals Duke a week ago.

They have not played since because the program was forced to pause activities due to contact tracing. After the Duke win, several members of the UNC team attended a party. They later apologized.

To nobody’s surprise, the Tar Heels play fast—over 70 possessions per game (adjusted, per KenPom). Virginia is under 60. That is a huge difference, and is one reason why the Hoos have been successful against the Heels over the past few years. By controlling tempo, the Hoos are able to get UNC out of their comfort zone, which gives Virginia an advantage.

What is surprising about this year’s Tar Heels team is that this is not a very good offensive team. And that is because they can’t shoot. They shoot less threes than almost anybody else in the nation (and far below any other Power 5 team). That’s a good thing, because they also shoot it very poorly (just 32%, 246th nationally). They aren’t much better on two-point shots, ranking 222nd, or FTs, ranking 297th.

The exception to this rule is freshman Kerwin Walton, who is knocking down 46% of his threes. He was 4/4 against Duke, scoring 12 big points.

This comes off a scramble drill, and Walton is left open. Walton will also spot up in transition. It will be important to find Walton and not allow him to get open. As the only consistent three point threat, Virginia needs to ensure that he doesn’t go off. Walton doesn’t do a whole let else, so if he’s not getting open looks and knocking them down, he’s probably on the bench.

But fellow freshman Caleb Love, who leads the team in FGA by a large margin, is shooting just 26% from downtown and just 32% overall. It is very hard to be an effective player shooting that poorly from the field. Love’s turnover rate is also sky-high (over 25% of possessions). Love had a big game against Duke, going for 25 points on 9/16 shooting with seven assists. But he also had five turnovers. In the previous game, a loss to Clemson, Love was 2/10 from the field for nine points, with one assist and four turnovers.

Up front, big man Garrison Brooks was the Preseason ACC Player of the Year. He’s actually been somewhat disappointing, as his FG% has dropped, his FT rate has dropped and his playing time has subsequently decreased.

He’s still effective down low, and his defense has improved. If he gets good position like that, he’s going to score. Going to be important to keep him out of the paint.

The one thing Brooks and the entire team do well is hit the offensive glass. They are second nationally, grabbing 40% of their own misses. Virginia generally does not allow many second chance points, and rank 10th nationally in defensive rebounding. But we’ve seen teams, Pitt and NC State recently, hurt Virginia on the offensive glass.

UNC has a number of talented big men in the rotation. It starts with Brooks of course, but Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe are also going to get minutes in the front-court. Bacot may actually be the most talented of the group. UNC will play a lot of minutes with two of those three on the floor. Although it may be tough for Sam Hauser to bang inside with all that beef, it also provides a mismatch on the other end.

This is Bacot, trying to defend on the perimeter. He does not want to be on the perimeter. It’s an easy take and bucket for Simms. We should see Jay Huff spending more time outside on the perimeter in this game, giving him the chance to show off his trademark shot-fake-then-drive-and-dunk.

This is from last season, but watching Huff dunk over the entire Duke team is pretty fun to watch. We have seen several of those this season as well.

Strangely, UNC has been winning basketball games with their defense. With so many big guys, they are one of the top shot-blocking teams in the nation and they are also strong on the defensive glass. But their perimeter defense isn’t great. Some of that is struggles guarding bigs on the perimeter. But they are also weak on the wings. Clemson’s 6’8” Hunter Tyson led the way with 16 points on 5/11 shooting. Pitt’s Justin Champagnie had 23 points on 7/12 shooting. And NC State’s Devon Daniels had 21 points on 9/16 shooting in a losing effort. All are examples of scoring wings who had big games against UNC, and while Murphy isn’t as aggressive as those other guys, he’s a better outside shooter and has been playing very well of late.

UNC traps in the corner and basically completely forgets about Champagnie. He’s only the leading scorer in the ACC, why would they want to defend him?

Virginia’s struggles this year have mostly come against teams with bigs who can shoot. UNC does not have that. What they do have is a very strong interior presence. Getting Kadin Shadrick back last game bodes well for his availability this week. We don’t know if he’s truly in game shape, but any minutes he can give as a breather for Huff inside will be big. We’ll probably also see some of Caffaro, who has the size to protect the glass and defend UNC’s bigs.

This is an interesting UNC team, going against what is big and popular in basketball these days. Most teams are spreading the floor and shooting threes. UNC is one of the biggest teams in the nation and they want to pummel you inside. But they also want to get out in transition. Those are two things that don’t normally go together. If Virginia can control the tempo and keep the Heels off the offensive glass, they should be able to shut down this offense, and they just need to knock down enough shots to win the game.