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The Big Basketball Preview: Virginia at UNC

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Clemson Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

This early stretch of ACC basketball always looked daunting for Virginia, with three straight road games in seven days. That culminates on Saturday afternoon with a game at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill.

UNC, of course, is in their first season since the retirement of head coach Roy Williams. Hubert Davis, a former UNC player under Dean Smith, takes over at the helm. Although Tar Heel fans may be disappointed in their performance this season, the team has avoided any bad losses and has a big win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That said, they have largely struggled in big games. They lost handily to both Purdue and Tennessee in the Hall of Fame Tipoff were blown out by Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic. They are also coming off a road loss to Notre Dame on Wednesday, putting them at 2-1 in the ACC this season, and 10-4 overall.

Not a lot is changing with Davis at the helm. The Heels still play fast, still crash the offensive boards hard and still have one of the top offenses in the nation. Even the roster is basically the same as last year. Williams’ final class included three five-star recruits and three four-star recruits. His penultimate class, in 2019, included two five-stars and two four-stars. Of those nine players, six remain and make up the core of this team.

Davis did make a couple of additions to the team, including two transfers. Both may be recognizable to you. One is former Virginia forward Justin McKoy, and the other is former Oklahoma big man Brady Manek. Manek faced the Hoos in the 2019 NCAA second round, scoring a team high 13 points on 5/13 from the field, including 3/9 from downtown.

That is Manek’s game; He’s a shooter. Despite standing 6’9”, Manek is averaging 5 three point attempts per game. He’s a career 37% shooter, but he’s at just 33% this year. McKoy has not played much for the Heels and has scored just 10 points all season. He has not yet seen action in an ACC game. Wonder how he’s feeling about his decision to transfer?

The reason McKoy can’t see the floor is that UNC is loaded with big men. Along with Manek, they have 6’10” Armanda Bacot and 6’11” Dawson Garcia. Bacot was a top 20 recruit, but hasn’t shown the athleticism the NBA wants. He’s still a beast inside and one of the top interior players in the ACC.

Bacot likes to face up and drive against one-on-one coverage on the perimeter. Virginia could run a second defender at him in these situations, trying to force him into a mistake.

Garcia is closer to Manek in that he’s a perimeter player on offense. He is a career 38% shooter from outside, on over two attempts per game. Virginia does not have a ton of size, with 6’6” Jayden Gardner at the 4-spot. Gardner may have some trouble with Garcia on the perimeter.

All that size up front means that Virginia is going to have trouble on the glass. Offensive rebounds have really been the biggest issue for this Virginia team, at least on the defensive end. Virginia’s opponents have averaged 10 second chance points per game, and better work on the glass might’ve swung a couple of Virginia’s losses. For example, Iowa had 13 second chance points in a one point win at JPJ.

While the Heels play fast, they don’t really press and they don’t really force turnovers. In fact, they are one of the worst teams in the nation at forcing turnovers. The defense is a standard man-to-man. But the Heels will run off missed FGs, turnovers, etc.

This is Caleb Love with the finish. Another five-star recruit, Love was seen as a lottery pick before his freshman year, but struggled badly with shooting and with turnovers as a freshman. Love shot 31% from the field and 26% from three. He also averaged 3.5 turnovers per game. Those numbers will turn off NBA scouts very quickly. Love is showing the promise that had scouts drooling this season. He’s up to 45% overall and 44% from three. Love had a huge game against Michigan, scoring 22 points on 9/16 shooting. He also had 4 assists and just 2 turnovers, which is a vast improvement over last season. His assist numbers still need to improve overall.

Love’s improvement shooting the basketball has keyed UNC’s success this season. Along with R.J. Davis, Manek and Garcia, the Heels have some very strong shooters, and are currently eighth nationally at just under 40% from downtown. We saw Virginia win against a hot shooting Clemson team by dominating in the paint. That is going to be tougher to do against a big and talented UNC team.

In last year’s contest, Virginia shot 10/22 (45%) from outside, while UNC made just 2/16 (13%). UNC had a 41-34 rebounding edge, a 13-6 edge in second chance points and a 28-12 advantage in the paint. But the outside shooting was enough for the Wahoos to come away with a relatively easy home win. That, most likely will not be the cast this time out. Virginia has struggled to shoot the ball, and UNC is lighting it up from outside.

This was one of the two made threes for UNC last year, and it comes off an offensive board. The initial shot was not a good one, and Virginia had to be happy with their defense here. If they can force these types of shots from UNC, they can win. But they need to be stronger on the defensive glass.

If UNC shoots 40% from three, they are very likely going to win this game. Virginia needs to defend at the three point line, while also not getting crushed inside. Offensively, Virginia should pound the ball inside, hopefully getting some UNC big men into foul trouble, and also hit enough outside shots to keep UNC’s defense honest.

Tipoff is at 1pm on ESPN. The Tar Heels are favored by 5, according to DraftKings.