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The Big Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels Come to JPJ

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, Virginia Basketball has been a little bit disappointing over the past few weeks after a blistering start to the season. But that’s gotta be preferable to what North Carolina has gone through.

A combination of injuries and regression led to UNC breaking a number of records this year. The preseason #1 team in the nation was the fastest #1 team ever to fall out of the top 25 and the fastest #1 team to lose five games in over 40 years. A bit of an inauspicious start to what was expected to be a very successful season.

The Heels have won six of the last seven, including wins over both Ohio State and Michigan. They are 3-2 in the ACC, but all three wins came against lower level ACC teams. Their lone loss in this stretch came against Pitt.

Last year, Hubert Davis’s Heels played just as fast as Roy Williams’s did. They have slowed down some this year, ranking 99th in adjusted pace (thanks, KenPom), which would be their lowest for a season since before Roy Williams was there.

The reason for that may be related to some very bad defense. The Heels ranked 35th nationally in defensive efficiency last year. This year’s team ranks 71st. If you can’t get stops, it’s hard to run. Especially if you aren’t forcing turnovers, and UNC is one of the worst teams in the nation at forcing turnovers.

For the third straight season, the Heels are led by All-American and preseason All-American Armonda Bacot. Just a beast in the paint, Bacot is one of the best rebounders in the nation, and an elite back to the basket scorer. He’s not a great defender, but he’s big enough to bother shots inside.

The number one task for the Wahoos in this game is to keep Bacot from getting the ball inside, whether on an entry pass or on an offensive board. He averages almost 5 offensive rebounds per game.

Notice how the play begins with Bacot having the ball on the wing. Very few UNC possessions right now complete without Bacot touching the ball. Although Love still attempts more shots than Bacot, the big man is far ahead of Love in points per game and usage rate. Last year, Love was ahead of Bacot in usage and just a bit behind him in points per game.

Love is actually scoring more than he did last year, but at a lower efficiency. Last year, Love shot 36% from three and 38% from two (he shoots roughly 50% of his shots from outside). This year, his outside shooting is down to 29%, but his interior shooting is up to almost 49%. That may drop as ACC play continues. Love is down to just 37% on 2s in ACC play. The main reason Love’s efficiency is down is that both his FT rate and FT% are way down from last year.

This comes off a defensive rebound from Bacot. This is their game. Force a missed shot and then run. R.J. Davis brings the ball up court (he and Love split PG duties). The defense collapses into the paint to slow down the ball, and that lets Love find an open spot on the wing.

Love gets all the publicity, but Davis may actually be a better player than Love at this point. He shoots 35% from three, 50% from two and 88% from the line. Far more efficient than Love. Davis also leads the team in assist rate. He had 27 points against Wake Forest last week on 9/14 shooting. That’s elite.

Here is a nice example of Davis. But first, check the lazy pass from Love, that can’t make Coach Davis happy. But Davis gets into the paint and makes a very nice pass to Leaky Black for the open three.

Black is a fifth year senior who is mostly a defensive stopper for the Heels. At 6’9” 205, he can guard almost anybody. He’s a prototypical 3-and-D, except he isn’t a good enough shooter. He’s knocking down 37% this year, which is well above his career rate. If he continues at that rate, it’s a huge advantage for the Heels. If he regresses back to his career 30%, he becomes a liability on offense. Black scored 18 points against Wake, on 6/8 shooting. Three treys in the first 7 minutes (including the above), but little the rest of the game. He had just 4 points on 2/7 shooting (in just 23 minutes) against Notre Dame on Saturday.

Black’s play may be especially important in this game, since UNC’s Pete Nance is questionable for this game. He left the game against Wake Forest with a back injury and did not play against Notre Dame. Nance is a transfer from Northwestern, and his inside/outside ability helps free up Bacot to move around the court and be more of a facilitator. Nance shot 46% from three last season, but he’s down to 34% this year (closer to his career numbers). His usage rate is down from 25% to 17%, with his efficiency remaining about the same. He’s been better inside than he was at Northwestern, largely due to the attention paid to Bacot.

Look, UNC is going to score, it’s what they do. Bacot inside (and Nance if he’s healthy), along with Davis/Love in the backcourt are tough to stop completely. The key is making them work for it. That means keeping Bacot off the offensive glass, and contesting on the three point line. This UNC team isn’t as deep as previous years, so making them work hard for points could lead to fatigue on the other end.

Virginia’s offense has been up and down, but they are shooting 45% from downtown over the past three games. Even Ben Vander Plas (29% on the season) got into the action, knocking down back-to-back threes early in the second half.

Teams are leaving BVP open, because he’s just not been hitting open shots. When he’s that open, he simply HAS to knock them down. Otherwise, he’s really just not helping.

The Wahoo defense has been a bigger problem over the past two at least, allowing over 40 second half points in both contests. Keep UNC from going off and keep knocking down shots and UVA should be able to knock off a disappointing UNC squad. If they can’t win this game, an ACC regular season title is probably not happening.

Tipoff is at 9pm tonight on ESPN.