In the team's ACC opener five weeks ago, Virginia played to its strengths in a 61-52 win over North Carolina. The Hoos played a slow-paced, half-court game, allowed just .83 PPP, and shot over 50% from behind the arc to start conference play on the right foot. In Chapel Hill, the tables turned; Carolina pushed the tempo and exposed UVA's defensive weaknesses on its way to a 93-81 win. The loss dropped the Hoos to 18-7 (8-4 ACC), while UNC moved to 17-8 (7-5 ACC).
Things looked good early, as the Hoos used unconscious three-point shooting to jump out to an early 29-19 lead, sinking 6 of its first 7 from behind the arc. However, the Tar Heels stormed back, going on a 29-11 run that spanned both halves; the score was 40-40 at halftime, despite Jontel Evans's half-court buzzer beater, and the Hoos wouldn't lead again.
Joe Harris continued his monster stretch with a career-high 27 points. In fact, he has scored 20 or more points in each of the past 4 games while shooting 72% (including 13 of 21 from behind the arc). While Joe has certainly secured a strong argument for First-Team All-ACC accolades, he put things into perspective after the game, telling the Washington Post, ""I would've rather won and scored 2 points."
Despite a strong 1.18 PPP offensive output, Virginia lost this game on the defensive side of the ball. North Carolina scored 1.39 points per possession, by far UVA's worst efficiency output of the year (the team averages an adjusted defensive efficiency of .89 PPP after correcting for strength of opponent).
Kenpom and other assorted advanced statistics proponents assert that there are four factors to winning basketball games: shooting, rebounding, turnovers, and getting to the free-throw line. North Carolina, not known for its shooting prowess, knocked down 12 of 21 three-pointers, finishing with an eFG% of 60.2%. (UVA actually outdid them here, shooting at a 69.8 eFG% clip. UNC crushed the Hoos on the boards; while UVA is content to concede offensive rebounds to get back on defense, it also allowed the Tar Heels to rebound 34.4% of its own misses (while the Hoos had an OReb% of just 12%). Virginia turned the ball over 14 times, while UNC had just 7.
Still, the recent defensive drop-off has been largely attributable to increasing free-throw disparities. Entering the UNC game, UVA had allowed a solid but not great .32 FTA/FGA (91st nationally) on the season...but .38 in ACC games (11th in conference). Today, UNC shot 30 FTs to 59 FGs, despite entering the game with a season average free-throw rate that is the 13th worst out of 347 D-I teams. UVA's smaller lineups likely have much to do with the team's struggles. So did some questionable calls, including a weak 2nd foul on Akil Mitchell, followed by a phantom 3rd foul early in the second half that changed the game's momentum. Regardless, if UVA wants to continue to play defense at an elite level, it must fix this issue.
While UNC certainly played some of its best basketball of the season, Virginia's defensive effort didn't hurt the Heels. Carolina made jumpers with hands in their faces...but also had plenty of open looks. PJ Hairston had a particularly big game, shooting 6 of 12 from downtown.
Joe Harris spearheaded UVA's offensive attack, but Paul Jesperson continues to be red-hot also, as he finished with 9 points on 3-5 three-point shooting. Jontel Evans added 12 points, but failed to be an effective game-manager, turning the ball over 6 times. Darion Atkins's ability to play 8 solid minutes may have been most encouraging for UVA fans; the team will need his size and athleticism to matchup with Miami on Tuesday.
Tony Bennett put the game's result simply: "You can't stop everything, and we didn't stop anything."
Looking ahead, the Hoos head to Coral Gables, then return to JPJ for dates with Georgia Tech and Duke. While the GT game looks like as close to a must-win as possible at this point, Virginia also has two huge opportunities to pick up signature wins against teams ranked in the top three in the nation. That stretch starts Tuesday at 9PM, in a game that will be broadcast on ESPNU.