UNC Primer No. 2

Tony Bennett’s team seeks a ninth ACC win.

After scraping by Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cavaliers (21-6, 8-5 ACC) return home to the John Paul Jones Arena for a Saturday tilt with No. 7 UNC (24-4, 11-2 ACC). Will the Hoos secure their first victory over a top 10 team this season and ensure a winning ACC record, or will the Tar Heels sweep the season series?

The North Carolina Primer takes a closer look.

1. A win on Saturday would give UNC a 2-0 record against UVa on the season after the Heels used a second half surge to break open a close game and win going away, 70-52, on Feb. 11. That win, however, came at the Dean Dome, where the Heels are 17-1 on the season, with the lone defeat being a 1-point loss to Duke in a game that they really should have won. Conversely, Carolina has looked much less convincing this season when it hits the road. Out of conference, UNLV dropped the Tar Heels, 90-80, in a quasi-road game while Kentucky clipped them, 73-72 at Rupp Arena. In conference, Florida State ran roughshod over the Heels, 90-57 in Tallahassee.

The Tar Heels have looked vulnerable in several other road tilts. In Blacksburg, the Hokies led by 8 (44-36) in the second half before the wheels came off. At the Comcast Center, the Terps led the Goats at the half (40-37) and were within a point with a little more than 3 minutes left before falling short. Finally, in Coral Gables, Miami also led UNC at the half (35-30) and maintained the lead until about the 12-minute mark before also suffering a loss. Even Wake Forest kept things respectable against the Heels for about 30 minutes in that game at the Joel. All of these games lead me to make the same prediction that I had concerning the first game against North Carolina: I think that UVa should at least be in striking distance in the early portions of the second half.

2. Of course, the second part of that prediction was that Virginia’s methodical offense and defense would wear down the thin Heels and allow the Hoos to pull out a victory. That prediction was dead wrong, and the UNC team this Saturday is deeper and healthier than the team that Virginia faced earlier this month … sort of. In the previous game, Harrison Barnes was still a bit gimpy from an ankle injury. That injury didn’t prevent Barnes from taking shots, but it might have hindered him in making some of them: He had 14 points on 4-15 shooting (26.7%). In his three games since, Barnes has looked healthier and shot just a shade less than 50% from the floor (25-51) and averaged just more than 22 points a game. Admittedly, none of these performances came against stellar defenses, but with UVa’s options to guard him either hurt or inexperienced – Joe Harris , Malcolm Brogdon , and Paul Jesperson – the Cavaliers will have a tough time bottling Barnes up again.

Meanwhile, Barnes’ backup, 6’6″ freshman P.J. Hairston, didn’t even see the floor in the first meeting because of a foot injury. Hairston, however, has returned for the Heels’ last three games but hasn’t done much of anything on the offensive end. In those games, Hairston has played a total of 20 minutes, scored a total of 7 points, shot a combined 2-13 from the field, and had more turnovers (3) than assists (1). Frankly, I’m not sure that the Heels are better with Hairston back than with senior Justin Watts playing extended minutes. I think that Watts gave the Heels 18 quality minutes off the bench in the first game, but after Hairston’s return, he’s averaged about half that.

So yes, the Heels are both healthier and deeper than the first time around, but does that actually translate to spelling their starters? Not so much. In their two close(r) games since the Virginia outing, the Heels’ starters played 166 minutes and 170 minutes combined, with only freshman James McAdoo seeing double digit minutes off the bench in either game. Even in a blowout home win over Clemson, the starters were on the floor for a combined 155 minutes. The take-home to me is that UNC’s starters should each get run for 30+ minutes, meaning that if Virginia can keep it close, the visitors could run out of gas in the home stretch.

Paul Jesperson and Darion Atkins against Virginia Tech, asking them to pace the Hoos against the No. 7 team in the country is a challenge of a different magnitude. Meanwhile, Joe Harris is playing with one hand while Malcolm Brogdon is playing on one foot. I still think that the Pack-Line has the capacity to wear down the thin Heels, but will it wear the Cavaliers down first?

4. If the answer to that question is “no,” I think that Virginia can take the game, assuming that it keeps the Heels off of the offensive glass, but once again, this is a big “ask.” UNC is No. 5 in offensive rebounding percentage, corralling 40.3% of its misses, and the Tar Heels snagged 19 of their misses in the first UVa game. Digging further into the numbers from the previous meeting, I see that UNC scored just less than a third of its points (23 of 70) off of offensive rebounds, with 4 of those points coming after 2 consecutive offensive rebounds and another 4 points resulting from 3 successive offensive boards. By my count, Carolina was only 15-50 (30%) on its first shots on possessions in the game. It was the Heels’ second, third, and even fourth chance opportunities that allowed them to get offensive separation.

So, is there reason to believe that the Hoos can shrink the rebounding gap on Saturday? Yes and no. Coach Bennett has definitely emphasized rebounding since UNC cleaned the glass and the results have shown on the court. While Clemson, Maryland, and Virginia Tech are not in the same league as the Heels in terms of rebounding, UVa beat them all on the boards. Mike Scott and especially Akil Mitchell have looked more aggressive in getting after and pulling down boards on both ends of the court. And for the first time since Assane Sene went down, I’ve seen a real emphasis on boxing out and scheme rebounding where the guys really seal the lane and allow guards like Sammy Zeglinski and Jontel Evans to shoot in and snatch the rebound.

Finally, while, as noted, the Heels’ offensive rebounding percentage is 40.3%, that breaks down to 43% at home and 36.4% on the road. Meanwhile, Virginia’s defensive rebounding percentage is 77.1% overall, but again that breaks down to 81.6% at home and 72.2% on the road. I will chalk that up to the zebras being a bit more accommodating to the home team, which means that the Cavaliers should fare better on the boards this Saturday than they did in the earlier meeting. But how much better?

5. This home cooking also means that UVa might see the refs swallowing their whistles a bit more than down in Chapel Hill. And if that’s the case, that would be huge. Allow me to repeat my analysis from my second Clemson Primer:

[In the first half, the Hoos led by as many as 7 points and were down by only 3 at the break]. Impressively, the Hoos kept pace with the Heels despite Mike Scott being consigned to the bench for about the last 9 minutes of the first half after picking up his second foul …

The way I saw it, the game turned at the 14:50 mark of the second half. With about three minutes gone after halftime, Mike Scott picked up his third foul, and then Darion Atkins moved to within one foul of ejection a little more than a minute later. With 14:50 left, the Hoos were just a nose behind the Heels (42-41) when Akil Mitchell picked up his third foul. From this point forward, it seemed like UVa’s posts made a conscious decision to play soft(er) on both sides of the ball, knowing that there was no margin for error. The first three possessions after the third foul on Mitchell were a harbinger of things to come. On the first, Reggie Bullock missed a jumper, but Justin Watts tipped it in. On the second, the Heels missed a pair of 3-pointers, but a pair of offense rebounds led to a third chance dunk by John Henson. Then, after a James McAdoo miss on the third possession, the Heels corralled another pair of offensive boards on their fourth possession before Harrison Barnes scored on a layup. Seven minutes and change after Mitchell’s third foul, the Heels had cushioned their lead to 12 (56-44) following Mitchell’s fourth foul and a Henson free throw.

If Virginia’s bigs get in foul trouble again on Saturday, I see similar results. Moreover, another consequence of this foul trouble was that Jontel Evans tried to do too much, resulting in 4 turnovers and 4-11 shooting. If UVa’s post players are able to play more aggressively, I think that helps the offensive efficiency for both Evans and the team as a whole.

6. The Team Rankings simulation (available here) has the Heels winning a close one, 64.6-59.1. I reluctantly agree. When Tony Bennett has depth, I like the Cavaliers’ chances more often than not against the Heels, especially at home. Two seasons ago, UVa had that depth and won going away, 75-60. But in the last two games, thinness resulting from injuries and departures has led to the Cavs wearing down after promising starts.

This Saturday, Virginia is thinner than ever. I predicted a win for the Hoos in Chapel Hill with a healthy Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon . But with neither of those able to use a full arsenal of weapons, I don’t think UVa has quite the horsepower it needs in this one. I think that the Hoos can keep it close, but I see the Heels pulling away late to win 66-60.