(Featured Image: UVA Athletics)
Virginia will look to keep their recent momentum going as they face the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday in Chapel Hill. Tipoff is scheduled for 1:00 PM Eastern, televised on ESPN with Jay Bilas and Dan Shulman on the call.
North Carolina’s Season So Far
The Tar Heels under first-year Head Coach Hubert Davis enter with an overall record of 10-4, including 2-1 in the ACC. Their best win of the season was a beatdown of Michigan in early December. All three of their non-conference losses were to teams in the top 15 of the current NET rankings, where the Heels sit at #41. They’re coming off a 78-73 road loss at the hands of Notre Dame on Wednesday.
North Carolina’s Personnel
As is often the case with UNC, it starts in the middle. Junior Armando Bacot (15.7 PPG), a native of Richmond, is one of the best big men in the ACC. He’s a physical force, averaging a double-double on the season. They’ll rotate two very skilled forwards next to him, both transfer additions. Dawson Garcia (10.0 PPG) from Marquette and Brady Manek (12.4 PPG) from Oklahoma. Garcia missed their last game with an injury. His status for Saturday is unknown.
The most improved area for the Tar Heels this season is guard play, thanks to a pair of sophomores. Caleb Love (15.6 PPG) and RJ Davis (13.7 PPG), both former highly-regarded recruits, have made second-year leaps.. They’re each hitting better than 44% of their three-point attempts, a significant improvement from a year ago.
They’ll go at least eight deep if everyone is available. Senior Leaky Black (4.2 PPG), a versatile 6’8 wing, typically starts. Sharpshooter Kerwin Walton (3.9 PPG) missed Wednesday’s game due to covid protocols. And guard Anthony Harris (2.5 PPG) has seen his role increase of late.
North Carolina’s Strengths and Weaknesses
For a long time, the North Carolina formula stayed the same. The challenge was to keep them out of transition and off the offensive glass.. As those are areas Tony Bennett emphasizes anyway, Virginia has had lots of recent success against the Tar Heels.
New coach Hubert Davis has kept some of those familiar ways intact, but there are noticeable changes in philosophy too. They’re not nearly as dependent on offensive rebounding as in the past, only middle of the pack in that category. Transition defense is still very important against them though, as they’ll look to push whenever possible.
Defending the three-point line will be crucial. UNC is connecting on 39.7% of its attempts from behind the arc, good for 12th best nationally. The guards, Love and Davis, are obviously a big part of that. But forwards Dawson Garcia and especially Brady Manek are perimeter threats as well. They’ll be a tough assignment for Virginia’s Jayden Gardner.
North Carolina’s struggles have been on defense. They’re not as athletic as past UNC teams, particularly up front. Armando Bacot is their only rim protector. When he’s on the bench, they’ve been really bad defensively. They’re among the worst in the country at forcing turnovers too.
Virginia is going for their 8th straight win over North Carolina on Saturday. The last time the Tar Heels came out on top in this series was in February of 2017. London Perrantes was the Wahoo point guard, and Jay Huff was redshirting. It’s an amazing run. Kihei Clark has a chance to go his entire career without losing to North Carolina. To longtime Wahoo fans, that type of dominance was unimaginable before Bennett’s arrival.
Former Wahoo Justin McKoy is with North Carolina now. The junior forward surprised some people by transferring in the off-season, then choosing an ACC rival to top it off. He had some good moments in his two seasons at UVA, becoming an important piece of the rotation for last year’s regular season champs.
We’re not sure if Justin will be active on Saturday. He’s sat out recently due to covid protocols. He’s been in and out of the Carolina rotation, averaging 0.9 points 1.3 rebounds in 6 minutes per game.
New Year, New Hoos
This Virginia team seems to have turned a corner since returning from Christmas break. They’ve gone 2-0 with road wins over Syracuse and Clemson. More than that, they’ve looked good doing it. The guys know their roles now, as Bennett has settled on an eight-man rotation. Jayden Gardner has been terrific. Kihei Clark is stepping up in big moments. They’re getting contributions off the bench. After the early season struggles, it’s starting to come together nicely.
This will be a step-up in competition on Saturday in Chapel Hill. It should be a fun competitive game. A great test to measure where this Wahoo team is now.
Be sure to tune in for the pregame show on the Locker Room Access Facebook page, starting at 12:30 PM Eastern. Mark Jerome and the gang will get you set for tipoff.