6:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Virginia -3.5, Over/Under: 137.5
With the postseason on the horizon, the Atlantic Coast Conference looks as if it will come down to the wire, as pair of it’s chief competitors clash today in Charlottesville, as the third-ranked Virginia Cavaliers host the seventh-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. Coming into this contest, North Carolina (23-5, 12-3, 1st in ACC) is holding onto a one-game lead for first place in the conference, and could really put some distance between themselves and their counterpart today with a victory. After their bewildering 74-73 defeat at home against an undermanned Duke team, the Tar Heels have responded as expected, hammering Miami (Fla) and North Carolina State by a combined thirty-seven points. Roy Williams left Raleigh with a well-deserved 80-68 victory that was earned on the defensive end of the floor, where the visitors absolutely smothered their hosts; Carolina relegated their bitter instate rivals to a mere 36.9% shooting from the field, including just 41.9% shooting from inside the three-point arc, and a dreadful 6-of-22 from beyond it (27.3%), while outrebounding them 38-30, and limiting them to only seven assists opposed to forcing ten turnovers. Granted, the Wolfpack’s Anthony Barber (32 points) went OFF, but needed twenty-six shots to do it, while the rest of his teammates could muster just thirty-six points on 12-of-39 shooting (30.7%). On the offensive end, the Heels finished Wednesday Night’s triumph with four out of five starters in double-figures, led once again by Brice Johnson, who notched his ACC-leading seventeenth Double-Double with twenty-two points and eleven rebounds, to go along with three steals and a pair of blocks. Sophomore Wingman Justin Jackson added seventeen points on 7-of-12 shooting from the floor (58.3%), and was the only Tar Heel that managed much success from distance, netting half of his four attempts from three (more on that in a bit). As has been the case for a number of seasons now, the vast majority of their work was done in the paint, scoring fifty-six of their eighty points in that area on 52.8% shooting, aided greatly by their fourteen offensive rebounds. The highest scoring offense in the ACC, North Carolina has averaged 80.9 points (1st in ACC) on 46.9% shooting from the field (3rd in ACC), including a stellar 53.1% from inside the three-point line (1st in ACC), while dishing out 17.3 assists (1st in ACC). With the combination of Kennedy Meeks and the aforementioned Johnson in the paint, this team is a load to handle on the glass, where they lead the league in both total rebounds (40.5) and offensive rebounds (14.0), besting their opposition by an average of 5.7 boards per game. Johnson alone has been a beast (11.3 rebounds), while the 6-9, 290 lbs Meeks throws his weight around to secure 5.2 boards of his own. However, it’s a good thing that they’ve been able to create extra opportunities via their effort on the glass, for they have continued to struggle mightily the further they’re away from the rim; Williams knows their perimeter is a weakness, which is why he doesn’t have them shoot many threes at all, for only three teams in the conference have attempted less three-point field goals than their 244 (16.3 per game), with only one making them at a worse clip (28.3%). Furthermore, their 729 two-point field goal attempts leads the league by a rather wide margin, with a whopping 74.9% of their attempts overall being of the two-point variety. Interestingly, it’s been a similar story on the defensive end of the court, where they seal off the paint with regularity (43.4%, 1st in ACC), but have been far more forgiving outside of it, allowing 34.3% shooting from distance (8th in ACC). Defensive consistency has always been a question mark with Williams’ teams in the past, oftentimes separating his truly special sides from the typically very good ones. This current crop of kids seems to be the latter, yielding 70.5 points in league play (6th in ACC), while developing a disturbing habit of sending their opponents to the charity stripe; North Carolina has seen their competition attempt 307 free-throws against them (10th in ACC), which is only six less than Williams’ charges have attempted themselves (315, 5th in ACC).
Meanwhile, without a victory today it seems highly unlikely that Virginia (21-6, 10-5, 4th in ACC) will make it three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference Regular Season Titles in a row. The two-time reigning ACC Champions have already lost more games this season than they have in the previous two campaigns combined. In many ways, Tony Bennett’s charges have represented the inverse of his counterparts; whereas the Tar Heels thrive offensively despite failing to provide consistent effort on defense, the Cavaliers dominate defensively while not so much on the offensive end. So let’s take a minute to run down the numbers, shall we? Virginia leads the ACC in points allowed (60.1), two-point field goals allowed (13.9), offensive rebounds allowed (7.7), and assists allowed (9.9), while yielding just 42.1% shooting from the field (3rd in ACC), including 45.7% shooting from inside the three-point arc (3rd in ACC), while forcing 10.0 turnovers per game (2nd in ACC). However, defense clearly isn’t their problem, for in their four conference losses they’ve permitted an average of just 66.8 points, with just one of those contests featuring an opponent that crossed the seventy-point threshold (70 by Virginia Tech). Now before we go into a rant about their inabilities on offense, let’s just stop right there, for if you look at the percentages, they’re actually a very efficient group; Bennett’s kids lead the league in field goal percentage (48.8%), while ranking third in two-point field goal percentage (52.6%) and second in three-point field goal percentage (39.2%), while assisting on a healthy 58.8% of their overall field goals. However, they only manage to score 66.8 points per game, which is the third-lowest figure in the conference. So why the disparity, you ask? One word, folks: tempo. The real dichotomy between these teams today is the tempo in which they play; Carolina constantly tries to speed the game up, so that they take advantage of their athleticism and extra possessions, while Virginia on the other hand, tries to slows the tempo to a crawl, effectively shortening the game as much as possible. By limiting the volume of possessions their opponents have, it forces both sides to make every opportunity count, which has proven to be an effective gameplan over the past three seasons. In essence, it’s about quality OVER quantity with this team, which can sometimes put an immense amount of pressure these kids to make their limited opportunities count. This also creates a propensity for being involved in close games. Case in point, Monday’s 64-61 loss at Miami (Fla); in a game in which the visitors created a number of extra opportunities (plus-twelve) due to their work on the offensive boards (plus-six), they failed to really establish any advantage thanks to some uncharacteristically poor shooting (43.1%), and ending up on the wrong end from behind the arc (minus-fifteen) and the charity stripe (minus-six). Granted, we’re bordering on the rhetorical, but in a close game, the difference so often comes down to who proved decisive in those categories. And that leads us to our last point: thanks to their style of play in which they minimize the volume of possessions, the Cavaliers rarely get to the free-throw line, attempting a scant 244 freebies (14th in ACC), with the opposition thirteen more in league play, or in other words 0.9 more attempts per game. Senior Guard Malcolm Brogdon has proven to be their most efficient player in that regard, netting 91.5% of his fifty-nine attempts in league play (second on team), while averaging a team-best 19.9 points on 51.0% shooting, including 40.5% from beyond the arc, along with 4.1 rebounds, and 2.5 assists, with a team-high 27.3 PER (Player Efficiency Rating). He was the lone Cavalier that managed to get anything going in Wednesday’s loss, scoring a game-high twenty-eight points on 12-of-18 shooting (66.7%), including 4-of-7 from three (57.1%), with three rebounds and a pair of steals. However, he was the only one of Bennett’s charges to score in double-figures, with the rest of the team accounting for thirty-three points on a nightmarish 13-of-40 from the floor (32.5%).