basketball Edit

Heels Ready For The Challenges UVA Presents

UNC has struggled versus Virginia of late, but the Heels get the Wahoos at home Monday and are ready for the challenge. (USA Today)

CHAPEL HILL – Every single one of North Carolina’s basketball sensibilities will be tested Monday night when Virginia visits the Smith Center.

That’s how it is when playing Tony Bennett’s teams and the Tar Heels know it. That might also explain why UNC played as if it had one foot out the door during Saturday’s overtime victory versus Miami.

Who would blame the Heels for looking ahead to the Wahoos? More than any other team in recent years, Virginia has caused Carolina to be un-Carolina-like. And with the Cavs making a rare appearance in the Smith Center, human nature suggests the Heels are chomping at the bit to play this game.

That may be what’s going on within, but outwardly, the Heels are saying the right things, though their understanding of UVA (20-2 overall, 8-2 ACC) just moments after escaping the Hurricanes lends credence to their theory they were looking ahead some.

“They really play their style of basketball,” Cam Johnson said about the third-ranked Wahoos. “They slow the game down, make you defend for 30 (seconds) and make you play offense for 30 and it kind of changes the whole dynamic of the game. It makes every possession matter just a little bit more. They really try to limit fast break opportunities.

“We’re going to have to come out with a lot better focus.”

Carolina has struggled mightily versus UVA away from Chapel Hill. (THI)

Better focus is paramount for No. 8 UNC (19-4, 9-1) to have any chance of winning. So is execution.

“Their defense is one of the best in the country,” Kenny Williams said. “It’s a low possession game, so you can’t be silly with the basketball, we can’t turn it over 15-20 times the way we have in some games, we’ve got to be sharp.

“On the other end, we’ve got to be sharp, also. We’ve got to be attentive, we’ve got to pay attention to detail.”

Dealing with its pack line defense is what first comes to mind when pondering ways teams can beat Virginia. Hitting a parade of 3-pointers as Duke did in beating the Wahoos on Saturday night is one approach, but it can’t be the primary part of a game plan. And, since UNC hasn’t hit many perimeter shots of late against UVA, it must rely on other elements of its offensive approach.

Few, however, have worked over the last couple of years.

In the last four meetings versus the Cavaliers, two in Charlottesville and one each in Chapel Hill and Brooklyn last March at the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels have averaged just 55 points while shooting 37.9 percent from the field, including 34.9 percent from 3-point range. They’ve also averaged turning over the ball 13 times a contest, a high number when considering the limited number of possessions when playing Virginia.

The Heels, however, have been more effective away from UVA’s home, averaging 64 points on 43.9 percent shooting from the field. They’re still at 34.1 percent from 3-point range, but last March’s 4-for-16 performance offset the 10-25 effort from the perimeter the last time the Wahoos were in the Smith Center.

UNC beat UVA at its own game the last time the teams played at the Dean Dome. (USA Today)

What’s interesting is the only game among those four in which having the home fans and in-your-house emotion serving as one of Carolina’s components was the only time it won, a 65-41 rout in 2017.

In fact, five of the last six meetings have been away from Chapel Hill, so over the last 1,470 days, dating back to Feb. 2, 2015, Bennett’s program has been inside the Dean Dome just once, and it was run out that night.

Maybe being in the friendly confines for UNC won’t matter. Under Bennett, Virginia has fared well on the road because it usually isn’t affected by atmospheres and opponents' emotion, and sometimes staying true to its base philosophies has helped it goat sky-high teams into making mistakes. UNC is well aware of this.

“They know their strengths, they play to their strengths,” Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “They stay away from their weaknesses and it’s a big-time team.”

The Heels must do the same Monday while channeling its wave of emotion to good use. Dotting every I is paramount when playing UVA, a reality not lost on the Tar Heels.