‘Hoos previews: Another big-time, primetime matchup
Story by Zach Pereles
The second half of the most challenging 48 hours of Virginia’s regular season takes the Cavaliers to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they will meet the University of North Carolina on Monday night.
The Cavaliers will look to get back on track after falling to Duke on Saturday, 81-71. It was the most points they have allowed in John Paul Jones Arena since Tony Bennett arrived in 2009. And things don’t get much easier against Roy Williams’ bunch, which is riding a seven-game winning streak and averaging 88.3 points per game this season, second-most in college basketball. The Tar Heels also own the seventh-most efficient offense in the nation with an offensive rating of 119.3 per KenPom.
UNC can score in a variety of ways. Four different players average double figures for the Tar Heels, led by sensational freshman point guard Coby White at 15.9 points per game. Three-point specialist Cameron Johnson (15.8 ppg) and veteran big man Luke Maye (15.1 ppg) aren’t far behind. The Tar Heels also generate significant offense off their outstanding offensive rebounding, too.
The Tar Heels are athletic and strong, and they have good size across the board, similar to Duke. Virginia will have to be able to close out on shooters and defend the lane well — it only did the latter against the Blue Devils on Saturday night.
Complicating matters for the Cavaliers is the injury to Mamadi Diakite. The Guinean big man has been coming into his own over the past three weeks or so, and he dumped in seven points and added three rebounds in just 10 minutes before leaving with a head injury against Duke. If he is unable to go, Virginia may have to get creative with its frontcourt rotation.
One area the Cavaliers certainly need to be better in regardless of who plays is in the turnover department. The Cavaliers had 14 against Duke and have averaged over 14 per game over their last three contests. If Virginia wants to get back in the winning column, it can’t allow North Carolina to get in transition and score easy buckets.
There’s hope yet for this Virginia bunch, though. In 2015, the Cavaliers fell to Duke at JPJ in front of College GameDay and traveled down and took down the Tar Heels in the Smith Center two days later. The 2019 version will look to do the same.
Three Cavaliers to watch:
Braxton Key. As outlined in this piece regarding Diakite’s availability, Key is probably the best candidate to fill Diakite’s minutes should he be unable to play. Key has established himself as a wonderful rebounder. His 25.1 defensive rebounding percentage in ACC play ranks in the league. He pulled down 10 boards against Duke. Though Key’s shooting has been spotty, his ability to guard multiple positions is invaluable for this Virginia team. If he can find his shooting stroke, he can be one of Virginia’s most valuable players against the Tar Heels.
Ty Jerome. Jerome battled back from a back injury to play a team-high 37 minutes against Duke, and he played reasonably well. His 16 points tied for the team lead, and he handed out a team-high four assists and gathered three steals, also the most among Cavaliers. Jerome’s health is one thing — playing 48 hours after logging heavy minutes with an iffy back isn’t easy — but his ability to play at a high level is another. North Carolina features several big guards that can wear down opponents defensively and attack the lane off the dribble offensively. Jerome will need to be at his best to slow down the Tar Heels.
De’Andre Hunter. Compared with his 18-point game at Duke, Hunter was relatively quiet in Saturday’s loss in Charlottesville. He scored just 11 points on nine shots, both below his season average. Hunter is the one player on Virginia who has the size, strength and athleticism on par with other top wings and guards. Virginia needs him to get back to his normal, attacking style on offense and avoid fouls. He had four against the Blue Devils.
Three Tar Heels to watch:
Coby White. Both of these teams would be entering this game off a loss if it weren’t for White, who tied his career high with 33 points against Miami on Saturday. White stands 6-foot-5 and is a masterful shooter off the dribble who can also find the open teammate. His 31.4 assist percentage is fourth among ACC players in conference play. Against North Carolina’s best opponents, the Tar Heels have gone how he’s gone. He scored four points in a loss to Louisville, eight in a loss to Kentucky and 12 in a loss to Michigan. If Virginia can limit him, North Carolina is in trouble. But that’s much easier said than done.
Luke Maye. Maye has been on a roll lately, pouring in 71 points over his past three games. The senior is a capable shooter and a good defensive rebounder despite his relative lack of size and athleticism for the center position. Maye scored 20 points the last time these two programs met, in last year’s ACC Tournament, but he scored just six in the regular season meeting. UNC lost both games. Maye can struggle on defense, too, especially if he gets matched up on a skilled player with some size (for example, De’Andre Hunter). UVA could look to take advantage here.
Nassir Little. A star recruit who arrived in Chapel Hill to much fanfare, Little has been up-and-down as a Tar Heel. He’s shown flashes of being an outstanding player, but he’s struggled shooting in ACC play. What makes Little dangerous is his ability on the offensive boards. Despite standing just 6-foot-6, Little is second on the Tar Heels in offensive rebounding percentage. Second-chance points have hurt Virginia in recent games, and unless it does a good job boxing out Little, that trend will continue.
Kenpom says: Virginia, 72-70 (58 percent chance of victory)
- Virginia has won three straight against UNC, its longest winning streak in the series since 2001-2003, when it won four straight. Overall, the Tar Heels hold a 103-37 advantage.
- With a win, UVA could knock UNC out of its tie with Duke for first in the ACC. The Cavaliers are currently 8-2, and the Tar Heels are 9-1.
- North Carolina has won seven straight ACC games, tied for its longest conference winning streak since 2016, when it won eight straight.
- Virginia has two players from North Carolina: Jay Huff and Braxton Key.
- North Carolina has one player from Virginia: Kenny Williams (Midlothian).
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