Duke great Jay Williams thinks Virginia is playing the kind of basketball that can bring a national championship to Wahoo Nation.
“This UVA team, at the beginning of the year, they were scoring so many points, and people were saying, This is not your father’s UVA team. And now they’ve slowed down their pace and gotten back to their half-court way. I am a firm believer that that’s the kind of style and approach where you can win a championship, an NCAA championship, playing that way,” said Williams, one of the stars of ESPN College GameDay, which will broadcast live from the John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday morning.
The third-ranked Cavs (21-6, 10-5 ACC) will host #7 North Carolina (23-5, 12-3 ACC) at 6:30 p.m. in front of a national-TV audience.
The day begins in the 9 a.m. hour with the first of several cut-ins from JPJ to SportsCenter. At 11, JPJ and UVA take center stage with the GameDay crew breaking down the UVA-UNC game and the other goings-on in the world of college basketball.
GameDay returns at 6 p.m. with a half-hour lead-in to the big game.
It is the second visit for GameDay to Charlottesville. Last January, the show emanated from JPJ hours before then-unbeaten Virginia hosted eventual national champion Duke in a game won by the Blue Devils.
During the GameDay broadcast last year and afterward, the crew noted the atmosphere at Virginia was one of the best the show had experienced.
“I thought there was great ownership last year from the student body and the fans, there was a great energy in the building,” said Seth Greenberg, the former head coach at Virginia Tech, who provides the analytical balance to the two former Blue Devils, Williams and Jay Bilas, who will double as the color analyst for ESPN on the big game of the day.
“The game was terrific. Unfortunately, obviously, Virginia wasn’t able to finish it, but it was a great game, a great environment, probably our best environment that we had last year for GameDay. I would say Virginia and Wichita State were probably the two best. It speaks volumes that we’re back here again this year,” Greenberg said.
The point there from the coach is that a visit from ESPN College GameDay is a big deal.
“GameDay is a special event, not just for your basketball program, but for your university, the ownership it creates within the athletic department, on campus, the passion it generates, the alumni it brings back. It’s a two-hour infomercial, basically, for your university,” Greenberg said.
“We’re not going to a place where a team isn’t playing well. We’re not going to a place where the game isn’t going to be a pretty good game. Think about the games we’ve had this year, whether it was Carolina-Notre Dame, the Oklahoma-Kansas game, Texas A&M-Kentucky, we’ve had some great games this year, and I think (Saturday) is going to be another of those great games,” Greenberg said.
Vegas has Virginia installed as a four-point favorite. The two teams split a pair of games last season, with UVA winning 75-64 in Chapel Hill in February, and UNC knocking the ‘Hoos out of the ACC Tournament with a 71-67 semifinal win.
The Tar Heels have had the most success against Virginia’s Pack Line defense the past couple of years in countering the strategy’s post-to-post doubles that are designed to get the ball out of the hands of post players back out onto the perimeter.
Carolina shot 54.8 percent in the win in Greensboro in March, including going 7-of-14 from three-point range.
“The beautiful thing about the North Carolina bigs is that they’re very perceptive, and they both have the ability to pass the ball out of the block,” Williams said. “Brice Johnson is one of the top players not just in the ACC, but in the country, and Kennedy Meeks has great hands, as well as Isaiah Hicks. How do you defend that?”
The 2015-2016 Heels are at the bottom of the ACC in three-point shooting at 31.4 percent, “but they’ve got guys who are capable of making shots,” Bilas said, and that is the challenge for opposing defenses.
“When you’re guarding them, you say, we need to pay attention to what’s going on inside, keep them out of the lane, keep them off the glass, and you wind up giving up some open shots. You hope they’re not open, but you give up some perimeter shots, and they’re capable of making them. I classify them as streaky. Joel Barry, Marcus Paige, those guys are capable of making shots. So is Justin Jackson. You’ve just got to get pressure on them, and limit them to one,” Bilas said.
Greenberg expects UVA coach Tony Bennett to come up with some wrinkles defensively.
“They might not double on the catch. They might double on the bounce. Which is different. When you double on the bounce, how good will Brice throw it out off the bounce?” Greenberg said. “The one thing right now is Carolina isn’t shooting the ball all that well. So in terms of the Pack Line, if you can double, because you’re not stretched out as far, and now all the sudden you can force the ball out of the double team, you can close out short or long depending on who it is on the pass out.
“The biggest thing is getting the ball out of the post and taking away the dive. If you can take the ball out of the post, take away the dive, and then force that second pass, you’ve done your job,” Greenberg said.
Williams feels another key for Virginia will be getting production from players other than ACC player of the year candidate Malcolm Brogdon.
“Anthony Gill needs to be great tomorrow. I know he’s been struggling with his shot, but I’m not so worried about him being great offensively. I’m worried about him being great defensively,” Williams said.
“If the supporting cast can come in play, and if London Perrantes is not aggressive, I’m going to go crazy. He has the ability to be so special. I just want to see him take that next step mentally. I know it’s the system, and I know it’s the Tony Bennett way, but he can still be aggressive within the system if he picks his spots,” Williams said.
The game within the game will be the battle to control tempo. Virginia averages 61.8 possessions per game, the fewest of the 351 teams in Division I, with the patient offense using 19.8 seconds per possession, 348th nationally, and opponents taking 19.1 seconds per possession to get their own shots off, 350th nationally.
North Carolina uses just 15.1 seconds per possession on offense, 11th-fastest nationally, and the Tar Heels average 72.4 possessions per game, 44th nationally.
“Virginia is going to want to control the tempo of the game with their offense and their defense,” Greenberg said. “Virginia is going to try to take them out of transition, keep them off the glass, make them guard. And then on the other side, obviously Carolina wants to get the game going up and down, wants to spread Virginia out, wants to be able to get to the glass.”
“It’s a contest of wills,” said GameDay host Rece Davis. “If Virginia can control Brice Johnson and the interior, North Carolina has guys who can make shots, but statistically they’re not a good three-point shooting team, they can get hot, Justin Jackson and Marcus Paige can get hot, but I think Virginia can impose its will and its tempo.
“By the same token, if Brice Johnson can get going, can beat those double-teams, Carolina is really, really good. I think they’re the best team in the league, at least the most talented one, top to bottom.
“It’s just a great matchup between two teams that are certainly championship-worthy,” Davis said.
Virginia has won the past two ACC regular-season championships, but a three-peat might be out of reach at this stage. The Cavs are two back of UNC with three games to play, and though a win would tighten things up, the focus for this team is likely already beyond the regular season and toward March Madness.
“They’ve got a great team, once again, and it’s a team that, to me, and not to take anything away from the previous teams, maybe it’s just because they’re scoring a little more, I like this team in terms of its chances to advance deep in the tournament better than I have the previous ones,” Davis said.
Has it happened yet under Tony Bennett? Williams asked the question aloud, then answered.
“No. But I think it can,” Williams said. “And I think this is the type of game that fits right into their style of play. North Carolina wants to run, they want more possessions. They have a tendency at times to lost into their jump shots instead of pounding the ball down low. If the bigs come to play for UVA, if they can keep North Carolina off the glass, and if somebody else besides Malcolm Brogdon can score the basketball, then I think this team has a chance to win, and then they’re right back in the hunt for the ACC regular-season title.”
– Story by Chris Graham