After blowing a 10 point lead with two and a half minutes left and dropping their date with Duke on Wednesday, the No. 5 North Carolina headed into their Saturday matchup with No. 19 Virginia with the scrutinizing eye of the nation on them.
How would they respond? What would their response to arguably the most epic shot in the history of the Tobacco Road Rivalry be? Is this truly a team that we will be able to count on come tournament time?
And while the outcome of a single game is not a big enough sample size to give us an answer to the latter question, UNC’s 70-52 win over the Cavs is enough to assure this writer that the loss to Duke had as much, if not more, to do with the Austin Rivers show as any flaw that Carolina may have.
Both Virginia and North Carolina play a unique style of basketball, one that they are truly devoted to and notorious for. We all know about the Heel’s fast break and how they like to get up and down the floor. Its a style that has been associated with UNC head coach Roy Williams since his days in Lawrence, KS. Tony Bennett, on the other hand, plays as controlled as any team in the country this side of Wisconsin. The Cavs pride themselves on offensive execution in the half court and forcing their opponents to knock down perimeter jumpers with their “Pack” defense.
So why am I so impressed with this win for the Heels?
Because they beat Virginia playing their game.
According the Kenpom, North Carolina is the fifth-fastest team in the country, averaging 74.2 possessions per game. Virginia? They are the sixth-slowest at just 60.2 possessions per game. Saturday’s game had 65 possessions. As the saying goes, its much easier to slow the game down than speed the game up, and Virginia was able to do that. And they still lost.
Perhaps more telling, however, is that Carolina didn’t fall into the trap that the Cavs like to set by goading their opponents into chucking away from the perimeter. The Tar Heels took just ten threes, instead pounding the ball into Tyler Zeller, John Henson and James Michael McAdoo.
Zeller was terrific as usual, finishing with 25 points, nine boards, three assists and three steals while McAdoo and Henson combined for 19 points and 17 boards, getting 20 shots from the floor. Those three also combined for 17 trips to the foul line. Throw in the 14 points and 11 boards that Harrison Barnes added — with just two of his 15 shots coming from beyond the arc — and you can see quite clearly what UNC’s game-plan was heading into this game.
Perhaps the most telling part of this game was UNC’s work on the glass. The Tar Heels have been one of the best rebounding teams in the country this season, and that certainly didn’t change against UVA. The Cavs allow opponents to get just 24.0% of the available offensive rebounds this season. UNC grabbed 23 offensive boards and notched an OR% of 48.9%.
The win moves UNC to 8-2 in the ACC, which will keep them tied with Florida State (who beat Miami this afternoon) and Duke (if the Blue Devils handle Maryland at home) in the ACC race. The loss drops Virginia two games off of the pace.
North Carolina certainly isn’t a perfect team, and I may not argue all that vociferously if you were to say they aren’t one of the top four teams in the country.
But calling this team the “most disappointing team in the country”, as one national columnist said earlier this week, is insane.
The Tar Heels are still very much a Final Four and national title contender, and beating a good UVA team at their own game is a good way to prove it.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.