No. 8 Virginia takes down No. 12 North Carolina

(Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
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Virginia continued its hot week by running past No. 12 North Carolina for a 61-49 ACC home win on Saturday. The No. 8 Cavaliers earned their sixth straight win and fifth consecutive home win against the Tar Heels with the win — which is easily their biggest of the season.

Senior guard Devon Hall paced Virginia with 16 points while DeAndre Hunter added 10 points as the Cavalier defense held North Carolina to under 50 points in back-to-back seasons.

Joel Berry II led North Carolina with 17 points as the Tar Heels never seemed to get going in dropping their second consecutive ACC games.

Here are three takeaways from this one

1. Virginia proved they’re a potential top-tier team after this week’s solid play

Entering the 2017-18 season, NBCSports.com ranked West Virginia in our preseason top 25. Virginia Tech just missed our cut.

We had Virginia picked to finish No. 6 in the ACC. With multiple top-five teams like Arizona State and Xavier losing this week, there’s a very real chance Virginia will be ranked No. 6 in the country next week.

I don’t normally feel inclined to speak on behalf of my colleagues. I’ll say it for all of us: we really screwed up in our projection of Virginia.  The Cavaliers have proven themselves to be pretty good. This week has been their biggest stretch of the season.

After blowing out in-state rival Virginia Tech on the road earlier this week, Virginia soundly outplayed North Carolina on Saturday, leading most of the game and dictating the methodical tempo that suits them so well. Helpless against Virginia’s No. 1-ranked defense (on KenPom), North Carolina’s offense looked out of sync.

Offensively, the Cavaliers created enough buckets off of turnovers — including two crowd-pleasing breakaway dunks off of steals in the first half — and had a balanced effort to still thoroughly beat the Tar Heels with only two double-figure scorers.

Before this week, Virginia had beaten Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Boston College. Now, after convincing wins against back-to-back solid opponents, it’s time to take Virginia more seriously.

2. North Carolina will be fine despite back-to-back losses

Things have been a bit concerning in Chapel Hill recently. Not only has North Carolina dropped back-to-back ACC road games, but the Tar Heels also had to claw back to get past Wake Forest the game before that.

We’ve expressed a few times in the past that North Carolina is still trying to find its identity in the wake of last season’s national championship team. Senior point guard Joel Berry II is still the team’s heart-and-soul but junior Luke Maye (six points on 2-for-10 shooting) has cooled off a bit recently and a consistent third scorer still needs to emerge.

Thankfully for North Carolina, they have some time to figure this out. Only playing No. 25 Clemson as a ranked opponent until a game against Duke on Feb. 8, the Tar Heels don’t have a lot of top-flight competition to face over the next week weeks.

On the road, they get Bonzie Colson-less Notre Dame, Clemson and Virginia Tech. At home, North Carolina has Georgia Tech, Clemson, N.C. State, Pitt and Boston College. That’s a winnable group of games (while allowing for tweaks in the rotation) before a home stretch that includes two against Duke, Miami and road games at Louisville and Syracuse.

Things don’t look great for North Carolina right now. They also have to integrate Cameron Johnson more into the lineup after only five games so this team still has plenty of room to get better.

North Carolina doesn’t look like a great team right now. It also wouldn’t be smart to count them out.

3. Virginia has to improve on offense to be among the elites but there’s still time

One of the intriguing things about Virginia is how much this team can grow by the end of the season. Since so many of the members of this rotation are in new roles, there has been an adjustment period on the offensive end at times this season.

Sophomore Kyle Guy is living up to his former McDonald’s All-American status by leading the Cavaliers in scoring but he can still get better as the season goes on — particularly if others also step up and alleviate the attention that defenses are giving him.

Other players in the rotation like point guard Ty Jerome, wing De’Andre Hunter and big man Mamadi Diakite are also still in their first years of college basketball with room to grow. Senior Nigel Johnson is another new piece as a grad transfer still figuring out his role.

Already with the No. 1 defense in the country, if Virginia continues to get better on offense then their ceiling continues to expand. A high-floor team with the potential to get knocked out of a tournament-style setting on a cold-shooting day, Virginia enhances their chances of advancing deep into March with a more developed offensive attack.

I mean, have you seen Duke’s offense? At some point, the Cavaliers are going to have to score points. They’re also as effective as any team in the country at keeping games slow and at their tempo. But their offense still has to get better for the Cavaliers to be an elite team.

There’s still a few months left before March and a lot of time to get better. It’ll be fascinating to see if Virginia can improve its offense to hang with some of the big boys.