StLou's Previews: North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina Tar Heels

Virginia returns home from a dominant showing in Blacksburg to take on the defending national champs. This has been a lopsided series in Virginia's favor in recent years; will that trend continue?

Game Details:

Date/Time: Saturday, January 6th, 1:00 PM EST
Location: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, VA

What 'They' Say

Vegas: UVA -5; O/U 136
TAPE: Ranks UNC #20, predicts a 79-65 UVA win, 88% confidence
KenPom: Ranks UNC #12, predicts a 69-62 UVA win, 74% confidence


Depth Chart:


PG #2 Joel Berry II, 6-0 195, SR
30.4 mpg, 17.9 ppg, 3 apg, 36% 3P%
SG #24 Kenny Williams, 6-4 185, JR 
29.3 mpg, 12.8 ppg, 2.3 apg, 46% 3P% 
SF #1 Theo Pinson, 6-6 220, SR 
28.8 mpg, 9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 43% FG% 
PF #32 Luke Maye, 6-8 240, JR 
31.7 mpg, 18.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 51% FG% 
C #15 Garrison Brooks, 6-9 215, FR 
18.5 mpg, 6.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 53% FG% 

Key Reserves


#3 Andrew Platek, 6-3 195, FR
10.2 mpg, 3.1 ppg, 0.7 apg, 40% 3P%
G #5 Jalek Felton, 6-3 190, FR 
11.3 mpg, 3.7 ppg, 1.8 apg, 41% 3P% 
SG  #4 Brandon Robinson, 6-5 170, SO 
10.9 mpg, 2.6 ppg, 0.8 apg, 50% 3P% 
F #13 Cameron Johnson, 6-8 210, SR 
23.3 mpg, 10.5 ppg, 1.8 apg, 44% 3P% 
F/C #42 Brandon Huffman, 6-10 250, FR
5.2 mpg, 2.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 54% FG%


The ABC's of UNC:

A) Luke Maye has been the breakout star of the young season. A role player as an underclassman, known mostly for his timely bucket to beat Kentucy in last year's Elite Eight, Maye has exploded this season as a versatile threat at the 4. He's scoring in buckets both inside (52% on 2's) and outside (46% from 3). He's second in the ACC in rebounding. He's drawing fouls and even blocking a shot or two. These stats aren't just against their cupcakes either; Luke went for 27 and 6 against Michigan, 17 and 15 against Wake, and 14 and 6 against FSU. He's cracked KenPom's Top 10 Players list, has an endless motor, and will be one of the better forwards Zay has to lock down this year.

B) The bench is disappearing in big games. Seventh woods has been battling plantar fasciitis and hasn't played since November. Star freshman Jalek Felton has only 5 mpg in UNC's two ACC games so far with no points scored, and similarly disappeared against Michigan and MSU; he's turnover prone and Roy is hiding him over it.  Brandon Robinson and Andrew Platek have also struggled to earn Roy's trust and subsequent minutes in tight games. It's leaving a lot on the shoulders of Berry, Williams, and Maye to carry the offense. The X-factor here is going to be 6'8" swing forward Cam Johnson, who's only played four games this season after starting the year with a meniscus injury. The grad transfer had some huge games against us last year while he played for Pitt, averaging 15 ppg in 3 contests (H+A plus the ACCT), shooting 50% from 3 (9-18 over those 3 games). Splitting his time between the 3 and the 4, he's been solid in all phases since returning, and will be an intriguing defensive matchup for Hunter.

C) This team is much less comfortable in the half court. Whereas the last two years Carolina had the talent and experience to be just as good in the half court as they were in transition, with the likes of Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, and Justin Jackson in their lineup. This iteration looks a lot less comfortable going against a set defense. The real weak spot has been starting small forward Theo Pinson, who's really one dimensional a player (3-25 from 3 on the year, only 12%). There's been very little offense coming out of their post players (other than Maye) as well, as they're rotating three freshman at the 5; more on that below. That means they've really only had three weapons on offense; Maye, all-ACC PG Joel Berry, and Richmond-native SG Kenny Williams... these were the only reliable scoring options at FSU. SF Cam Johnson could provide the additional scoring punch Carolina needs to be diverse enough on offense to be dangerous; I'll be curious how many minutes he gets in place of Pinson for that reason.

Their season to date:

UNC is 12-3 on the season, 1-1 in the ACC. They've lost to Michigan State (Neutral), Wofford (ouch!), and most recently @FSU.  Their best wins are over Arkansas (Neutral), hosting Michigan, and @ Tennessee. Per KenPom they've played the nation's 14th toughest schedule.

Keys to getting the win:

1) Shut down the secondary break. Everyone knows Carolina runs. 10th nationally in offensive pace. But where lots of teams run sloppily, the Carolina break is a well practiced, disciplined exercise. The real danger in Carolina's system is the secondary break, the ability for players trailing the initial break to become contributors, either by receiving an outlet pass or by crashing the offensive glass. It preys on teams that aren't quick in manning up or setting up a defense and rebound assignments, and is a major reason why Carolina is so effective on the offensive glass, grabbing over 35% of their misses (20th) nationally. This means that all five Virginia players have to get back on defense, whether off a make, a miss, or a turnover (usually off a miss, Carolina isn't generating a ton of turnovers), and not just discourage the ball-handler, but D up every single Carolina player on the move.

2) Attack their big men. The glaring weak spot on the team this year has been the rotation at the 5-spot. The departures of isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Tony Bradley from last year's squad has left them with an inconsistent rotation of role players, made up of Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman. Freshman Brooks has emerged from the trio to start all year and play just shy of 20 minutes a night, but his defense has been quiet (he's not a shot blocker), and his defensive rebounding pedestrian. When he sits, his primary backup is freshman Manley (12 minutes a night), who's a big space-eater but bad on the move. Huffman has struggled to stay out of foul trouble. Long story short, these three need to have a target on their backs when we're on offense. 

Look, Carolina's point zone defense (which is almost like a zone version of the Pack Line) inherently allows good three point shooting, especially on this year's smaller, less experienced squad. And Carolina has been punished from deep, such as FSU making 11 on 38% shooting, or Davidson making 14 on 42% from deep. But frankly, this is almost by design, because 3-point misses lead to long rebounds lead to Carolina transition opportunities. Instead, look at what Wofford did, which was put the ball in the paint; PF Cam Jackson scored 18 on 8/15 shooting, and wing Fletcher Magee dropped 27 primarily by getting into the lane. Yes, it takes work to get the ball into the paint, both through passing and dribble penetration. But drawing those inexperienced 5's for Carolina away from the basket, on help assignments, is either going to generate a lot of drive/dish opportunities (the point zone defense encourages 5's to front their assignment, so a dribble drive and dump is often available) or draw a foul.

3) Once in the half-court, force them into the lane. This Carolina iteration does not want to dribble drive once they're in the half-court. They have some capable 3 point shooters in Berry (36%), Williams (46%), Maye (46%), Felton (41%), and Johnson (44%). If we crush the break, they'll immediately go to spread the floor and look to bomb away. We've been really, really good at defending the 3-point line this year, holding opponents to under 30%, and most recently crushing VT's previously dangerous 3-point attack (they shoot 42% as a team, they went 2-12 against Virginia). Forcing Carolina into the lane puts them in an uncomfortable position, and we expect to see their shooting percentages suffer as a result.



Carolina's last few trips to Charlottesville have ended in Virginia wins of 53-43 (2017), 79-74 (2016), 76-61 (2014), and 61-52 (2013). The way Virginia played on Wednesday, there's plenty of reason for optimism to stretch that streak to 5. The last real disciplined defense the Tar Heels faced was Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartan squad, who held Carolina to 45 points. Our defense is better suited than almost any other to stifle the Carolina offense, and only Luke Maye and Cam Johnson really worry me (versatile 4's often distort the pack effectively). This isn't to say their guards won't score some, but I think this game is won or call lost at the forwards positions. I'm our offense can get on track and stay balanced, then Virginia should get the win.

Hoos Win 68-59