ACC Tournament Preview: (5) North Carolina vs. (1) Virginia
North Carolina picked up arguably its biggest victory of the season yesterday against Louisville in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, and the Tar Heels immediately have a chance to obtain an even bigger win in the ACC semifinals tonight against Virginia.
The Virginia Cavaliers advanced to the quarterfinals after defeating Florida State handily, 58-44. The Cavaliers entered the ACC Tournament as the top seed after winning the ACC outright in the regular season.
Virginia and North Carolina met earlier this year in the Dean Smith Center on February 2, where the Cavaliers topped the Tar Heels, 75-64. North Carolina actually led by a point at halftime, but Virginia absolutely stifled Carolina’s offense in the second half, putting together a 24-8 run almost midway through the half to take an 18-point lead. The Tar Heels cut it to 9 points with a Marcus Paige 3-pointer with 30 seconds remaining, but the run came too late, and Virginia picked up its 20th win in 21 games.
How did things go from looking positive in the first half, to an 18-point deficit in the second? Virginia adjusted at halftime and completely shut down the interior passing that had worked in the first half for Carolina. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks started out strong against the Cavaliers thanks to impressive big-to-big passing below the basket, creating easy looks from point-blank. Virginia coach Tony Bennett recognized that, and in the second half, those passes were landing in the hands of Cavalier defenders.
So, how does Carolina beat Virginia this time around? The Tar Heels absolutely have to look to push the tempo at any possible point. Virginia excels at playing a half-court style and draining the shot clock on each possession, and if the Tar Heels fall into that trap, expect an ugly game similar to the home loss against N.C. State. As soon as a Tar Heel defender grabs a rebound, he has to look up the court and either make the long pass, or find a guard to bring it up as quickly as possible.
That’s why the two biggest x-factors in today’s game are Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto. Meeks hasn’t used it as much this year, but his outlet pass is one of the best in college basketball, and it’s great for springing the fast break and finding guards streaking down the court (see: Justin Jackson) for the transition finish. Every rebound Meeks gets, he has to look to make that laser outlet pass down the floor, and trust his guards will beat Virginia back. J.P. Tokoto is capable of bringing the ball up quickly after rebounding, and eliminating that pass to a guard such as Marcus Paige or Joel Berry II will save North Carolina time and allow them to attack before Virginia gets set. Tokoto’s play is also a huge question mark against a team like Virginia. Tokoto is at his absolute best when the game allows both teams to run the floor back-and-forth. In a half-court setting, Tokoto becomes far less effective, and defenders will cheat off of him, daring him to fire an ill-advised jumper. If Virginia gets the pace it wants, don’t be shocked if Roy Williams elects to go small with Paige-Britt-Berry to space out the floor and give North Carolina that additional man capable of hitting shots.
If North Carolina gets the pace it wants, the gameplan is pretty simple: Beat Virginia down the floor. Justin Jackson showed yesterday against Louisville that he is capable of dribbling past defenders in transition and creating his own look. Joel Berry still has work to do on finishing (see: STOP FADING AWAY FROM THE BASKET), but he is strong enough to create contact and draw fouls. Those two freshmen will be a large part of the Tar Heels operating in the fast break.
If Virginia slows the game down, North Carolina will need to do a few things: First, look for that interior passing again, especially when Meeks and Brice Johnson are in the game together. Carolina’s normal starting bigs have far superior hands to their back-ups on the bench, and they also have great chemistry with one-another. In the first half, they can look to make those passes below the basket as they did in Chapel Hill, as long as they’re careful not to turn the ball over. If the Cavaliers key in on those passes, then North Carolina is going to have to shoot over Virginia’s defense. It’s not an ideal approach, but a healthy Marcus Paige will have to step up and take more shots in a half-court setting. If he can get hot from deep, it’ll give the Tar Heels a far better chance of surviving longer in a slower game.
Despite what Carolina can do to beat Virginia, I’m going to have to pull a first here and actually pick against the Tar Heels. Virginia is one of the best teams in the country, and it excels in forcing teams into prolonged scoring droughts, something that North Carolina has been susceptible to all year. North Carolina will go on a few runs, but Virginia will control the game from the outset, and advance to the ACC Tournament Finals.
The Verdict: Virginia defeats North Carolina, 55-49.
Photo courtesy of Spencer Herlong (@TarHeelPhoto, spencerfoto.com)