There are 345 Division I basketball teams this season. Virginia is having its best season under Bennett (in his fourth year) in the scoring offense statistical ranking, currently sitting 241st nationally with 64.8 points per game. The Cavaliers ranked 251st, 302nd and 280th, respectively in Bennett’s first three seasons.
North Carolina leads the nation (75.2) in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo rankings, an estimate of the number of possessions per 40 minutes against a team playing at the average Division I tempo. Virginia checks in at No. 342 (60.8).
UNC’s first loss of the season came against Butler, which ranks 237rd (65.3) in kenpom.com ratings. The Bulldogs built a 35-18 halftime lead over the Tar Heels by being patient on the offensive end, playing tough defense on the other end and controlling the boards.
North Carolina scored 12 points through the first 15:30 of the game, as well as shooting 32.0 percent (8-of-25) and being outrebounded 24-12 in the first half. UNC was outscored 12-0 in second-chance points and was limited to two fast break points.
The Tar Heels were unprepared to handle Butler’s methodical approach back in November. On Sunday, the lessons of the past seven weeks will be put to the test against a Virginia team that will employ an even more mentally excruciating style of play.
As Roy Williams told reporters on Friday, it’s not difficult to pump the brakes on offense and force teams to guard you for 30-35 seconds. The challenge in playing at that speed is being able to defend on the other end for that long.
“The way they play on offense, that’s something that other people could do, but very few people can guard you as well as they guard you on the defensive end of the floor,” Williams said.
The Cavaliers rank third in the ACC (6th nationally) in field goal percentage defense (35.3), fourth in field goal percentage (46.2) and fourth in rebounding margin (plus-4.3). Not only will Virginia force a young North Carolina team to play at an uncomfortable tempo, Bennett’s squad will require execution in all phases of the game to emerge victorious from John Paul Jones Arena.
North Carolina has struggled with defensive consistency through the first 13 games of the season. The Tar Heels were inefficient in working around screens in the loss to Butler, while Indiana attacked the boys in blue by beating them down the floor in transition.
Three weeks ago, sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo blamed the breakdowns on the lack of defensive energy and savvyness. And while North Carolina turned in its best defensive effort of the season in the first half against UNLV last Saturday, it will have to pair energy with mental strength to endure on Sunday.
“You’ve got to be more patient,” Williams said when asked about the challenges his team will encounter defensively at Virginia. “You’ve got to understand that you have to guard for longer time periods…
“You’ve got to be patient and tough enough to guard for however long you have to and then you have to be patient enough to go down and get a good one on the other end. If you guard for 30 seconds and then go down and take a shot in three seconds and have to come back and guard for 30 seconds, you haven’t enjoyed that minute and three seconds.”
Unsurprisingly, North Carolina leads the ACC in scoring offense (83.6 ppg), while Virginia ranks dead last (64.8). Senior guard Dexter Strickland, who is 3-1 during his career against the Cavaliers, didn’t seem too concerned with his team’s ability to dictate the pace of play on Sunday.
“It’s not that difficult,” Strickland said. “We know what we have to do to get the job done. We have the right players to do it. We’ve just got to go out there and do our job.”
History tells a different story, however. Since Bennett arrived in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers are holding the Tar Heels to 61.5 points per game. If a similar result plays out on Sunday, North Carolina will have to grind out its 12th ACC opening win in 14 seasons with poise.
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