Virginia Tech has been the surprise team in the ACC, and on Sunday, they welcome an opponent that has been circled on their calendar since October. The #2 UNC Tar Heels (17-2), who started the season as the top ranked team in the country, are still one of the most talented teams in the country. To date, they reign as the kings of the conference, posting a 6-0 record in ACC play. However, playing Virginia Tech at Cassell may be the most difficult test they'll have faced so far. The toughest team they've faced in ACC play has been Clemson, winning that game 80-69.
The Hokies after their loss in South Bound to Notre Dame went home heartbroken after not being able retain a second half lead, but must overcome their disappointment quickly if they want to have a chance to defeat the Tar Heels. Aside from their loss at Duke, the Hokies have been excellent during conference play, especially for a young team. They'll need to continue their solid play and combine that with exceptional effort against a talented UNC side.
For the second time this week, Virginia Tech must face a high-powered offense that will have five scorers on the floor at all times. UNC ranks 2nd in the NCAA scoring 86.2 PPG. In addition, their 119.2 Offensive Rating is 6th in the country. The Tar Heels are very good at sharing and moving the basketball which is a major factor in offensive success, with 58.5% of their Field Goals coming off of assists. They also rank 1st in conference play in total assists. Interestingly enough, like the Hokies, UNC isn't reliant on the three point shot either, as their 3-point Attempt Rate is the 16th lowest in the country.
The Tar Heels' offense is run by one of the best players in the country in Marcus Paige. Since Paige has returned, UNC has averaged the 88.5 PPG, which is outstanding. His raw numbers aren't that impressive: 13.2 PPG and 3.8 APG. But he draws so much attention to him that he opens up the game for his teammates. He loves to use his speed and athleticism to get to the rim and dish it off to an open teammate under the rim (usually Brice Johnson).
Even if it's just him and a shot blocker, it's still a mismatch. Paige is an exceptional acrobat that can go left or right and will his shot through the rim, even with contact.
Paige's impact can't go understated, but neither can Brice Johnson's. Johnson leads the Tar Heels in points per game, scoring just shy of 17 a contest. In addition, he's been a very good rebounder, notching about 10 boards a game. You may have heard about his 39-point, 23-rebound performance against the Seminoles earlier this year.
Brice Johnson: 39 pts, 23 reb. In last 20 yrs, only other DI players to reach 35/23? Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. pic.twitter.com/bfIIUbebov— ESPN (@espn) January 5, 2016
Like Blake Griffin, Johnson loves to bully opponents in the paint. He doesn't rely on midrange jumpers, and at 6-9, 230, he shouldn't have to. The Hokies struggled defending Zach Auguste in Wednesday's matchup against Notre Dame, and Johnson is a similar player. Johnson is an athletic forward who can drive in and he looks for the big dunk over defenders. However, Johnson shows a little more touch around the rim, which makes a difference at the free throw line. He leads the Tar Heels in Free Throw Percentage (minimum 5 attempts), shooting 80.7% from the charity stripe. He should have plentiful opportunities to finish at the rim against a Hokies' defense that has struggled defending athletic big men in conference play.
Aside from Paige and Johnson, Joel Berry is another player to watch out for. When Marcus Paige was injured, Berry was the primary ball-handler, and did a good job distributing the ball. His 4.2 APG leads the team and he's a threat from 3-point range, shooting just under 40% from downtown. Kennedy Meeks is paired with Johnson in the frontcourt and averages 13 PPG. Meeks is more versatile than Johnson, however; he can score from midrange, the post, and shows good patience and timing in the paint. Justin Jackson is a long, athletic wing who is excellent off the ball and can burn Virginia Tech if they forget about him.
The Hokies struggled against Notre Dame on the defensive glass. They need to be able to hold UNC to one shot per possession. The Hokies' defense was worn out by the end of Wednesday because of all the second opportunities Notre Dame had. It's likely been emphasized by the coaches for the latter part of the week, but it's still up to the players to execute.
Offensively, the Hokies have been solid, despite losing two threats in Chris Clarke and Ahmed Hill. They've had success in driving to the rim during conference play, with the play usually ending in free throws. Their Free Throw Attempt Rate of .506 ranks first in the NCAA. Virginia Tech ranks 4th in ACC play with 75.5 PPG, a stat that not many people would've predicted in early December. It speaks volume to Buzz and his staff finding the identity of his team and giving them confidence to compete.
UNC's defense will be tough to break down. The Tar Heels' 97.8 Defensive Rating is above average, and teams have only shot 41% from the field against them in conference play. There aren't many individual weaknesses on the Tar Heels, since all their players are excellent athletes which makes it difficult to beat them one-on-one. It takes team basketball and a great individual performance to beat them.
In recent games, Virginia Tech has done a better job of moving the basketball. Earlier this season, there was no rhythm or fluidity to the offense. However, they've averaged 13.6 APG over the last 5 games, which is certainly an improvement. Zach LeDay's three-point success has also given the Hokies more spacing on the floor. Seth Allen and Justin Robinson were able to have success on pick-and-roll plays due because LeDay's defender would follow him to the perimeter, leaving space in behind for a guy like Shane Henry to exploit. If LeDay can knock down one or two 3-pointers early, the Hokies' offense could have decent success against a good defensive team (a line I never thought I'd say at the start of the season).
The Hokies will not only need a great game from LeDay, but likely a wing player as well. The last time an opponent this good came to Virginia Tech was Duke last year. In that game, the Hokies were excellent from three-point range. It's unlikely that Virginia Tech's offense will be able to go basket-for-basket against the Tar Heels, so it's imperative that the Hokies take advantage of open three pointers to keep up. The Hokies would be ecstatic if Allen can redeem himself for missing the game-winner Wednesday by sinking multiple three pointers. Jalen Hudson will need to showcase his shooting ability, especially because it'll open up the option for him to blow by the close-out and take it to the rim.
Opportunities off of turnovers will likely be scarce, unfortunately. UNC boasts the 7th best Turnover Percentage in the nation. Marcus Paige has turned the ball over just 10 times this season which is an extraordinarily low number given how much he handles the ball. However, the Hokies have been excellent with their relentless defense taking the ball away. They are smart with their double teams and have quick hands to disrupt passing lanes. And at home, the Hokies have forced 13 turnovers a game. No doubt, the Hokies and the Cassell crowd will be fired, which may negatively affect UNC's decision making.
One thing that the Hokies have going for them is UNC's below average offensive play in the last two games. In those games, they've shot 38% from the field. That's a very good sign given the Hokies defensive struggles. For me, this game comes down to two factors: defensive rebounding and turnovers. If the Hokies can keep Johnson off the offensive glass where he excels and force a UNC team out of their comfort zone with early turnovers, this game could fall into the Hokies' lap. I'm going to be bold here and say the Hokies are good enough on both fronts to win this game.
The Hokies deal the Tar Heels their first ACC loss, 86-83.