On the second half of their two game road trip, the Hokies travel to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina in their only meeting of the season. UNC comes into this game 9th in the AP Poll, with a 6-1 conference record (1st) and an 18-3 overall record. The Tar Heels’ only losses on the season are to Indiana, Kentucky, and a pesky Georgia Tech squad intent on creating chaos in already tumultuous conference. A season after a heartbreaking loss in the NCAA tournament final, Head Coach Roy Williams really has his team playing well.
North Carolina’s offense has been nothing short of elite this season. They score 89.4 PPG which ranks 4th in the country, and their KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency ranks 10th. They are incredibly well rounded on that side of the ball. They attack the rim, go to the post, and move the ball exceptionally. But the one improvement they have made since last season has been shooting the three. After making the NCAA final shooting just 32.7% from downtown in 2016, the Tar Heels have been on fire from deep, knocking down 37.4% of their three-point attempts.
One of the primary reasons for that jump is the emergence of junior Justin Jackson, who will likely be in the NBA this time last year. Leading the team with 18.2 PPG, Jackson shoots 40% from three. He makes them off the dribble, off screens, and can spot up with the best of them. At 6-8, he is not bothered by contests from shorter players either.
However, Jackson was not as deadly a shooter his first two years with the Tar Heels, making his living off getting to the basket and terrific off-ball movement. He is uber-dangerous once he gets into a triple-threat position due to his explosive and long first step. That forces defenders to give him the inch of space he needs to get his shot off. Jackson also averages 2.7 APG, not a ground-breaking stat, but shows he has done a good job creating for others once the defense collapses on him.
Joel Berry is another player that has taken that next step to become a dominant force on the Tar Heels. Losing Marcus Paige to the NBA has allowed Berry to become the primary playmaker for UNC. He averages 3.9 APG which leads the team and boasts a 22.2% Assist Percentage. Statistically, he is an even better shooter than Jackson, as Berry hits 42.9% from three (44.7% in conference play). Berry had a game this season where he toasted Clemson, draining a remarkable seven threes. If there are two players the Hokies must key in on with their perimeter defense, they are Justin Jackson and Joel Berry. But like Jackson, Berry has excellent quickness to blow by his defender and get to the bucket. Most teams this season have gone heavy zone to contain Berry.
North Carolina has become adept at beating the zone, however, and a lot of it has to do with the versatility of forward Kennedy Meeks. Usually teams will use a 2/3 as the high man in the zone because they have the vision and passing ability to break teams down from that position. Meeks is unique because he can do that at a hefty 6-9, 290 pounds.
Meeks also averages 13 PPG, fourth on the team, mostly getting his buckets in the paint. Because of his size, he has no problem moving people down low on the block. However, he does show nice touch and can occasionally hit the 10 to 12-foot midrange jumper if given space.
In addition to his great vision for a big man, Meeks’ size makes him a terror on the glass. He leads the team with 9.6 RPG (10.4 in ACC play) and a phenomenal 21% Rebound Rate. His Offensive Rebound Rate of 17% is one of the tops in the ACC as well. As a team, the Tar Heels do an excellent job attacking the offensive glass. They are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing an insane 43% of their misses. That is the best offensive rebound rate by any team since the 2012 season, and Meeks is literally a monster part of that puzzle.
Another part of that puzzle is North Carolina’s third leading scorer Isaiah Hicks. During conference play, the freshman has been averaging 14.3/5.7 per game which are excellent numbers. He lives almost exclusively at the rim, shooting 64.2% from the field. This also means he gets to the free throw line frequently, where he excels as a freshman (82.5%).
Those four players combine to take an average of 31.4 shots per game. The rest of the Tar Heels roster combines for just about 20 attempts per contest. The Hokies’ focus needs to be on the four-man band of Jackson, Berry, Hicks, and Meeks.
Guard Kenny Williams finished out the starting five for the Tar Heels, who is actually from the same hometown as Greg Donlon. Williams averages 6.9 PPG, but generally defers to his teammates with a 13.4% Usage Rate. He is a plus defender that provides value on that end for UNC. Tony Bradley is another guy who gets boards for them. He averages 7.9/5.7 per game, and is effective on the glass due to his 6-10 frame. Theo Pinson does an excellent job opening up opportunities for teammates, posting a 28% Assist Percentage, tops on the team, while averaging 6.4 points during conference play. Luke Maye is another very good rebounder for his size. Top to bottom, UNC’s roster stacks up with the nation’s best. Just a very deep squad at all positions, but specifically in the front court.
The key players for the Hokies will be Chris Clarke and Khadim Sy. Clarke will most likely draw Isaiah Hicks or Justin Jackson the majority of the game which will likely be the most intriguing one-on-one matchup tonight. But Sy, with his size, must battle all night long against Meeks, Hicks, and Bradley. An undersized LeDay will not be able to do it on his own against the Tar Heels’ trees.
North Carolina’s outstanding size also pays dividends on defense. The rank 146th in points allowed per game, but that number is inflated due to their pace of play. Pomeroy ranks their adjusted defensive efficiency as the 15th best in the country. And it’s not just the fact they play superb team defense – they have excellent individual defenders. Jackson and Berry are elite athletes that can lock down most players. Meeks’ size and Hicks’ length are tough to counter in the paint.
Part of defense is finishing possessions with securing the defensive rebound. Just like they do on the offensive end, North Carolina has been tremendous on the defensive glass. They lead the nation with a 59.1% TRB% and a 74.9% Defensive Rebounding Rate. They simply dominate the paint. Virginia Tech must be sure to get good shots every time they go down the floor, because it’s unlikely they will get a second chance at it.
Virginia Tech will need to get in transition more than they have in their last two games. The way they can counter UNC’s size is by simply outrunning them down the floor. Zach LeDay has better quickness and speed than Meeks or Hicks and can make life miserable for them by running the floor for easy buckets in transition. The more of those easy buckets the Hokies can get, the better the chance they have at pulling off the upset.
North Carolina has been fairly good at defending the three ball, as teams are only shooting 33.6% from deep on them this season. The Hokies have not shot well from three-point range since playing Syracuse, shooting 30% from deep in that span. That will not get the job done against a red-hot Tar Heels squad. Justin Bibbs has typically had big games against top tier opponents, so even though he has not been a proficient shooter as of late, there is a good chance he can finally get back in his groove. The Hokies would surely love that to happen.
Turnovers are another equalizer for UNC’s rebounding. The Tar Heels have been averaging 14 turnovers per game over conference play, which ranks in the bottom third of the conference. The Hokies need to be aggressive in getting in the passing lanes and emphasize having active hands to disrupt possessions. This goes along with getting some easy baskets in transition.
As Norm Wood tweeted out yesterday, North Carolina is favored by 14 to win this game. Given that the Tar Heels are first in the conference and are at home, that is not completely unreasonable. I don’t think the Hokies can pull off the upset because their greatest weakness coincides with UNC’s greatest strength, which is rebounding. If the Hokies can’t close out possessions, then there’s no chance they can stop an elite offensive unit on the road, because they haven’t shown the ability to do so yet.