Following its first loss of the season against Purdue Wednesday, No. 5 Virginia is set to face No. 7 North Carolina Sunday in a top-10 ACC showdown at John Paul Jones Arena. With both teams coming off of double digit defeats, the Tar Heels (6-2, 1-0 ACC) and the Cavaliers (7-1, 1-0 ACC) will be looking to respond in what should be a high-intensity conference matchup.
The Boilermakers, who cruised to victory over Virginia Wednesday night at a packed Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., broke down the Cavaliers’ packline defense and took control of the game from the outset. While the Cavaliers entered the contest ranked fifth in the nation, it didn’t seem that way from their lackluster performance. Virginia allowed a season-high 69 points while producing a season-low 40 points. Senior forward Mamadi Diakite, junior forward Jay Huff and sophomore guard Kihei Clark — the trio that has held the team together through the beginning of the season — were unable to match Purdue’s quick pace and allowed the team to fall behind early.
It goes without saying that this year’s Virginia squad is very different from the reigning national champions. The loss of the “Big Three” — De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy — has left the team unable to produce on the scoring end. The problem was particularly apparent against Purdue, as the Cavaliers shot just 16.7 percent from beyond the arc, 37.2 percent from the field and 50 percent from the free throw line. In addition, without senior guard Braxton Key, Coach Tony Bennett has been forced to turn to younger, inexperienced players for production.
Meanwhile, North Carolina enters Sunday’s game with two losses. The key difference between the Tar Heels’ resume and Virginia’s, however, is that the Tar Heels fell to No. 4 Michigan and No. 6 Ohio State. While North Carolina ultimately fell to the Buckeyes 74-49 Wednesday, the Tar Heels put up a fight through the first and most of the second half. Freshman guard Cole Anthony — the Tar Heels’ breakout star this season — put up 15 points despite illness.
Virginia averages 53.3 points per game this season compared to North Carolina’s 71.6 points. The Cavaliers’ defense, however, has been strong, holding opponents to an average of 43.9 points per game while the Tar Heels have allowed 67.1 points. Going up against its first ranked opponent this season, Virginia’s packline defense will need to stifle North Carolina’s top scorers while its offense will need to shoot more efficiently from the field.
Players to watch
Virginia senior forward Mamadi Diakite
Diakite has proven his ability on both sides of the court this season, showing a great deal of improvement from last season. The veteran senior leads the team with 13.4 points per game and averages 45 percent from behind the arc. Diakite has been able to outmatch opponents inside the paint and draw fouls, as well as stretch opposing defenses with his ability to shoot three pointers. Virginia should be able to chip away at North Carolina Sunday if Bennett is able to maximize Diakite’s size, strength and shooting ability.
North Carolina freshman guard Cole Anthony
Well on his way to becoming the ACC Player of the Year, Anthony leads North Carolina with 20 points per game — as a freshman. Anthony has been an absolute force for the Tar Heels, blowing past opponents with lightning quickness and shooting the three-pointer at an efficient clip. At the top of his game, Anthony has the ability to completely steal the show. In the game against Notre Dame earlier in the season, the freshman scored 34 points to lead North Carolina to victory. Look for Clark and freshman guard Casey Morsell to be tasked with stopping him.
Keys to the game
Virginia gave Purdue far too many looks from behind the arc. The Boilermakers were 13-for-25 in three-pointers and the Cavaliers failed to silence sophomore guard Sasha Stevanovic, who was 6-for-10 in three-point shots. Virginia’s failure to contest shooters caught up against a talented team, and North Carolina will pose similar challenges from the field. North Carolina enters the game 40.4 in field goal percentage and has proven its range, sinking 30.3 percent of its three-point shots this season. Diakite and Huff need to knock down shots inside the paint while the entire team will have to fight tooth and nail to challenge Tar Heel shooters.
Play physical, play hard
Virginia wasn’t playing with the same intensity Wednesday night. The packline was no match for Purdue and the scrappy Boilermakers found ways to completely exploit the Cavaliers’ sloppiness on the court. While Virginia may not be the talented scoring team it was last year, there is nothing to stop it from playing physical and hard through forty minutes. Coach Tony Bennett has said before that “it’s not always going to be pretty but it has to be gritty”. This is the mentality Virginia needs to stay competitive against North Carolina.
Sunday’s top-10 matchup tips off at 4 p.m from John Paul Jones Arena. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.