When the North Carolina men's basketball team travels up to Charlottesville to play No. 9 Virginia on Saturday, it will be going on four years since the Tar Heels last beat the Cavaliers at all. If you want to know when the Tar Heels last won in Charlottesville, you’ll have to go all the way back to 2012.
UVA head coach Tony Bennett seems to have figured out how to stifle UNC’s typically high-scoring offense by slowing the game down and emphasizing relentless defense. Since Bennett took the helm for the 2009-10 season, the Tar Heels have a .389 winning percentage against Virginia and have lost their last six matchups.
Snapping that losing streak against this UVA team will be a tough ask for the unranked Tar Heels. One reassuring note for UNC fans, though, is that head coach Roy Williams said in a press conference Friday that the team will be fully manned, even after The Daily Tar Heel obtained a video of players partying maskless last Saturday.
Here are three keys to the game if UNC is to pull off the upset on Saturday.
Contain Huff and Hauser on the perimeter
Similarly to UNC, the bulk of Virginia’s scoring comes from its frontcourt. Unlike UNC, Virginia’s duo of redshirt senior forwards, Jay Huff and Sam Hauser, have the ability to stretch the floor beyond the arch, and that’s what they’ve done all season.
The 6-foot-8 Hauser leads the team with 92 3-point attempts, while 7-foot-1 Huff is third with 50 total attempts.
“It’s going to be a challenge, because we’re going to have to have Armando (Bacot), Day’Ron (Sharpe), Walker (Kessler), Garrison (Brooks) go out to the 3-point line,” Williams said in Friday's press conference.
The Tar Heels have struggled handling shooting bigs throughout the season. In the Feb. 2 loss to Clemson, they gave up two clutch 3-pointers from forward Hunter Tyson, and earlier in the season, they allowed seven 3s from Wake Forest forward Isaiah Mucius.
Win the Caleb Love-Kihei Clark matchup
After a 2-10 shooting performance and just one assist in the loss to Clemson, first-year point guard Caleb Love had his best outing of the season against Duke, with 25 points on 9-16 shooting and seven assists. The former five-star prospect has struggled with inconsistency all season, but come Saturday, the Tar Heels will need the superstar version of Love that showed up against Duke.
Against the Cavaliers, Love should have a considerable size advantage against 5-foot-9 Virginia point guard Kihei Clark, which could allow him to show off his driving ability and inside finishing. Since Clark is one of the best defensive guards in the country, though, Love should also lean on his playmaking and look for open shots for first-year guard Kerwin Walton, who has shot 45.7 percent from deep this season as UNC's hottest shooting hand.
“I think those flying through the air, one-handed, one-knee-up kind of shots, those are the things we need to get rid of, and (start) being more of a facilitator and still scoring,” Williams said.
Make free throws down the stretch
Woes from the free-throw line have haunted UNC all season.
The Tar Heels rank dead last in the ACC in free-throw shooting percentage (65.8), which will be a serious problem in a matchup against Virginia, which leads the conference in that statistic (81.7).
In UNC’s 13-point loss to Clemson, the Tar Heels shot a measly 52.4 percent from the stripe. Sharpe, who has attempted the second-most free throws for UNC this year, is shooting at just a 53-percent clip.
Virginia is not a team that typically blows the opposition out. Despite their high ranking, the Cavaliers' scoring margin is just about 11 points, and their last three wins have all been by less than 10 points. If the game comes down to the wire, points from free throws will certainly be a deciding factor.