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Wednesday February 8th

Preview: Breaking down three teams UNC may face first in ACC Tournament play

Sophomore guard RJ Davis (4) stares at his opponent at the game against Virginia at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Jan. 8, 2022. UNC won 74-58.
Buy Photos Sophomore guard RJ Davis (4) stares at his opponent at the game against Virginia at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Jan. 8, 2022. UNC won 74-58.

On Saturday night, the North Carolina men’s basketball team marched into the historic Cameron Indoor Stadium and shocked the world by spoiling the curtain call of a coaching icon.

Welcome to March.

With the regular season complete — and a spot in the NCAA Tournament likely solidified — the Tar Heels will travel to Brooklyn looking to tune up for the big dance in the ACC Tournament. As the No. 3 seed with a double-bye, UNC will play its opening game at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, although the team’s opponent is still undetermined.

Here’s a look at three foes the Tar Heels could face as they begin their March Madness journey.

Virginia (No. 6 seed)

When it comes to evaluating postseason play, perhaps no team has been more volatile than the Cavaliers.

One year removed from being the only No. 1 seed to lose in first round of the NCAA Tournament, Virginia cut down the nets with a national title in 2019. After the pandemic put a halt to the 2020 rendition, the team stumbled in the first round with a loss to No. 13 seed Ohio last season.

For the first time since 2013, the Cavaliers seem to be outsiders in the NCAA Tournament field. They’ll need to perform well in the conference tournament to build their resume, and will open play on Wednesday against the winner of Louisville and Georgia Tech.

Since head coach Tony Bennett took over the program in 2009, Virginia has built its reputation on stout defensive play, which has carried the team for the majority of the season. Although the Cavaliers are ranked among the bottom-25 teams in the nation with 63.6 points per game, they lead the ACC with only 60.4 points allowed. 

With an 18-12 record, the Cavaliers have won five out of their last nine games, including a last-second victory at Duke and a double-digit victory at home over Miami. Although East Carolina transfer Jayden Gardner leads the team in scoring, Virginia is paced by the backcourt tandem of Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark, who each average over four assists per game.

In early January, UNC ran away from Virginia in a 74-58 win in the Smith Center to snap a seven-game losing streak to the Cavaliers. Junior forward Armando Bacot dominated with 29 points and 22 rebounds to record the team’s first 20-20 game since 2016.

Louisville (No. 11 seed)

Playing the last nine games with an interim coach after the firing of Chris Mack, the Cardinals have sunken to the bottom of the conference. 

Since Mack was fired on Jan. 26, Louisville has gone 1-9 with each loss coming by an average of 15.4 points. During that time frame, the team has struggled to find consistent offensive rhythm, as the Cardinals are still devoid of a scorer averaging double figures.

Although production has been sparse as of late, guards Noah Locke and El Ellis have flashed their ability to break out when needed, with each player scoring more than 15 points in a plethora of games this season. 

Despite the recent struggles, Louisville played UNC close in both outings. The first went into overtime, but North Carolina prevailed with a 90-83 win. The Tar Heels only led 64-63 with 2:57 to play in the rematch, but held the Cardinals scoreless for the remainder of the game to come away with a victory.  

Georgia Tech (No. 14 seed)

Since winning the conference tournament last year, matters quickly headed south for Josh Pastner’s squad.

After losing key players Jose Alvarado and reigning ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright in the offseason, the Yellow Jackets stumbled to a 12-19 record, including an underwhelming 5-15 mark in the ACC. Before defeating Boston College in Saturday’s season finale, the team had dropped seven of its last eight games.

Last year’s team featured one of the most efficient offenses in the country, but the numbers have been quite the contrary this season, as the Yellow Jackets rank 281st in the nation in offensive rating. The defense has also been mediocre at best, allowing 70.3 points per game.

In the two matchups between the teams this season, UNC won both games by a combined 40 points. Despite averaging 18 points per game, Georgia Tech’s leading scorer Michael Devoe was neutralized by UNC’s senior wing Leaky Black and shot only 7-18 over both contests.  

@hunternelson_1 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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