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Preview: No. 18 UNC men's basketball travels to Virginia Tech for first conference game of the season

UNC senior Armando Bacot (5) looks to pass during the men's basketball game on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, at the Dean Smith Center. UNC beat JMU 80-64.

Coming off three consecutive losses over the course of just six days, No. 18 North Carolina will travel to Blacksburg, Va., on Sunday to play Virginia Tech for its first conference game of the season.

After Wednesday night’s loss at No. 10 Indiana, UNC became just the fourth preseason No. 1 team to drop three consecutive games. Now, the Tar Heels look to end their losing streak as they take on a well-coached and hungry Virginia Tech team. 

Handle the physicality

UNC head coach Hubert Davis said many of his team’s struggles can be attributed to the sheer physicality brought by opposing teams. In a press conference on Friday, he said the team was physicality bothered in terms of its movement and spacing.

“Other teams are blitzing us a lot,” Davis said. “Our guards aren’t able to penetrate and get downhill.” 

Without being able to advance the ball inside, UNC’s guards have been forced into many ill-advised jumpshots. If the Tar Heels want to get better shot opportunities on offense and more stops on defense, it all starts with matching energy and becoming zealously physical on both ends of the floor.

On Friday, Davis praised the Hokies, saying they are “always very physical and tough on the defensive end.” For this reason, it is imperative that the Tar Heels are able to handle the Hokies' physicality if they want to come away with their first notable road win of the season.

Moving the ball

One of UNC’s biggest struggles offensively this season has been sharing the ball. The Tar Heels average just 11.4 assists per game, which ranks 301st in the nation. In the loss to Indiana, UNC notched only five assists, its lowest mark in a game since dishing out just four in the season opener against UNCW. 

When asked about his team's low assist numbers, Davis said that ball movement is "all we talk about."

"For this specific team, we have communicated, talked about, drilled, practiced (ball movement) since the first time we got together as a group," Davis said.

Davis noted that UNC's spacing and balance have been thrown off when Tar Heel guards are being blitzed by opposing defenders. When this happens and lanes are being cut off, it makes it difficult to get the ball inside without effective passing. 

For Davis, everything is about ball and player movement. If the Tar Heels can effectively move the ball, and move without the ball, open looks will come more easily.

Protect the paint

Indiana scored 50 of its 77 points in the paint Wednesday night, which doubled UNC's interior output.  

“(The struggle to defend the paint) starts with the way we’re guarding ball screens,” Davis said. “Guards are able to get depth into the paint, and it’s breaking down our defense.”

Virginia Tech is led by 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Sean Pedulla, who is averaging 17.1 points per game to start the season. Expect the Hokies to place the Tar Heels in many ball screen situations involving Pedulla and senior forward Justyn Mutts, who is nearly averaging a double-double with 12.6 points and 9 rebounds per game.

In addition to struggles with ball screen defense, Davis cited the Tar Heels’ turnovers as a leading cause for opposing points in the paint. Davis said the team was not able to get back in transition quickly enough, making many of their turnovers feel like “pick sixes." 

Each of the keys for the Tar Heels goes hand in hand. If they can protect the ball and keep it moving, that will help rejuvenate the offense and prevent turnovers. On top of that, if UNC can match the physicality of Virginia Tech, it will lead to a better defensive performance.

"It's going to be a challenge for us, but I'm really excited about going up there (to Blacksburg)," Davis said.


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