Wahoo Preview: No. 13 Virginia vs. North Carolina

By Scott Ratcliffe

Armaan Franklin (Photo by Jon Golden)

The ACC’s highest-scoring team ventures into Charlottesville to take on the conference’s stingiest defense, as 13th-ranked Virginia and longtime rival North Carolina lock horns Tuesday at 9 p.m., in a nationally televised matchup (ESPN).

The Cavaliers (11-3, 3-2 ACC) own the league’s top scoring defense, allowing 59.6 points per game, and are fresh off a 73-66 win over Syracuse on Saturday, as Tony Bennett passed Terry Holland as the winningest coach in UVA history.

The Tar Heels (11-5, 3-2), meanwhile, are averaging 81.4 points a night and have won six of their last seven games after suffering through a four-game skid, but have come up short in all three of their true road games this season (at Indiana, Virginia Tech and Pitt).

UNC entered the season as not only the ACC favorites, but also the nation’s top-ranked team. As a result of the aforementioned losing streak, the Tar Heels fell all the way out of the top 25. Their NCAA Tournament hopes remain healthy, however, as referenced by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent projections (6-seed).

“They had a murderer’s-row schedule, so to speak, in terms of the travel and who they played, the caliber, and just non-stop,” Bennett said of the Heels’ tough nonconference slate, which included stops in Oregon and New York City. “So you knew they were gonna find their stride.”

For second-year coach Hubert Davis’ Carolina squad, which is 1-2 on the season against ranked opponents, everything revolves around senior center Armando Bacot, the reigning ACC Player of the Year (and the media’s preseason choice to make it two in a row). He’s currently leading the conference in both scoring, total rebounding, offensive rebounding, as well as double-doubles.

Bacot (18.8 ppg, 11.2 rpg, .567 field-goal percentage, 1.3 bpg), who was named ACC Player of the Week for the second time this season (and fifth time in his career) on Monday, will obviously be a handful down low, as he has been for years. The 6-foot-11, 235-pound Richmond native has posted all nine of his double-doubles over his past 12 games. With three more boards, Bacot could’ve made it a dozen in his last 13, but he finished with 9 rebounds in three of those contests.

Armando Bacot (Photo: UNC Athletics)

His season high on the glass came against James Madison on Nov. 20, when he registered 23 of them, to go along with his 19 points. Those kinds of numbers likely sound familiar for Virginia fans, as Bacot dominated the post in both matchups last season en route to a national championship game appearance.

In the regular-season matchup in Chapel Hill, Bacot lit up the Wahoos with 29 points (on 12-of-18 shooting) and 22 rebounds, then in the ACC quarterfinals in Brooklyn, he produced another double-double with 10 points (5 for 12 FG) and 11 boards, as UNC rolled to a 20-point win.

In his five career games against UVA, Bacot is putting up 13.0 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, shooting 55 percent from the field (28 for 51) in the process.

As a result, Virginia’s bigs — Kadin Shedrick, Jayden Gardner, Ben Vander Plas and Francisco Caffaro — will have to collectively stay out of foul trouble, particularly early on, or Bacot could have another monster performance.

“It’s never a one-on-one matchup all the time,” Bennett said of defending Bacot during Monday’s ACC coaches’ teleconference. “It’s going to have to be our team defense against him, but you just want to try to stay out of picking up any foolish fouls, or unnecessary ones.”

Aside from the dangerous man in the middle, the backcourt duo of Caleb Love and RJ Davis is right up there with the best scoring tandems in college basketball. Both rank in the top 10 amongst ACC scorers, with Love averaging 16.9 points per game (sixth) and Davis not far behind at 16.4 a night (10th).

Love and Davis have combined for 58 of the team’s 107 made 3-pointers, and their assist and steal numbers are nearly identical (Love 3.3 apg, 1.3 spg; Davis 3.4 apg, 1.3 spg).

If that three-headed threat weren’t enough to worry about for opposing teams, 6-11 Northwestern graduate transfer Pete Nance has done his best to fill the shoes of departed power forward Brady Manek.

While Nance doesn’t have quite the type of perimeter output as Manek did (only 18 for 53 beyond the arc this season), he’s been a solid all-around contributor for Carolina, averaging 10.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.0 block per game.

Nance played just two minutes in the win over Wake Forest last Wednesday before injuring his back, and he sat out against Notre Dame on Saturday. He will be a game-time decision, according to Davis.

Rounding out the Heels’ starting five is senior forward Leaky Black, a 6-9, fifth-year defensive specialist who is averaging career highs with 7.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

“When he’s aggressive out there on the floor, that gives us another person that can score,” Coach Davis said of Black, “and it really opens up things and gives space for Armando to score in the post, for RJ and Caleb to do their thing on the perimeter and also attacking the basket. So it’s good news for us when Leaky is aggressive offensively.”

Off the bench, junior Puff Johnson, freshman Seth Trimble (who got the start against the Irish in place of Nance) and sophomore D’Marco Dunn have been reliable reserves, but don’t get a ton of playing time, as all five starters average 29 minutes or more on the season.

Coach Davis knows that in a slower-tempo game with limited possessions, taking care of the ball will be even more important, as well as being able to defend deep into the shot clock on multiple occasions.

“For us, it’s about getting stops defensively that allows us to get out in transition, and getting out in transition allows us to be more effective on the offensive end,” Davis said of going against Virginia. “Attacking the basket allows us to get to the free-throw line, and just in the halfcourt, just having a lot of movement and spacing to be able to try to get the shot that you want.”

At the midway point of the season, UVA senior guard Armaan Franklin has seen a resurgence from 3-point land, knocking down 12 of 27 triples (44 percent) across his last four games after hitting just 8 of 26 (31 percent) in his previous seven contests. He’s scored in double figures in five of the last six outings, while Gardner has achieved that feat in 9 of his last 11.

Another super senior, Kihei Clark, leads the ACC in assists per game with 6.3, averaging 9.3 over the last four. Junior backcourt mate Reece Beekman continues to do a little bit of everything as he works his way back to 100 percent after his hamstring injury last month.

It’ll be the 194th meeting in the all-time series, dating all the way back to the 1910-11 season, with the Heels holding a comfortable 133-60 advantage. The Hoos have won each of the last seven at John Paul Jones Arena, with the last Carolina road win in the series coming back in February of 2012. UVA had defeated UNC seven-straight times overall prior to last season.

According to Caesars Sportsbook, Virginia is a 4.5-point favorite to start a new streak tonight, as the teams will go at it again for Round Two on Feb. 25 down Tobacco Road.