North Carolina-Virginia Basketball: Tar Heels Have to Win, Right?

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJanuary 14, 2009

So in case you hadn't heard, the sky is falling in Chapel Hill.

God's team, the team blessed by the hand of Psycho T and the future NBA All-Star team of 2011, has lost two straight ACC games.

Gone are the dreams of immortality, and in our fickle ESPN culture in which we live it means we must now trash UNC as the most overrated team in the history of the planet.

Fortunately, North Carolina has the best cure for any case of it's baby blues.

The Virginia Cavaliers, a team picked to finish dead last in the conference.

Let's face it, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons are a good team that won at home in a very close game.  Boston College required a superhuman effort from three guys to win the game.

That is not to say North Carolina is without fault, every team has weaknesses. 

In both games, North Carolina was lacking a consistent defensive effort.  The loss of Marcus Ginyard probably had something to do with it but UNC has more than enough depth to account for this. 

Nevertheless, North Carolina could have pulled out both games but made some curious decisions late in the game.  UNC simply chucked up too many three-pointers late in the contest, trying to rush and get everything back in one possession.

Roy Williams would lead you to believe that the other teams simply wanted it more.  When you add in the fact that playing North Carolina is the biggest game either BC or Wake Forest will play in the regular season, you can see why that might happen.

Welcome to the glory of conference play ladies and gentlemen where there are no easy games.

Still, those two losses may not be enjoyable for Tar Heel fans but they are far from the Apocalypse.  However, a loss to Virginia might be.

The Cavaliers are coming off a 78-75 loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies at Cassell Coliseum leaving them at 7-6 (1-1 ACC).  Virginia may not like clinging to moral victories but there were certainly positives to take away from the experience.

Virginia's offense, something that had been non-existent most of the year had one of its best performances to date.

Freshman Assane Sene had the game of his career, notching a career-high four blocks and noticeably frustrating Virginia Tech's star Jeff Allen holding him to zero field goals.

The Cavaliers nearly overcame a double-digit lead in the final three minutes when it seemed all but over.

Just their luck, Virginia's reward for the road loss is a North Carolina team that may be more than a little peeved with how things have been going lately and their 24/7 bashing by the media. 

After all, technically the Tar Heels are the ones in the cellar of the ACC at the moment.

The Cavaliers boast a variety of young players who are rounding into form.  Sylven Landesberg has been as good as advertised, scoring nearly 19 points per game and scoring at least 20 points in each of his first two ACC contests.

He recently earned his fifth ACC Rookie of the Week award and already has one hand around the Rookie of the Year crown.

Landesberg is the only player who can match up athletically with the Tar Heels which will be important defensively but offensively for he has shown a great penchant for getting to the free throw line.

He will have to play well beyond his years for Virginia to have any chance.

So what will be the keys to this game?

1. Who Can Stop Hansbrough?

Lars Mikalauskas was not the most talented basketball player.  He never even sniffed All-ACC recognition.  However, for inexplicable reasons, he could defend Tyler Hansbrough.

That is not to say Hansbrough did not score against Virginia, but Mikalauskas always made him work for it.  He knew how to get under his skin and make him lose his composure.

However, Mikalauskus is gone and that leaves a big void as to who could possibly keep Psycho T from going off.

Assane Sene is a big man at 7'0" but as a freshman he is foul prone and is still learning his footwork.  In other words, Hansbrough would probably eat him for lunch.

Mike Scott is the best overall big man that Virginia has but he is a bit undersized for his position.  He will also have to be careful because his offense is vital to Virginia, if he gets into foul trouble then the Cavaliers will struggle mightily to put points on the board.

Look for Virginia to try to use zone more in this game than usual.  Although head coach Dave Leitao likes playing man-to-man, it may be the only way to slow down Carolina.

2. Don't get sloppy.

Turnovers cost Virginia against the Hokies.  Even though Virginia had 17 turnovers officially they had even more with bad shot selection, particularly the contested three-pointer early in the shot clock.

North Carolina is about as fast as they get and they will convert mistakes into fast break dunks and drives that will quickly take the crowd out of the game.  For a team that has struggled with their shooting percentage, that is an easy way to kick start a rout.

North Carolina, on the other hand, must also worry about turnovers.  Virginia's offense thrives on mistakes and with Landesberg's speed and the decision-making of fellow freshman Sammy Zeglinski the Cavaliers can use turnovers to get points.  It also has helped get their half-court game going because a young team desperately needs confidence.

The Tar Heels had 18 turnovers against Wake Forest, something they need to avoid this time around as to keep any hope away from the Cavalier faithful.

Ty Lawson is a supreme talent, but fighting Sammy Zeglinski will be a tough match up.  Not because Zeglinski is the most talented or experienced but because he is one of those scrappy players that never gives up on a play.

He is the best hustle player on Virginia and if Lawson gets lazy with the ball you can bet Zeglinski will make him pay.

3. Spark off the bench.

Both of these teams will need a strong effort from its supporting cast.

Two names you may not think of may play very large roles in the outcome of this contest.

For Virginia, I present to you Mustapha Farrakhan.

Despite all the youth, inexperience and overall deficiencies of the Virginia Cavaliers, solving one issue may be the difference between a 12th place finish and a finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Who can be the shooting guard on this team?

Virginia has tried Mamadi Diane, Calvin Baker and Jeff Jones but all have their pros and cons.

Mustapha Farrakhan has come from relative obscurity and really begun to make a statement in the ACC.

Farrakhan, who had never scored in double-digits until a game vs. Hampton in December, has 12 points on the road against Georgia Tech and 17 on the road against Virginia Tech.

His clutch three-pointer in the final ten seconds gave Virginia the possibility of a buzzer beater to tie.

If Farrakhan shoots lights out, Virginia typically plays better as a team and could give the Tar Heels a scare early...maybe.

For North Carolina, my eyes will be on Ed Davis.

Ed Davis has seen more time than expected because of the injury to Tyler Zeller who is out for the year.

Davis, the Benedictine star, had Virginia on his short list for awhile before deciding to join the Heels.  Coach Leitao admitted that it stung for it was one of the first recruits he targeted when he came to Virginia.

Davis returns to his home state for the first time this season and I fully expect him to play well.  He is already averaging over seven points and seven boards per game and with Virginia's lack of depth in the front-court could really post some good numbers as the sixth man.


I have been alive long enough to know that, no matter how good or how bad these two teams are, North Carolina struggles to win in Virginia.

Last year, UNC clearly held the edge in every single category against Virginia.  Yet the game went down to the final shot.

STRANGE BUT TRUE STAT: Before that, Virginia had won six of the last seven games at home against their rivals. 

Maybe I should repeat that, six out of seven times the Tar Heels have come in here with hopes of gaining an ACC win and getting knocked off.  In fact, twice they were blown out by double-digits.

However, that one loss during that stretch was a huge loss.  The worst loss I have ever seen in my history as a Virginia fan.  The Cavaliers lost 110-76 but even that does not do justice to the mismatch because North Carolina was on cruise control for about 30 game minutes.

That year, Carolina went on to win the national championship.  So by my infallible logic, a big victory at Virginia would bode well for the Heels.

I think the Virginia magic will work for about the first ten minutes but, let's be honest, the Cavaliers are still a year or two away from trying to compete with the big names in the ACC.

Landesberg I think will have a great game, I think he may score around 30 points but Sene's foul trouble will leave a big hole defensively for the Cavaliers.

Say what you want about UNC's defense as of late, but Virginia's is worse in every single statistic.  They simply lack the consistency for forty minutes to compete let alone win the game.

I will be very interested to see how well Zeglinski plays because if he runs a good floor game against North Carolina, Virginia can still salvage a decent conference record.

FINAL: North Carolina 88 Virginia 70