North Carolina Basketball: 5 Keys to Beating Virginia in ACC Opener
Brice Johnson was justifiably thrilled after the North Carolina Tar Heel's scrappy 79-73 win Dec. 29 over the UNLV Runnin' Rebels.
The victory was the start of a "new season," he told Tar Heels Illustrated.
Backups want to shine when they get the chance, and Johnson certainly delivers. The freshman's 12 points against UNLV were especially handy considering starter Reggie Bullock's absence due to concussion.
North Carolina opens ACC play Sunday on the road with the Virginia Cavaliers. Both 10-3 clubs want to win the first game of their conference slate. With losses to Indiana, Texas and Butler already in the books, trumping the Cavs on Sunday should be considered a must for North Carolina.
Bullock may not be cleared to play in time. That means coach Roy Williams needs another Rebel-like night from from Johnson. If James Michael McAdoo continues his dominance in the paint, all should be well.
But, topping the Cavs isn't guaranteed. The Heels can't take this one—or any game—for granted.
1. Establish Early Lead, Never Look Back
It makes sense to point out that scoring the most points leads to a win.
Of course it does.
Each of Virginia's three losses were by six or less points, so setting a tempo for an early shake-up could all but knock the Cavs out of contention within the first 20 minutes.
A heavy-handed approach must be implemented from the tip. The Heels don't want to let Virginia even get close to pulling off that type of upset at home. No need for a back-and-forth grinder. Just swiftly take care of business.
Conversely, each of North Carolina's three losses were ugly. With the exception of an 82-71 setback to Butler, the Heels were never really close to winning either of those games.
It's elementary logic, not rocket science. Getting a fast start always helps. Stalling offense is far from a trademark of North Carolina basketball.
According to Tar Heels Illustrated, Brice Johnson and P.J. Hairston lead the team with 0.65 points per minute, a significantly better clip than leading scorers James Michael McAdoo (0.51 ppm) and Reggie Bullock (0.49 ppm).
Quick bursts from those four could be all North Carolina needs Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena.
2. Brice Johnson Has to Further Prove Himself
Sunday's game with Virginia will result in a win if 6'9", 187-pound freshman forward Brice Johnson has another big night.
As mentioned in the previous slide, he leads the Heels with an average of 0.65 points per minute. In an age of breaking down every second, every movement and every trend in basketball, that metric certainly commands attention.
Simple math would dictate that at least 20 minutes from Johnson would produce at least 13 points, in theory. If Reggie Bullock is unavailable, it only makes sense for coach Roy Williams to lean on Johnson, giving him somewhere in the range of 18-21 minutes against Virginia.
It'll be a great test for the freshman. He's averaging 8.9 points and nearly five boards in 13.6 minutes per game. He has 10 blocks and nine steals, too. He's efficient and is becoming a reliable defender. All Johnson has to do is let the math work in his favor.
3. Motivation from Being Outside of AP Top 25 Helps
The Heels are hardly ever on the outside looking in on those ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. If anything, most teams are chasing them, not the other way around.
On Dec. 24, North Carolina broke a streak of 33 straight weeks of being ranked in the poll, dating back to Jan. 29, 2011. At one point this year, the Heels were No. 9.
In all reality, North Carolina has the assets to warrant a top-10 ranking. Three early losses certainly set them back, but the Heels have the power to finish in the top three of the ACC, battling with North Carolina State and Duke for top honors.
North Carolina has been ranked 86.5 percent of the time during Roy William's 10-year stay. Getting back in is of the utmost importance.
A decisive win in their ACC opener could be the push the Heels need. They've received votes, but are still barely outside the Top 25.
4. James Michael McAdoo Has to Lead the Way
Some may debate where James Michael McAdoo will be picked in the NBA draft, but in all likelihood, he'll be picked.
And he'll be one of the first ones to be picked.
McAdoo is one the most physically-talented players in the land. At 6'9" and 230 pounds, his sheer size and length make him incredibly difficult to defend.
He has ups like a 6'6" power-dunking guard. However, he needs to improve his shot selection. He too often settles for poor looks. And when he gets good looks, he sometimes squanders them with needless fadeaway jumper attempts.
Nonetheless, he averages a team-leading 14.8 points per game.
It's an obvious point; McAdoo leading North Carolina in scoring is conducive to winning.
5. Try to Finalize 3-Man Center Rotation, SG and PG
There has been chatter about what coach Roy Williams should do at the center, 1- and 2-guard positions.
It's a little difficult replacing an All-American like Tyler Zeller. And Williams certainly has decisions to make with Dexter Strickland, Marcus Paige and P.J. Hairston in regards to where and how much they'll play.
Sophomore Desmond Hubert asserted himself physically in the Heels' win over UNLV. However, three rebounds and three points in 20 minutes wouldn't suggest that he was overly effective.
But he had three blocks.
With Hubert, a look past the numbers is a more accurate way to assess his skill.
Hubert is 6'10" and 220 pounds. In comparison, Joel James is 6'10" and 260 pounds—two different options for Williams to work with.
Hubert is the better shooter and better overall athlete. A simple look at highlight video and quick glance at his field-goal numbers shows that.
It's not like either one takes a ton of shots per game. But Hubert seems to be a better fit for the fast-paced offense that North Carolina is known for.
Freshman Brice Johnson can be used in the middle, but he's much more effective as a forward.
Williams never rebuilds, he just reloads. Shifting pieces of the puzzle into place are part of the job. Opening the year with a win over Virginia and a somewhat clear idea of who goes where would be an ideal scenario.
Follow Bleacher Report's Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81