Before the season, no one would have imagined that Virginia Tech would be a 7.5 point favorite against North Carolina, but here we are. The Hokies have been the biggest positive surprise of the ACC while the Tar Heels have been the biggest disappointment falling to the bottom in the ACC entering this game.
Because of North Carolina's struggles and Virginia Tech's bubble status, the Hokies enter this game needing to win to avoid a Quadrant 3 loss that could prove very costly come Selection Sunday. The fact that this has gone from being a potential resume-defining win to a must win to avoid a bad loss just shows how upside down things are in the ACC this season. However, UNC hasn't lost five-straight games in over 15 years and won't be an easy game given the size disparity.
With that said, here's our three things to watch for Virginia Tech against North Carolina.
1. Defending the Post
North Carolina is built around their frontcourt duo of veteran Garrison Brooks and freshman Armando Bacot. Both guys have been productive for the Tar Heels with the 6'9'' Brooks averaging 14.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game while 6'10'' Bacot averaging 10.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game as both shoot over 47% from the field.
Against Duke, we saw Virginia Tech build their defensive strategy around limiting access and overcommitting to guarding Vernon Carey Jr which proved successful and forced Duke to adapt. Unlike Duke, North Carolina doesn't have the options from what we've seen to adapt if they can't get their big men going.
Of course, another difference is the fact that the Tar Heels have a pair of bigs that they can go do but expect Virginia Tech to take a similar strategy. Additionally, don't be surprised to see Mike Young try to use P.J. Horne and John Ojiako together in the first half to see if that pairing can work and if not, use Landers Nolley when UNC has both bigs on the floor in addition to Horne or Ojiako.
North Carolina will have to rely on their big men to lead the way if they are to pull off the upset in Blacksburg with Virginia Tech needing to be aggressive in containing those two guys.
2. Force Turnovers
Virginia Tech leads the nation in fewest turnovers per game averaging under 10 per game, but Saturday showed an issue that the Hokies have had at times. Even though they only had 7 turnovers, Syracuse only had 4 as though Tech has done a great job of protecting the basketball, they haven't always done the best job of forcing turnovers.
North Carolina hasn't done so averaging more than 13 turnovers per game this season. Additionally, this is a UNC team that has been lacking a true point guard with Cole Anthony still out and Anthony Harris done for the season due to a torn ACL. Because of that, UNC has had 15+ turnovers in three of their four-straight losses, a big reason for UNC being on the verge of their first five-game losing streak in more than 15 years.
Given the fact that North Carolina is still a great rebounding team, the Hokies will need to force turnovers to minimize the potential total shot advantage that UNC could have. If Tech can eliminate that total shot advantage by forcing more turnovers, Tech should be in great position to take care of business as the significantly more efficient offensive team.
3. Tech's Three-Point Shooting Advantage
The Hokies have a clear three-point shooting advantage making 37.4% of their threes while North Carolina has shot only 29.1% from three. More than that, Tech has four regular, healthy players shooting over 35% from three while North Carolina doesn't have a single player.
Virginia Tech has also started to find their rhythm again from three-point range after a brief slump making at least 35% of their threes in each of the past three games including over 40% of their threes in two of the past three games.
North Carolina's perimeter defense also hasn't been great as the Tar Heels rank 240th in the nation in three-point defense with teams shooting 33.9% from three against UNC.
Given all that, Virginia Tech has a significant advantage from three-point range that they must exploit especially against a UNC team that isn't good from three-point range. If Tech can do so with multiple guys stepping up from deep as we saw with Jalen Cone and Nahiem Alleyne most recently this Saturday, the Hokies will be able to get the job done.
When Cole Anthony was first ruled out for an extended period of time due to injury, there was speculation that this could be around the time of his return. However, a surprising Anthony return looks very unlikely and as such, is a big reason why the Hokies remains significant favorites over the Tar Heels.
Without Anthony, the Hokies have been the much better team, but UNC frontcourt size and production advantage will give the Hokies some problems. As we saw against Syracuse, teams with length have the potential to take advantage of Tech's significant lack of size even when Tech does a fairly good job of defending.
Tech has the clear backcourt advantage and the best healthy player in Landers Nolley who seems poised for a bounce back game after an off-shooting performance against Syracuse. That combined with a bevy of secondary options including Tyrece Radford and Jalen Cone plus a Nahiem Alleyne escaping a shooting slump Saturday will be more than enough for the Hokies to get the job done in what will be a competitive game because of the size difference.