When Virginia Tech and North Carolina met on January 22nd in Cassell Coliseum, the Hokies entered as 7.5-point favorites over the Heels. Tech edged out Carolina 79-77 in two overtimes, giving UNC their sixth consecutive ACC loss, a first for the program.
Fast forward to March. After a regular season with incredible parity, these 2 programs will face off in the second game of an ACC Tournament that seems like it could be anyone’s to win.
It’s the first time in program history that the Tar Heels have finished last in their conference. They also lost 14 games in the ACC, the most in UNC history. They’re ready to fight for their life, though.
"One thing we've done all year is stay positive,” North Carolina guard Cole Anthony said. “We're not going to get negative on each other. We're going to stay as a group, stay together as a unit. We're good."
For the Hokies, they started the ACC season strong, sitting in the top half of the conference standings in January. They lost five consecutive games after that win, kicking off a 1-9 stretch for the Hokies. They responded with a win over Clemson in their final home game of the regular season, though they fell on the road at Notre Dame on Saturday.
Back when The Tech Lunch Pail previewed the first VT-UNC game, Tim Thomas said defending the post, forcing turnovers and having a three-point advantage would be key.
Let’s take a look at how that panned out in round 1 and what the Hokies have to do in Greensboro to knock off the Heels.
1. Defending the Post
Out of the three key points to highlight, this is the one thing that the Hokies did not do back in January.
The Heels went to work in the lane, scoring 40 of their 77 points in the paint. Tech couldn’t lock down Garrison Brooks either, as the Second Team All-ACC selection scored 28 points on 11 of 18 shooting.
Forwards Justin Pierce and Armando Bacot also contributed to Carolina’s success, scoring a combined 24 points on 10-17 shooting.
It’s clear that the paint is not Tech’s strong suit, which makes it a tough matchup for the Hokies, because that’s where Carolina is strongest.
Since the meeting 47 days ago, Mike Young and the Hokies have given freshman forward John Ojiako more minutes, as he played 14 or more minutes in four of five games from February 15th to March 1st.
Though Ojiako played a combined six minutes in the two games since, the increase in playing time may boost Tech’s chances in the slightest in the paint, though we’ll see how much playing time the 6’10” forward will receive.
Foul trouble in the paint was a problem in the last meeting as P.J. Horne and Ojiako each finished the game with four fouls, the latter in just seven minutes of playing time.
If the Heels can put Horne and Ojiako in foul trouble early, Tech might be playing with one hand behind their back for most of the game.
2. Forcing Turnovers
In their first matchup, Tech forced 13 turnovers with eight of them coming from the duo of Brooks and Leaky Black.
The Tar Heels were without star point guard Cole Anthony for the month of January, though, which put the ball in the hands of Brooks and Black more often.
Anthony is back and has not committed more than two turnovers in each of his last three games.
If Tech wants to have a chance against Carolina, they need to get Anthony back into his groove from early February, in which he turned the ball over at least three times in five out of six games. He even turned the ball over seven times against Wake Forest and five times against NC State.
In the past 2 games, Tech has forced a total of 28 turnovers as the Hokies continue to give opponents plenty of issues trying to protect the basketball.
If they can force 10 or more turnovers against the Tar Heels, they’ll give themselves a solid chance to advance to the second day of the tournament.
3. Three-Point Advantage
Last time out against UNC, Tech doubled the amount of three-pointers the Tar Heels made (14 to 7). It was actually a few treys down the stretch that cut into Carolina’s lead, giving the Hokies a chance at a run, which they made.
In Greensboro, they’re going to have to do the same thing.
Tech has not started off hot from behind the arc in the past few games, hitting three against Notre Dame in the first half, four against Clemson, one against Virginia, and three against Duke.
They’ve found their shot in those games, though – they hit seven triples in the second half against Notre Dame, eight against the Tigers, eight against the Cavaliers and five against the Blue Devils.
The Hokies need to start hot early from deep if they want to force UNC out of their comfort zone as the Tar Heels are a team that has struggled from three overall this season.
Carolina averages 5.5 threes per game but hit their stride in their last few games, making 11 against Syracuse and ten against Wake Forest.
They’ve only hit ten threes two other times this season – against Notre Dame in November and against Miami in January.
Their opponents' average 8.8 threes per game – Tech’s above that, averaging 9.8.
It’s a battle the Hokies and Mike Young can win, though they need to get off to a hot start. If they can do that, they will be successful.
Neither ESPN nor KenPom give Tech above a 45 percent chance to defeat the Heels. The current line is UNC -3.5.
Carolina is one of the scarier teams in the ACC field. Before falling to Duke on Saturday, UNC had won three in a row against NC State, Syracuse and Wake Forest.
The Hokies hit a rough patch towards the end of the season, losing ten of their last twelve games. Their wins, against Pitt and Clemson, were both in Cassell Coliseum – they’re 0-6 on the road in that span.
Speaking of which, it should be a pro-Carolina crowd in Greensboro. That doesn’t make it any easier for Mike Young’s crew.
If the last few games are any indication on how the Hokies are going to perform, Tech will start slow and try to play catch-up later.
That’s not something you want to do against the Tar Heels.
The Hokies have a chance against UNC, but they’ll have to start off hot and make their shots from the get-go.
They just haven’t shown that recently after shooting less than 30 percent in the first half against Notre Dame, Virginia and Duke.
I think Tech will catch fire in the second half and try to close the gap, but I think North Carolina will start too hot and distance themselves enough to advance to the second round.
Final Score: North Carolina 77, Virginia Tech 69.