Five Things to Watch as UNC Visits Virginia: No Bacot, An Ugly Game and Finding a Leader

Brant Wilkerson-New

North Carolina heads north to Charlottesville for its second ACC game of the season, where it will meet a Virginia team also in search of answers on offense.

Here’s what to watch for as the Tar Heels (6-2, 1-0 ACC) and Cavaliers (7-1, 1-0) get together for a rare Sunday  (4 p.m., ACC Network) matinee:

It Won’t Be Pretty

Don’t expect to see an aesthetically pleasing game.

Not only will Virginia slow things down to its preferred pace, but neither team has excelled on offense this season, with Carolina falling to 30 in offensive efficiency while the Wahoos have dropped all the way to 121, trailing everyone in the ACC aside from Boston College.

More on the Tar Heels’ offensive shortcomings later, but Roy Williams had a simple breakdown on what’s changed for Coach Tony Bennett and the defending national champions.

“He goes out there and doesn’t see Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and DeAndre (Hunter), doesn’t see (Jack) Salt,” he said.

In a 69-40 loss at Purdue on Wednesday, Virginia hit 4 of 24 3-point attempts and turned the ball over 16 times.

“I don’t know whatever disease that he felt, but it was the same disease I felt during the game,” Williams said.

Going Smaller

Barring an early Christmas miracle for the Tar Heels, Armando Bacot will not play as he recovers from a sprained left ankle.

Who does that leave for Carolina to play alongside Garrison Brooks in the frontcourt?

“It’s Justin and then after that, we don’t have any options,” Williams said.

It’s possible that Brandon Huffman and Walker Miller could steal a few minutes, but it’ll largely be up to Pierce and the regular rotation to make up for the loss of Bacot’s scoring, rebounding and rim protection.

Pierce can help on the scoring front by spreading the floor, and when he’s engaged and active, he can make things happen on the board. It’ll be a by-committee approach that might also see Leaky Black step in at the four briefly.

Regardless of who ends up where in the lineup, Carolina has to get a huge rebounding day from the guards.

Off the Pace

Transition opportunities will be few and far between against Virginia, making them even more important for a Tar Heel break that hasn’t been able to capitalize on them this season.

“Heck, if I was playing against us right now, I’d get on my scooter and do figure eights running back, because hell, there ain’t no sense running back against us,” Williams said.

Still chief among his concerns is the inability of his big men to run the floor into the teeth of the defense on the break, which serves as the starting point for Carolina’s success on its primary break.

Not only are the struggles on the breaks affecting the offense by limiting easy baskets and mismatches, but they’re also allowing opponents to send more rebounders to the offensive boards.

Again, Williams said it wasn’t complicated.

“It’s just attention to the detail and doing it consistently, doing it intelligently,” he said. “Right now, it’s a failure of everybody. Everybody on our team, including the head coach, because I’ve never had a team that I couldn’t get to run. I’m getting darn sick and tired of talking about it with this group.”

Who’s Leading?

When tough times have hit the Tar Heels in recent years, there were clearly-defined leaders that stepped up to help turn things around.

Right now, there’s no Joel Berry, Theo Pinson or Kenny Williams in the locker room.

Williams pointed out that while Brooks has tried, it’s tougher for big men to take on that role, while Brandon Robinson’s preseason injury has affected things.

“Usually, it’s a perimeter player,” he said. “B-Rob missing the first four games made it difficult for him to do that. Everybody else is new.”

Cole Anthony certainly has no trouble speaking up, while Brooks and Robinson were responsible for leading a players-only meeting in the Bahamas.

Attacking the Pack Line

“Everything always looks better when the ball goes in the basket,” is a line Williams uses often.

Knocking down perimeter shots is one key to helping stretch out Virginia, drawing defenders a step or two beyond their comfort zone in clogging the center of the paint.

Next is moving the ball efficiently, particularly into the high post, causing defenders to collapse and kicking to shooters. How well Carolina is moving the ball has correlated with winning this season, as the Tar Heels’ two losses are also the two games with the fewest assists.

Given Virginia’s double-teams in the post, Brooks’ passing ability could be particularly valuable on Sunday and would have been a perfect complement for Bacot’s game.

Of course, as always, Williams will always have an eye on the boards. Carolina enters the game seventh nationally in offensive rebounding rate and 34 in defensive rate while Virginia is 176 in offensive rate and 10 on the defensive end.

“You’ve got to make sure they don’t get second shot opportunities, and you’ve got to try to get second shot opportunities,” he said.