Virginia is one of the slowest-paced teams in the country, as usual, but to North Carolina coach Roy Williams the Cavaliers aren’t so slow as much as they are patient – a team disciplined enough to pass up good scoring chances for better ones.
“People say ‘slow it down,’” Williams said on Friday of Virginia, which plays against UNC on Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena. “I just think that they wait until they get the shot they want. You know, they don’t stand out there and milk the clock for 20 seconds and then start playing.”
Slow, patient, grinding, halting – however Virginia’s offense could be described the contrast it presents against the Tar Heels is always among the primary pregame story lines when these teams play. And so it will be again on Saturday in a game between top-10 teams.
With a victory on Saturday UNC would go a long way toward clinching first place in the ACC. It would also likely mean that the Tar Heels won the battle of the paces, if it could be described as such, and forced their preferred faster up-and-down tempo.
In recent seasons that’s usually where games between UNC and Virginia have been decided – by which team most effectively forces the other to play a discomforting style. The Tar Heels will try to speed up the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers will try to slow down the Tar Heels.
Something has to give, Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, said more than once on Friday.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to beat them down the court for a lot of the game,” Paige said. “But we have to take advantage of the opportunities we get to beat them down the court. They’re terrific defensively, they slow the game down. I think they’re like dead-last in tempo.
“So it’s going to be, obviously, a contrasting-styles game for us.”
Paige didn’t have his numbers crossed. Virginia averages 61.3 possessions per game, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy’s kenpom.com, which indeed ranks last nationally – 351st out of 351 Division I teams. UNC, meanwhile, ranks 44th nationally in adjusted tempo.
They’re terrific defensively, they slow the game down. I think they’re like dead-last in tempo.
UNC’s Marcus Paige on Virginia
Another number Pomeroy tracks reflects perhaps the greatest difference between the teams. UNC’s average possession lasts 15.1 seconds, which is the 11th-shortest in the nation. Virginia’s possessions last an average of 19.1 seconds, which ranks 350th nationally.
Williams on Friday recited a statistic he’d read that concluded Virginia attempts fewer shots during the first 10 seconds of the shot clock than any team in the country. And then there’s UNC, which Williams guessed takes more shots than any team during the first 10 seconds of a possession.
“But the bottom line is it’s like golf – some guys hit draws, some people hit fades,” Williams said. “But they’re still trying to get to the middle of the fairway. And Tony’s doing what he’s comfortable with, and what he thinks is best for his team. And I’m doing what I feel comfortable with.”
Williams was referencing Tony Bennett, the Virginia coach whose team has defeated the Tar Heels in their past two games in Charlottesville. UNC scored 61 points in a defeat at Virginia in 2014, and 52 in a loss there in 2013.
The Tar Heels didn’t fare better during a 75-64 loss against Virginia at the Smith Center last season but UNC played one of its best games last season during a 71-67 victory against Virginia in the ACC tournament. In that one UNC more effectively did what it struggled to do earlier: pick up the pace.
UNC’s victory against the Cavaliers in the ACC tournament a year ago came in a game that included 67 possessions. It wasn’t a high number for UNC, given the way it prefers to play, but it was tied for Virginia’s fastest-paced game of the season.
“The key is getting some stops against them,” Paige said. “Because they run that really methodical offense with the flare screens and the baseline screens. And if they get a basket after working the clock for 25 seconds, it’s hard to get the ball out and go, because they’re able to get back and get their defense set.”
That was part of the reason why UNC beat Virginia in the ACC tournament a season ago: The Tar Heels did a better job of generating defensive stops. Or, perhaps, Virginia simply missed shots. The Cavaliers shot 51.8 percent in the victory at UNC, but 44.2 percent in the ACC tournament defeat.
Perhaps more than anything, the game at Virginia on Saturday will test UNC’s poise and attention to detail. Those are areas in which the Tar Heels have struggled at times, but they’ve put together their strongest back-to-back performances – in victories against Miami and N.C. State – since early January.
Now comes what’s likely the most difficult test of the season. If UNC passes it’d leave Charlottesville with a firm grasp on first place in the ACC.
Williams said that in the preseason he picked Virginia to win the ACC. He described the Cavaliers, in his matter of fact way, as “really, really good.”
“You want to be more sound, I think, on both ends of the court,” Williams said. “You’ve got to have poise, but you’ve got to keep working at it to get a shot, but you’ve got to have enough poise and toughness to keep defending. ...
“You have to have some discipline on both ends.”