Beating Virginia is a learned skill for ACC teams.
Usually, it takes playing against Virginia’s style of defense to understand it.
N.C. State (16-4, 4-3 ACC) will try to skip the homework and jump straight to the final exam on Tuesday night.
It won’t be easy. When Tony Bennett has a really good team, the Cavaliers rarely lose the first time they face an ACC foe.
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Virginia has finished first in the ACC three times (in 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2017-18) in the past five seasons and Bennett has another great team this season.
UVa (18-1, 6-1 ACC) is tied for first in the ACC and the No. 1 team in the country, according to the KenPom rankings.
As a first-place team over that span, the Cavaliers have played 49 ACC regular-season games that were first-time matchups. UVa has a 46-3 record in those games (notably, the Cavaliers have as many losses in the 12 rematch games).
Duke (in ‘14, ‘15 and this season) is the only ACC team to beat Virginia in the initial season meeting. Every other ACC team has lost when it faces Virginia for the first time.
Translation: Unless you have superior NBA talent, you have to see Virginia’s “Pack line” defense before you can beat it.
Or you have to get red-hot from the 3-point line, which is what Maryland-Baltimore County did in the NCAA tournament last March.
Given this is the only scheduled meeting between the two teams, the Wolfpack won’t have the benefit of learning from experience and it only has three players on the roster who faced the Cavaliers last season.
N.C. State does have some momentum and confidence, after Saturday’s buzzer-beating win over Clemson. The Wolfpack also has faced two teams (Wisconsin and Louisville) who play the same style of defense as Virginia. However, those two games account for half of N.C. State’s losses.
Kevin Keatts, who faced Virginia in the NCAA tournament with UNC-Wilmington in 2017, understands the challenge of the Cavaliers’ defense, which ranks No. 1 in the country in both adjusted efficiency and raw scoring average.
“They do a great job of defending the paint,” Keatts said. “They show/close-out on you, they make you take jump shots, they limit you to one shot.
“They do a great job of blitzing you where you’re never really in the scoring area where you want to be.”
That’s really the key to Virginia’s defensive prowess. They have experienced players who understand Bennett’s system and force the opponent to play at their pace and style.
And that’s not what N.C. State wants to do. The Wolfpack ranks No. 18 in adjusted tempo, while UVa is No. 353 (out of 353 teams).
“They’re into doing exactly what Virginia does,” Keatts said. “They’re not going to play different because of who we are.”
UNCW was able to speed Virginia up in the 2017 NCAA tournament matchup. The 65-possession game (according to KenPom’s numbers) was more than any ACC team had forced Virginia to play that season in regulation.
The Seahawks led by as many as 15 in the first half and went 10 of 26 from the 3-point line in the 76-71 loss.
“We were able to space them out and make some shots,” Keatts said.
Virginia actually had to go super small, with a five-guard lineup, to take back control of the game.
Keatts did not have as much success against the Cavaliers last season with the Wolfpack. N.C. State floundered from the 3-point line (2 of 16) and settled for the difficult outside shots that Virginia wanted them to take.
“When we played up there, man, it was tough,” Keatts said. “If you stand around and don’t get ball movement, and you’re not able to make shots, it certainly can be a long night for you.”
When an ACC team faces Virginia for the first time, it almost always is a long night for the opponent.