Before the NCAA’s Selection Sunday, which will determine the overall seeding for the March Madness championship tournament, two of the teams vying for a #1 seed, North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Cavaliers, will challenge each other for the ACC crown today (9pm ET Saturday).
Despite being ranked seventh in the AP poll compared to Virginia at four, North Carolina entered the ACC tournament as the outright champions from the regular season. Coming off the heels of defeating Duke for the first time since 2013, the Tar Heels closed the year in fine fashion. Their impressive resume, which featured wins over #2 Maryland and #11 Miami, came in the midst of the ACC, one of the best, if not the best conference in college basketball.
For all of North Carolina’s wins however, there was at least one team the Tar Heels couldn’t conquer and that was the one they will face on Saturday. If North Carolina hopes to win their 17th overall ACC Championship and their first in eight years, they’ll have to do something they couldn’t in the regular season and that is to defeat Virginia.
Ranked as the fourth best team in the country, Virginia entered the ACC tournament as perhaps the hottest team in the NCAA. All season long, Virginia had been one of the top teams in the country but they turned it on during the last few weeks of the season and looked just about unbeatable. They fell just short of taking the regular season title from the Tar Heels, but have won each of their last five games dating back to a victory over UNC back in February.
The Last Time We Met: No. 3 Virginia Defeats No. 7 North Carolina (79-74)
Despite sharing a conference, Virginia and North Carolina only met once during the regular season. If that game was any indication of what we might see today though, everyone is going to be in for a treat.
After going into the half up three points, Virginia came out of the gate strong to start the second half. Then the third best team in the nation, the Cavaliers opened up an early lead, going on a 16-5 run after the break. They managed to hold off a late North Carolina surge, winning what was their 19th consecutive victory at home.
Leading the way for the Cavaliers was their ACC player of the year top candidate, Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 17 of his 26 points in the first half and hit a pair of three pointers toward the end to give Virginia the lead going into halftime. Brogdon made six of eight shots in that first period, setting the tone for the Cavaliers to build off. And that they did, as the entire team fed off of Brogdon’s early success, with all but one of the starters finishing in double digits.
In addition to his 26 points, which was the second highest total for Brogdon all season, the player of the year candidate had six rebounds, his third highest total this season.
Meanwhile, it was actually not Brice Johnson (pictured), another player of the year candidate, who led the way for the Tar Heels. Their highest scorer with 21 points was Joel Berry II, who scored 15 of those points from beyond the arc. While an impressive effort by the sophomore guard, North Carolina was doomed by Johnson’s quiet second half which saw him not score at all in the last 17 minutes of the game.
Malcolm Brogdon’s Postseason Run
As good as Brogdon was in the game against North Carolina, he has in fact been even better thus far in Virginia’s run to the ACC title. Brogdon has scored 50 points in the Cavalier’s two tournament games and has shown himself to be every bit the player of the year candidate he is favored to be.
The senior has garnered praise from some of the best minds in the game including most recently Dick Vitale, who referred to him as one of the best and most complete players in the college game. Entering the tournament, Brogdon was among the best players in the nation, averaging 18.6 points. This average is even better so far in the postseason as Brogdon has scored 50 of his team’s points in the first two games.
Thanks to Brogdon, Viriginia has made quick work of its opponents, easily defeating Georgia Tech by 20 points and Miami by five. In the Miami game, Brogdon made 10-11 free throws in addition to his 24 points.
All season long Virginia has been a defensive team, lauded for its ability to stop the top guys of the other teams in the ACC and NCAA as a whole. Virginia impressively held the nation’s third highest scoring defense, a feat of greatness given the ACC as a whole was among the top scoring conferences this season. That said, in the postseason, Brogdon has been the main story and against North Carolina, like he was the first time, there is no reason not to expect a big day out of the senior.
Our Preview’s Virginia Cavaliers vs North Carolina Tar Heels Betting Picks
UNC has been one of the most balanced teams in the NCAA this year, averaging the 10th most points in the league, amounting to the most among the teams in the Power 5 conferences, while also sitting in the top-30 in field goal percentage, top-10 in rebounds per game and top-5 in assists per game.
There is a reason the Tar Heels won the outright title and a reason they have absolutely dominated thus far in the postseason, defeating their opponents by a combined 48 points. North Carolina’s biggest win all season actually came in the tournament as they ousted Notre Dame by a final of 78-47 in the semifinal round.
If entering the ACC tournament Virginia was the hottest team it has to be safe to say that such a distinction belongs to UNC now. They are playing some of their best basketball as of late, involving all of their starters in a cooperative role. Johnson has been surprisingly quiet this postseason but his impact as well as some of the other players isn’t being measured on the stat sheets.
All of that said, this is no doubt going to be a great rematch for these two teams, which were favored first and second to win the ACC Championship tournament. Both teams have a great shot to win and take with the trophy, a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
If I had to pick a winner though, which I do, I’d go with North Carolina. Don’t expect this to be a blowout however. Expect it to be a contest, one very much fitting of the conference which was among the best in basketball in 2015-16.
- Betting Pick: North Carolina Tar Heels -1.5pts @ -110 with the recommended 5Dimes Sportsbook.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.