Heading into Thursday night's clash in Chapel Hill, rational Virginia Tech fans knew it would take a monumental effort to overcome the disadvantages on paper. A program that annually pulls in multiple McDonald's All-Americans, Roy Williams' Tar Heels have size, skill and depth that few programs in the nation can match.
That combination was on full display in their conference tilt with the Hokies, where the #9 Tar Heels ran Tech ragged en route to a 91-72 win.
Similar to Florida State, the Tar Heels (19-3, 7-1 ACC) posed an extremely challenging matchup for the undersized Hokies (15-5, 4-4 ACC). Carolina's starting frontcourt of Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks features on virtually every notable watch list and runs 6'-8", 6'-8" and 6'-9". Jackson is deadly from all over the floor, Hicks is a grinder inside, and Meeks displays stunning athleticism for a 290-pound post player.
Where Buzz typically finds success by constantly changing up Tech's defensive looks, he was never able to find anything that stuck against the Tar Heels.
To start, the Hokies focused on shutting down the paint and forcing the Heels to beat them from deep. Ultimately, the shooting ability of the Heels caused complete disruption on the defensive end, as talented shooters Joel Berry II and Jackson drained triple after triple. Meeks, Hicks and Tony Bradley packed the key, constantly out-leaping and out-muscling Tech to rebounds.
It became abundantly clear early on that the only way the Hokies would be able to overcome their defensive shortcomings would to play lights out on offense. Initially, Tech looked to be in business.
The Hokies jumped out to an early 8-2 lead behind steady play from guards Justin Robinson and Seth Allen. The two looked confident to start, banging home threes and taking their defenders off the dribble.
Tech regularly initiated their offense off a high ball screen from Khadim Sy or Zach LeDay. Whereas the high screen game featured more as a pick-and-roll against Clemson, Thursday night's strategy appeared aimed at providing the two guards with some space to operate.
As Allen or Robinson came off of a successful screen, they essentially had position on both their man — usually Berry or Kenny Williams — and the post defender. This forced one of the three remaining Carolina defenders to collapse as a help defender, creating an open Hokie to pass to. If that help didn't come (or arrived late), the ball handler would keep to the basket.
The offensive set worked well for the first 7 minutes, putting the Hokies up by as many as 6 points. But Roy Williams and his team adjusted to the Hokies' game plan, and began to sag back into the key. The Hokies went nearly 5 minutes without a field goal midway through the first half, struggling to find open looks and forcing long-range shots. Carolina took full advantage. A one point Hokies' lead became an insurmountable 11 point deficit at the half.
Coming into Thursday night's game in Chapel Hill, the focus was clearly going to be on how the Hokies frontcourt could matchup with Carolina's bigs. After 20 minutes of play, the Hokies sulked into the locker room having been thoroughly dominated on the glass. Carolina held a 26-10 rebounding margin, including a gaudy 16-1 edge on the offensive boards.
Those offensive rebounds led to easy put-backs for guys like Meeks and extended possessions, many of which resulted in daggers from the perimeter. For the second straight game, the Hokies allowed an opponent to match or surpass their season average from behind the arc in the first half. UNC shot 8-19 from three to start, opening the game with triples on 7 of their first 11 possessions.
The Tar Heels basically called Buzz's bluff. Discussing how challenging it was to gameplan against such a deep and talented roster, Williams noted, "Do you want to give them one pass or zero dunks in transition? Do you want to get in rotation and they just pulverize you on the offensive glass? Or do you want to at least be in front and hopefully affect the shot on a contest and have inside position? As far as the numbers that we pay attention to, relative to the complexion of our roster, we thought that was best."
Tech started out looking to limit the damage in the paint, throwing bodies at the Carolina post players and forcing the Heels to beat them from behind the arc. And beat them they did. Even in hindsight, the approach makes a lot of sense. If you neglect the paint, Meeks and Hicks would simply abuse the Tech forwards and pick up easy points and draw useless fouls. Better to take your chances against lower percentage shots and increase your odds where you are at your biggest disadvantage.
Carolina hit a couple of early threes that stoked confidence and forced some adjustments from the Hokies. Tech began to extend their zone, but Jackson and Berry kept firing from long range. Tech began switching up their sets, only to get beat off the dribble.
"Whenever you shoot a 3, it gives you more confidence knowing we're great on the offensive boards," said Jackson, who led all scorers with 26 points. "When we can shoot the ball like we did tonight, it just adds another aspect to our game."
Six different Tar Heels scored from distance, and the 14 made threes set a new season high for Carolina.
The smoke-and-mirrors defensive approach from Tech created its own set of problems. Similar to Sunday's game at Clemson, the Hokies struggled all night to stay in front of the basketball. While they were working hard to chase the ball and close down perimeter jumpers, they ultimately found themselves out of position inside. Unable to effectively box out a physically superior frontcourt, the Hokies were abused on the glass.
It certainly wasn't for a lack of trying. Guys like Chris Clarke and Zach LeDay looked absolutely gassed during stoppages in play. Being forced to expend so much energy on the defensive end makes it all the more difficult to succeed and stay focused on offense. Tired legs and a weary mind take players out of rhythm, disrupting their focus and stifling their confidence.
The Hokies frontcourt of Clarke and LeDay combined for 21 points and only 6 rebounds. To put that in perspective, those two are #1 and #3 on the team in scoring and average a combined 28.4 points and 14.5 rebounds per game.
Seth Allen and Justin Robinson each tried to put their teammates on their backs, to no avail. If you had never watched either of these teams play this season and tuned in for Thursday night's primetime contest, you would have wondered how Tech made it this long with only 4 losses. The Hokies looked so unsettled offensively and largely ineffective on the defensive end, that you would think Tech was an ACC bottom feeder.
As the Carolina lead steadily increased, as did the Hokies inability to play within themselves. They began to press, jacking up ill-advised shots and missing open teammates. They simply looked overmatched.
They never quit. They continued to battle until the final buzzer. But when you find yourself in a hole that deep (and you're on the road), you have to play absolutely lights out on both ends of the floor while getting a lot of fortunate bounces. Instead, UNC continued to make all of their open looks and dominate the paint.
Justin Jackson's game high 26 points came on 10-20 shooting, including 5-12 from distance. He also chipped in 3 boards, 4 assists and 2 blocks. Kennedy Meeks finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, terrorizing the Hokies in the paint all night long. And UNC point guard Joel Berry II notched 15 points (on 5 made threes), 3 boards and 4 assists. 15 different players saw the floor for Carolina, 11 of whom scored.
The Hokies were led by Seth Allen, who finished with 19 points and 5 assists. Justin Robinson had a solid game, dropping 17 points and 7 assists. And Zach LeDay battled his way to 12 points, but finished the night with more turnovers than rebounds.
Thursday's loss was tough to watch. But again, it was always going to be an uphill battle. Tech has shown an ability to punch above their weight class, but they've regularly had issues hanging with teams that possess clear size and athleticism edges. And to be frank, sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the opposition.
Carolina shot the lights out. If a couple of those first half three-pointers were misses, it would have been a completely different ball game coming out of halftime. The three-pointers surrendered continue to be a worrying trend, but it's hard not to believe that Buzz and his staff will work hard to make adjustments.
The Hokies will need to have short memories, as they play host to Boston College on Sunday evening. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 PM.