But Virginia has grown as a program since January 2011 as well. In year three of the Tony Bennett regime, the Cavaliers have a distinct, well-honed identity of defensive toughness, patient offense, and one of the country's better pure halfcourt players in Mike Scott. Virginia's fans have grown appreciative of the team and its style as well—the crowd on Saturday felt a lot fuller, a lot oranger, and a lot louder than a year ago. With 21 wins in the bank, the Cavaliers look likely to be dancing next month.
Slow dancing, of course. The Cavaliers average 63 points a game, nearly 20 fewer than Carolina. The key to Virginia's competitiveness against a team like Carolina is its ability to lengthen the possessions (on both ends of the court) and thereby shorten the game. Add in a touch of three-point shooting and you have a recipe for creating close games, even against teams with superior height and overall talent.
Whether Carolina could solve that formula, especially on the road, was an open question heading into Saturday. North Carolina entered the game scoring just under 83 points an outing. In games scoring 72 or fewer points, Carolina was 4-2: not bad, but not nearly as good as 20-2 in all other games.
Make that 5-2. In scoring its fewest points of the year, Carolina notched one of its biggest wins, 54-51, in a game not settled until the final possession.
"To be able to play game like this, same thing as Wisconsin, it's still a win and I think that's big for our team," Kendall Marshall said.
The key player on the night, as so often this year, was Tyler Zeller. Zeller had 20 points in 31 minutes, converting 7-of-11 field goals, all six of his free throws, notching an important blocked shot late on, and perhaps most importantly, showing a cool head in the game's most critical possession. Nursing a one-point lead in the final minute, and with some apparent uncertainty among the Tar Heels about what to run, Marshall delivered the ball to Zeller about 14 feet from the basket on the right. A Zeller effort from there certainly would have qualified as a good shot, but the shot he actually took qualified as a great one. Zeller gave a pump fake, put it on the floor, and threw a dunk down left handed to give Carolina a three point lead—and also take much of the air out of the partisan Virginia crowd.
Good decision-making in half court situations in a high pressure scenario is an indispensable attribute of championship teams. The value of Saturday's game was that it put Carolina in a situation where the Tar Heels had to be smart or lose. Slower-paced games don't mean less effort, just effort of a slightly different kind: "You've got to be focused mentally at all times," noted John Henson.
Even when you're not really playing that well.
Truth be told, apart from Zeller and some nice foul shooting from Henson, it was, as Roy Williams put it, a "somewhat ugly" afternoon for Carolina offensively: just 33 percent shooting from the field, 2-of-14 from 3s, 3-of-15 from Harrison Barnes (Barnes was happy to give Virginia all the credit for that figure), a total of nine points from the backcourt players (Kendall Marshall, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston).
The difficulty in a game like this is to know when to push and when to be patient. Virginia prioritized getting back on defense over crashing the boards, meaning they almost always had just one shot and that Carolina had just four fast break points the entire game. Carolina did push it ahead and get a couple of a quick points (even after made baskets), as well as draw some fouls, but also took some hasty, difficult shots as well. Coming down and missing after just having played 30 seconds of defense means you have to run back and play another 30 seconds of defense, which can be both frustrating and energy-sapping. But longer possessions mean more time working against a highly physical and fundamentally sound Virginia defense. Indeed, both Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller used the same word to describe Carolina's offense for much of the game: "stagnant."
In the final minutes, however, Carolina seemed content to use almost as much of the clock as Virginia in short of the best possible shot. Up one with under two minutes to go, Marshall twice delivered the ball to capable open shooters for what would have been dagger threes to build a four-point lead. Both times the shooter (Barnes, then Bullock) missed (in between was a crucial offensive board from Henson). Those were reasonable decisions, but Marshall was wise to get it to Zeller on the final play rather than take another chance on a long-distance effort.
The more important point is that you can't win a game shooting 33 percent without doing some other things well. Carolina owned the backboard, 48-29, while conceding just five offensive rebounds. The Tar Heels shot the ball well from the foul line (18-of-23). And Carolina played effective perimeter defense, holding Virginia to just 6-of-23 shooting from behind the arc, while also thoroughly frustrating Mike Scott (3-of-13). Scott played just 22 minutes because of foul trouble—a crucial factor in the game.
To be sure, on some occasions, the Cavaliers just missed. Mike Scott had as good a look as Virginia could have wished for, wide open in the corner, to potentially give the hosts the lead with 48 seconds to play. Another breakdown led to an open shot for Sammy Zeglinski with 6 seconds to play that might have tied it. As Marshall acknowledged after the game, sometimes you have to be a little lucky.
Luck or not, to a man the Tar Heels understood the significance of being able to win playing a style not its own. "It helps a lot, especially with the tournament coming up," noted Zeller. "This is not really something you can simulate in practice. You have to be able to make plays, we can't have Reggie [Bullock] slip up like he did and give them an open shot [Zeglinski's] like that, but it's something we can work on."
Added Barnes: "Virginia might not get the publicity or the press, but I think they are a top team in the ACC."
So, of course, is North Carolina. Two more wins, be they somewhat ugly or somewhat pretty, and the Tar Heels can stand at the top alone.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.