On Dec. 8, 2019, No. 5 Virginia beat No. 7 North Carolina 56-47 in John Paul Jones Arena.
On paper, it was a top-10 matchup. For those in attendance, the AP poll voters looked delusional.
When the two ACC foes met in December, neither team lived up to its national ranking. When the two squads meet again Saturday night, neither team holds a ranking next to their name.
North Carolina sits at 10-14 on the season. The 14 losses are the most by the program in a season since going 20-17 in 2009-10. UNC is just 4-10 in ACC games.
Freshman point guard Cole Anthony, who played against Virginia in the season’s first meeting, has missed 11 games this season with injury. Even with the star guard, the Tar Heels haven’t been very good. Since Anthony returned to the lineup, UNC is 0-4.
Virginia sits in a much better position at 16-7 overall and 8-5 in the ACC. Tony Bennett’s team beat Notre Dame 50-49 in overtime Tuesday, giving the Cavaliers wins in four of its past five games.
“It was just kind of finding a way,” Bennett said. “That’s sort of been the storyline for us all year.”
The win over Notre Dame gives UVa a slight cushion as the fourth team in the ACC standings. Earning the No. 4 spot in the league would immediately move the Cavaliers to the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.
“It is disappointing that we couldn’t get it because it felt like the fourth double-bye was up for grabs, and Virginia put themselves in the driver’s seat with the win tonight,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said on Tuesday.
While the Cavaliers keep winning, the lack of offensive firepower paired with defensive excellence lends itself to close games. Virginia lost to Louisville by seven points two games ago, and the Cavaliers also lost by seven points to Boston College earlier this season. They beat Florida State by five points, which is the same margin of victory they had in a win over Georgia Tech.
It doesn’t matter who the Cavaliers play or where those teams reside in the ACC standings, the game is likely going to be close. Each of UVa’s past 10 games have been decided by single digits.
With a win over Florida State and a competitive road loss to Louisville, Virginia proved it can compete with the ACC’s best. Losses against Boston College, Syracuse and N.C. State showed it can lose to just about anybody, too.
The Cavaliers can’t overlook UNC, which nearly beat Duke in its last home game before falling 98-96 in overtime. Anthony is a dangerous scorer, and the Tar Heels are much more talented than their 10-14 record indicates.
Despite the talent, UNC’s season seems destined to become the first losing team in Roy Williams’ head coaching career. The last time out, UNC lost to Wake Forest 74-57.
Stunningly, Anthony told reporters after the game the team didn’t listen to the scouting report.
“The stuff the coaches told us, we didn’t pay attention and didn’t follow through on it,” Anthony said.
Williams owns a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but his message isn’t getting through to his team. North Carolina’s record is shocking, and 17-point losses to teams like Wake Forest are alarming.
“It was disrespectful to the history and tradition here and the former players who played here,” Christian Keeling told reporters after losing to the Demon Deacons. “It was embarrassing.”
Just two months ago the Tar Heels were a top-10 team.
The matchup between UVa and UNC a couple months ago seemed like a battle between a pair of overrated teams. That sentiment proved true, but the Cavaliers have kept themselves in the NCAA Tournament picture. The same can’t be said for the Tar Heels.
Virginia enters Saturday’s road tilt as the better team, but as the Cavaliers know, it doesn’t matter if they’re playing Louisville, Wake Forest or North Carolina, they’re in for a fight.