No. 7 Tar Heels, No. 3 Cavaliers meet in marquee ACC matchup
HANK KURZ JR.
Feb. 26, 2016
Tony Bennett got to see what a packed and raucous John Paul Jones Arena looked like not long after he took the coaching job at Virginia seven years ago, though the crowd had nothing to do with Cavaliers basketball.
At the time, the Charlottesville, Virginia-based Dave Matthews Band was a much hotter ticket.
The arena will be packed again on Saturday, without the band.
Bennett's third-ranked Cavaliers (21-6, 10-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) will host No. 7 North Carolina (23-5, 12-3) hoping to stay in the running for their third straight ACC regular season championship. It's the only scheduled meeting between the longtime rivals this season.
"I just got the job and was in my office while that concert was going on and got a glimpse of, a vision of what it was like when it was packed," Bennett said of his home arena. "That's what you hope for. ... It's really become that good in terms of the energy and the crowd and the guys wanting to play as well and as hard as they can."
The Cavaliers have won 18 in a row in the 14,593-seat facility, and 33 of their last 34 conference games at home.
Virginia already has lost more league games than it has the last two seasons combined — the Cavaliers were 32-4 in ACC play the last two years — but Tar Heels coach Roy Williams still has a lot of respect for this year's team.
"I picked them as the No. 1 team in our league, and I think they're really, really good," Williams said. "There's no one time this year that I thought they're slipping or anything like that. ... They've played the style that Tony likes for 3-4 years so they're really comfortable with it on both ends of the floor."
Defense has been Virginia's calling card since Bennett arrived, and Virginia has been among the national leaders the past few years, but got off to a slower start this season as it worked to replace some departed pieces.
Of late, they have looked more like what Bennett, and his players, have come to expect. The Cavaliers rank third nationally in scoring defense, allowing 59.7 points per game, and have really found their stride in the last month. They held four straight teams to 50 or fewer points, and no one has scored more than 64 against them in February.
"It's just the program," guard London Perrantes said. "When we play good defense, everybody gets really hype, the crowd gets into it, especially at home games, and it's just fun to be able to do that because that's our goal."
It is that defense, as much as high-flying dunks and acrobatic plays, that will likely create what Bennett called a "supercharged atmosphere," one that guard Marcus Paige and the Tar Heels will try to minimize early.
"I always think it's more about who you have than where you're playing, but obviously playing at home gives them a big edge," Paige said. "They are definitely thinking they need this game for the ACC hunt, and a No. 1 seed in the tournament and everything, and we feel the same way. Something's got to give."
Of less importance to the teams, but no less interest, is how the matchup could impact the race for ACC player of the year.
Guard Malcolm Brogdon of the Cavaliers and forward Brice Johnson of the Tar Heels are leading candidates. Brogdon is averaging 18.2 points and is very good defender; Johnson is averaging 17 points and 10.6 rebounds, including one impressive 39-point, 23-rebound effort.
Brogdon is looking forward to the challenge.
"This is what we compete for every day," he said. "This is why we practice."
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