UNC at Virginia: What to watch

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- In anticipation of the start of ACC play, North Carolina upperclassmen Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock recently sat down with their freshmen teammates and gave them a bit of advice.

“We were like, ‘C’mon, we’ve got to pick it up. The games are going to get harder as we go along. We’ve got to be ready to play,’’ Strickland said.

Indeed, foes not only get tougher as conference competition begins this weekend, but also longer this year, as the league has expanded to an 18-game schedule. The Tar Heels (10-3) got a much-needed confidence boost with last weekend’s win over then-No.-20 UNLV, but they must continue to improve their defense while keeping their poise at Virginia (10-3) on Sunday.

“Everybody has renewed energy, we’re ready to go more, our practices are more intense,’’ Strickland said. “Everybody’s looking [at] now as a new season, a new beginning.”

A few things to watch when the “new season” tips off for the Tar Heels at 8 p.m. Sunday in Charlottesville, Va., where junior Joe Harris leads the Cavs with 15 ppg:

Virginia’s defense

Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams have become known for two things: their deliberate pace and even-more-deliberate defense.

The latter, in particular, impresses UNC coach Roy Williams.

“They guard your rear end,’’ Williams said. “They get a hand up on every shot; they pack back in the lanes and make it difficult for you to have driving lanes. When the guy gets the basketball, they put great pressure on the ball. So the way they play on offense, that’s something that other people can do -- but very few people can guard you as well as they guard on the defensive end of the floor.”

Entering the weekend, the Cavaliers ranked second nationally in scoring defense (50.7), and sixth in field goal percentage defense (35.3).

Returning players?

Williams said Friday that barring any returning headaches or symptoms, the Tar Heels were “cautiously optimistic” that junior wing Reggie Bullock would return to the starting lineup at Virginia after missing last weekend’s win against the Rebels because of a mild concussion.

Meanwhile, Bennett said Thursday it was “hard to say” whether guard Jontel Evans -- who has missed the Cavs last four games, and nine overall because of a foot injury -- would be ready to play.

But the senior’s return could give Virginia an experienced boost.

“Jontel just gives you a great ability to penetrate the ball to the basket and break down the defense,’’ Williams said. “He has a really good, in his career, assist-to-error ratio. He causes problems because he can guard people and keep the ball in front of him.”

Desmond Hubert

Williams said he doesn’t feel the need to nail down a permanent starter at center, unless/until sophomore Hubert or freshmen Joel James or Brice Johnson earn it.

That’s why it will be interesting see whether Hubert -- who was aggressive from the outset against UNLV last weekend, starting and playing 20 minutes -- can build off that performance.

“He [was] the most comfortable that he’s been the entire time,’’ Williams said Hubert's performance against the Rebels. “ ... He’s had better practices, too. And right now, I would expect Desmond would start [Sunday], unless he makes me mad between now and then. Or Joel makes 12 shots in a row. Or Brice does some good things.”