UNC Stumbles in Final Regular Season Game

March 9th, 2014

The second chapter of the UNC/Duke rivalry this season was a distinctly different affair than the first. Duke got an early 13-point lead, and never looked back en route to evening the series on the year. The Heels cut the lead to 2 before halftime, but ultimately could not stop Duke.

The media is wrong about this game. They will focus on how wonderful Duke’s offense was, especially from Hood and Parker. (Parker had his first 30-point game). Actually both Duke and UNC were on fire offensively last night. It was the 2nd best offensive game for UNC this season.

The game-changer, in fact, was rebounding. More accurate than raw rebounding, the stat that really matters is Total Possessions. Duke got ball 10 more times than UNC. It is the first time a team got a greater-than-one possession advantage since that miserable at-Syracuse game, fifteen games ago.

That’s actually pretty good, because those of us who track possessions know that being badly outrebounded is not in the Heels’ nature. In this game there were two perfectly good reasons for it: McAdoo’s foul trouble and Meeks’ sickness. Those two combined for 1 rebound. I doubt those two factors show back up again together.

This team will ultimately lose in the tournament, but it won’t be for the reasons it lost last night. It wasn’t a game that exposed a major weakness or gives fans something specific to worry about. The team that beats UNC is the one that outrebounds the Heels, stops the Heels’ fast break, and hits threes well. Duke did all three, but there aren’t a lot of teams out there that can do all three. As long as UNC brings the frontcourt effort, it will get to the Sweet 16 and it will be a successful year.

I’m actually OK with this loss, because ultimately I really want to play Virginia on Saturday of the ACC Tournament. That’s the matchup for which I’ve been waiting two months (and if it weren’t for John Swofford’s scortched-earth adoration of football, we would have seen this rematch in February). The UNC team has improved more than the Cavaliers have since that game, and I’m very interested to see how UNC matches up with them now.

In January UNC was on track to be the worst offensive team since the Dean Smith effigy, but since that Virginia game, they’ve scored no lower than 0.86 pts per possession in a single game. Before that point UNC had scored lower than 0.70 pts/poss in 4 of 5 games. UNC has gotten much more consistent offensively, and I credit the coaches and players both for that. This isn’t one of those “teams for the ages”, but it is a team has become fun to watch. The final, and most important, chapter on this team will be written in the next two weeks. Hopefully they can go into the postseason healthy, hungry, and ready to make some noise.

Multiple Defenses, Hallelujah!

February 20th, 2014

I am so excited! In coming back to beat Duke, we finally saw a multiple defense approach, and just as Dean Smith preached, change for a couple of possessions most of the time will _REALLY_ throw off the opponent’s offensive momentum. From the 16:00 remaining mark until 6:00 left, Duke essentially scored 6 pts, with 3 coming from one 3-pointer. What perplexed Duke’s excellent offense? Ever-changing looks did.

There’s been a lot of talk about the 1-2-2 that we run from time to time. I like how Roy put the lengthy Tokoto out front because it makes the reverse pass so difficult. We ran it for a couple of possessions at 14:40 and 14:00. McAdoo went out and Hubert came in, and we ran two possessions of man-to-man.

McAdoo came back in for Brice at around 12:00 and then we saw it for the first time since the Carter/Jamison era…the 1-3-1 with the baseline chaser. We ran it for 2 possessions, and Duke was REALLY stymied. After the under-12 timeout, we came out with man-to-man, and essentially blew up what K told them in the timeout. We went about 6-7 possessions with the Man, then with 5:15 left, we went 1-2-2, then ran the 1-3-1 at 3:40.

There were only 3 possessions of the 1-3-1, and that’s about all you need to really throw a team off.
Extra Credit question for those still paying attention: What was the HUGE wrinkle in the 1-3-1 that Roy threw in (compared to Dean’s approach)? . .. . . . . . . . . Instead of putting a mobile 4, like George Lynch, as the baseline chaser, he put Marcus Paige in. The nice thing here is that when Duke missed, Paige was right there for the upcourt push.

Out of these defenses, we got the break going. We are not a good team in the halfcourt set, but if we can get running, we are pretty good on O. FSU got back on D the first 3rd of the game. Once we got some runs out of the 1-2-2 and 1-3-1, Duke couldn’t get back anymore, and our offense roared.
Thank you, coaching staff, for finally implementing this. YEAH!!!

Heels Get By Maryland, Offense Still Sputters

February 5th, 2014

Against Maryland the Heels got off to an amazing start, scoring 19 points in their first 13 possessions. It was a 5:33 period where the Heels made 9 of their first 11 shots and found themselves up 19-3. Fatigue set in and the expected substitution pattern began, and the night almost completely fell apart. While the Heels did end up with the win, this bad offensive team ended up only slightly better than their history-making season average. In fact, after that hot start, the team only scored 56 points in their remaining 70 possessions (0.80 points per possession).

Breaking the play down by lines we see the following (in reverse order of effectiveness):

Positions 1-5, (possessions), Points/possession
———————————————————————
(>3 possessions)
Paige, McDonald, Tokoto, Simmons, Johnson (7) 1.57
Paige,    McDonald, Tokoto, McAdoo, Meeks (29)    1.10
Britt, Paige, Tokoto, McAdoo, Hubert (4)    1.00
—–Offensive goal of 0.95——-
Paige, McDonald, Tokoto, McAdoo, Johnson (18)0.83
Britt, Paige, Tokoto, Johnson, James (7) 0.43
Paige, McDonald, Tokoto, Johnson, Meeks (7)    0.43
Paige, McDonald, Tokoto, McAdoo, Simmons (4) 0.00

(few possessions)
Britt McDonald Hicks McAdoo Johnson (2) 1.00
Paige McDonald Tokoto McAdoo Hubert    (2) 1.00
Britt McDonald Tokoto Johnson James (2) 0.50
Britt McDonald Hicks Johnson James (1) 0.00
Paige McDonald Hicks McAdoo Johnson (1) 0.00

By Player

(number of possessions in parentheses)
Simmons (11) 1.00
Hubert (6) 1.00
Meeks     (36) 0.97
McAdoo (60) 0.92
McDonald (73) 0.90
Tokoto    (80) 0.89
Paige (79) 0.89
Johnson (45) 0.78
Britt (16) 0.63
Hicks (4) 0.50
James  (10) 0.40
           
Paige as 1 (68) 0.93
Britt as 1 (16) 0.63

 

Conclusions

First, I’ll reiterated what I’ve said before: this team does not have defensive problems. This team’s problems are purely on offense. Maryland scored 0.78 points per possession, and this team wasn’t able to put them away until the final minute of play.

We saw the starters play a larger proportion of possessions than in any game this season. They got 29 of the 83 possessions, 35%, and they were stellar. For seven possessions at the end of the first half, the starting backcourt with Johnson and Simmons up front played well for 7 possessions, where Paige and Johnson went on tears.

Good things happen when certain players are on the court, especially Paige, McAdoo, Meeks, and Hubert. When Hicks and Johnson come on, all offensive momentum vanishes from the building. I don’t even know what the coaches are telling Hicks, because all I ever see him do is jack up ugly 3-point shots. While Brice Johnson scored a lot of points, his possessions outside of those in the first half’s final two minutes were just bad possessions. This team doesn’t flow well with him on the court.

The white elephant here is Simmons. When he was in the game the team scored efficiently, right? Well most of his good periods are when he was along for the ride when Paige and Johnson were scoring at will at the end of the first half. I’m not about to say that this evaluation proves that Hubert is the answer just as I’m not going to say this proves that Simmons is the answer.

The bottom line is that this team has a good backcourt rotation now, and it desperately needs one in the front court. McAdoo and Meeks went out of the game with 14:27 left in the first, and were wholesale substituted for Johnson and James, who were awful. From 12:31-9:02 there were 6 lineup changes. 5 of those lineups got one possession. During the 6-minute period where starters did not play, UNC scored 3 points and Maryland scored 10.

I think the front court can maintain more consistency if Meeks comes out first, at about 16:00, then is replaced by James or Johnson, then McAdoo should come out at 14:00. Meeks should replace James as soon as possible after that, then McAdoo should come back in with 10:00 remaining. In all honesty the front court needs to be pared down to a 3-man rotation. The minutes that Meeks and McAdoo play together are great, but the minutes Meeks plays with Johnson are some of the worst we have. The important thing to remember is that while Brice Johnson had a few good minutes at the end of the first half, his presence on the court does not make this a very efficient scoring machine, and that will cost the team in the long run.

Against Maryland, Nate Britt was particularly ineffective. He is a terrible shooter and doesn’t get the ball up the court fast enough on live ball changes. However while Paige plays well at PG, we still need Britt to be the primary SG. This four-man rotation of Britt, Paige, McAdoo, and Tokoto is getting many minutes together, and that’s why there is more consistency in the backcourt than the front court. Time for the coaches to make some tough decisions.

Heels Show Strengths at Tech

January 30th, 2014

UNC went to Georgia Tech and display the same, wretched offense it’s shown in most games this season, scoring just 0.59 points per possession. The Heels took a 26-25 lead to the locker room for halftime, and it looked like UNC was in for another tough night against another bad ACC opponent. Things looked worse in the second half when two starters, JP Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo had to sit for early foul trouble in the first 4 minutes of the second half. What we didn’t expect, though, was UNC’s stellar second half performance.

The Heels were on fire in the second half, scoring 1.44 points per possession. That’s a total that far surpasses their best game effort in the 19 seasons I’ve been tracking possessions. While I don’t have data breaking the games down by half, I would venture to say that 1.44 points per possession is one of the highest rates of scoring for a half by any UNC team in the last 20 years; including 9 teams that at least got to the Final 8 of the big dance.

This was not a half to simply overlook. It wasn’t that GT was bad, that we happened to hit shots, that we happened to make free throws, etc. We’ve played worse teams. We’ve shot well before…but not like this. For 2 starters to be out of the game, there had to be more to it. So, I broke down each offensive possession in the second half and looked at the 11 lineup combos used up to the 1:13 mark where McAdoo fouled out. (At that point GT quit playing). Please remember that our offensive goal is to exceed 0.95 points per possession.

DATA

BY LINEUP:

PPP    (POSS)  PG SG   SF   PF   C
1.75 (4) Paige    McDonald    Tokoto    McAdoo    Meeks !   
3.00 (1) Paige    McDonald    Tokoto    McAdoo    James   
0.00 (1) Paige    McDonald    Hicks    McAdoo    James :(
1.50 (2) Paige    McDonald    Hicks    Johnson    James
1.00 (2) Britt    Paige    Hicks    Johnson    James
0.80 (4) Britt    Paige    Hicks    Johnson    Meeks :(
0.75 (4) Britt    Paige    McDonald    Johnson    Meeks :(
2.00 (4) Britt    Paige    McDonald    Meeks    Hubert !
0.00 (1) Britt    Paige    McDonald    McAdoo    Hubert
1.40 (5) Britt    Paige    McDonald    McAdoo    Meeks
1.00 (2) Britt    Paige    McDonald    Tokoto    McAdoo
1.80 (5) Britt    Paige    McDonald    Tokoto    Meeks
TOTAL 31poss 39pts = 1.26  (thru point where McAdoo fouled out)

BY INDIVIDUAL:
    POSS    PTS    PPP
Paige    31    39    1.26
Britt    23    26    1.13
McDonald24    33    1.38 !
Tokoto    7    12    1.71 !
Hicks    10    9    0.90 :(
McAdoo    14    19    1.36
Johnson    13    12    0.92 :(
Meeks    22    29    1.32
Hubert    5    8    1.60 !
James    6    8    1.33

Possessions with neither Tokoto nor McAdoo: 1.18 pts/poss
Possessions including either Tokoto or McAdoo: 1.36 pts/poss
Possessions with BOTH Tokoto and McAdoo: 1.71 pts/poss

Possessions with Paige acting like the PG: 1.21 pts/poss
Possessions with Britt acting like the PG: 1.20 pts/poss

Lineups that played > 3 possessions, (in decreasing order of effectiveness. PPP (# of poss) names):
2.00 (4) Britt    Paige    McDonald    Meeks    Hubert !
1.75 (4) Paige    McDonald    Tokoto    McAdoo    Meeks !   
1.40 (5) Britt    Paige    McDonald    McAdoo    Meeks
0.80 (4) Britt    Paige    Hicks    Johnson    Meeks :(
0.75 (4) Britt    Paige    McDonald    Johnson    Meeks :(

CONCLUSIONS

I’ve said for the past 6 weeks now that the problems with this team are not so simple that a lineup change can suddenly make this a Final 8 team. I’ve also stated that their defense, while not stellar, is not even remotely a problem in the conversation of why this talented bunch cannot compete with Wake Forest and Miami. While these aren’t particularly earth-shattering there are some
lessons to be learned from this half of basketball:

  • This team plays the same with either Britt or Paige acting like the PG (Paige sometimes hogs the position from Britt)
  • Brice Johnson did not play well, but this isn’t just this game. He needs to be used, but sparingly.
  • Looking at these lineups that worked, the top three, Roy is starting his most effective players (Paige, McD, Tok, McA, Meeks). However  this team does fine when Tok goes out, Britt comes in a 1 and McDonald slides to 3.
  • This team is definitely better with Tokoto and McAdoo in the game, especially together.
  • This team only works when Marcus Paige is making outside shots and penetrating and dishing.
  • Leslie McDonald continues to be a left-side of the floor shooter (almost exclusively)
  • Leslie McDonald can catch & shoot and can drive the baseline effectively. Anything else is likely not going in.
  • Marcus Paige continues to be a right-side of the floor shooter (almost exclusively)
  • Britt and Hicks are _miserable_ shooters.
  • UNC scores much more effectively when it pushes tempo
  • UNC scores much more effectively in halfcourt sets when at least 2 passes are made. UNC players are too addicted to one-on-one moves,   and when those occur there is almost never a person down low to rebound.
  • This team’s halfcourt offense has improved in the last 8 games. We are seeing more movement away from the ball, however they still have a long way to go in terms of setting picks to get guys open. (players traditionally score a MUCH higher percentage in the halfcourt set on catch&shoots off a screen than they do in any other situation other than fast breaks).
  • We aren’t "just shooting better". The team  is setting up shooters better. We didn’t see any 180-degree curls, screen curls in the direction of the shooter’s dominant hand (awful), etc
  • This team has _plenty_ of shooters good enough to compete with Wake Forest. The shooting talent on this team won’t take them to the Final 8, however they are plenty good enough to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. What we saw from mid-Dec to mid-Jan was a team that was destined for the NIT.
  • James Michael McAdoo has brought his left foot back under his body during free throws, thankfully, is better balanced, and is shooting better. What is still tripping him up, however, is that his right hand is not under the ball enough on free throws, making his left hand affect the trajectory (bad)
  • Nate Britt has a weird right-spin on his FT shot that needs to be corrected in order to improve his percentage. 
  • Tokoto’s rate of turning the ball over and his assist/turnover ratio is not startlingly bad for a small forward. The number of good, stationary picks he sets away from the ball _is_ startlingly bad.
  • If Roy will pare down this 10-man rotation to 8, this team will get consistency and be a lot better:
      1,2,3: Paige/Britt/McDonald/Tokoto  4,5: McAdoo/Meeks/James/(Johnson OR Hubert)
  • Leave (Hubert or Johnson), Hicks, Simmons, and Davis on the bench. It’s February and time to start getting down to a core rotation.

Why Do We Even Play The ACC Tournament?

March 12th, 2013

Ever since the open era of the NCAA Tournament began there has been much concern about the necessity of conference tournaments. Much like a football conference championship, the even provides an opportunity for the league’s best teams to lose, exhaust themselves, and risk injury. Rarely do the top 3 or 4 teams in the regular season affect their NCAA Tournament seeding considerably, so the event focuses on bubble teams and their chance to impress the selection committee one last time.

Some argue that the event, therefore, is not good for the league, and carries little weight. The fact is, however, that as expansion rendered leagues unable to set equitable regular season schedules, conference tournaments mean more than they ever have.

Consider this matrix:

  MIA DUK UNC UVA NCS
MIA - 2 2 1 1
DUK 2 - 2 1 2
UNC 2 2 - 2 2
UVA 1 1 2 - 1
NCS 1 2 2 1 -

This matrix shows the number of times each opponent played the other top 5 teams in the league. As you can see, UNC is the only team in the Top 5 that had to play the other 4 twice. UVA only had to play one team twice, and was able to feast on the Clemsons and Virginia Techs of the world.

So, in a league where days off and tiebreakers are determined by a single game, the lopsided schedule presents an arbitrary value to teams that supersedes the action on the court. We have to have the conference tournament to determine the champion because with an unbalanced schedule, it is the only way to determine a true champion.

Close Games Fell Away

March 11th, 2013

Reflecting on this regular season, the Heels found themselves in the position of being in few close games, and losing the majority of them. (Note: All but one of these games came before the lineup conversion.

WINS

  • @FSU – Up 3pts with 0:16 remaining
  • VT – OT game that was nailbiter from 15:00 onward

LOSSES

  • @UVA – Down 3pts with 2:26 remaining
  • MIA – Down 3pts with 4:00 remaining
  • @NCS – Down 5pts with 0:30 remaining
  • @DUK – Down 3pts with 0:37 remaining

A few possessions here and there could have made this 2-4 record swing the other way and we are talking about being a 3-seed. We should have been prepared for the Texas game. That was a 4-point game with 7:30 remaining.

To be honest, I think this small lineup we saw in February, with more experience, turns 4 or 5 of those 7 games into wins. In fact, they probably would have been UP by a handful of possessions at those specific points in time.

Shots Dropping, So Are Opponents

March 8th, 2013

The old saying in basketball is that it all looks great when shots go in, and for the Heels lately, the shots have definitely been going in. UNC has shot greater than 33% from behind the 3-point arc in all but one game since the Duke game. Therefore it is no surprise that the Heels have scored at least 0.94 points per possession in all but one game since then, too.

What was that one game of poor shooting? At Georgia Tech. UNC shot 38% from the field, 30% from behind the arc, and only scored 0.88 points per possession. Still, though, that’s a scoring efficiency margin that just barely ranks below the medium for this season. What won that game? great defense. Georgia Tech scored 0.70 points per possession and turned the ball over on 23% of possessions.

Shots have, indeed, fallen, though the success of this team in March will really lie in their ability to find some other way to win on that night when shots are not falling. In this stretch since the Duke game, UNC has taken 37% of their shots from behind the arc, well above their rising season average of 30.7%.

Roy Williams has harped on rebounding, and he is correct in pointing this out as a weakness of this guard-oriented lineup. Since the Duke game UNC has gotten more possessions than their opponent on only one occasion. It is truly a live by the 3…die by the 3 team at this point.

For this reason it is imperative that the Heels develop a penetration game. Marcus Paige showed against Maryland’s full court zone press that his ball handling is below average for point guards, however his penetration would be respected. The Heels could also turn to Dexter Strickland (a great finisher) for penetration as well as PJ Hairston (a weak finisher). As teams play us for the penetration it will open McAdoo or a perimeter shooter for an open shot.

Unfortunately most of our 3-point shots have come from perimeter passes. While these have fallen at a rate as I as any in UNC’s history, this streak will not continue and UNC will need to turn to another method to score. Wouldn’t it be great if UNC had 6 more weeks to iron out these offensive details? This is why the late move to the 4-around-1 lineup still remains a problem for the Heels. While Roy Williams deserves praise for breaking from his usual offensive form, this team is still quite immature offensively, and they honestly need a few hundred more minutes of game time to be the best team they can be. There is a ceiling for this squad, however it is probably too late to extend the potential of what this team can do.

* * *

Tomorrow night’s Duke game will be the focus of the nation. Duke has looked the part of a 1-seed this week with the return of mobile big forward Ryan Kelly. UNC essentially started its season at the beginning of February. The key matchup will be Ryan Kelly and his defender. Kelly is strongest on the perimeter, but is slow. Who will guard Kelly? Many in the media go with Bullock because of this reaching height, however I think Hairston would be more effective on Kelly. I think Kelly will have a bit of an off shooting night, anyway, so I would like to nudge Duke into putting Kelly on PJ Hairston. This is a delicious mismatch that I think could lead to a 25-point Hairston performance.

* * *

Many in the media have said that Roy trumped the Inside Carolina message board posters by inserting Hairston for a big man and not Dexter. Some did call for that, but not HOOPla! Check out the links from this page. You’ll see that I called for this lineup on 11/21, 12/19, and 1/10. I’ll especially point out this passage from November 21, 2012:

"I’d try more 4-around-1 with Paige/Dex/Hairston/Bullock/McAdoo."

But you know what? I was wrong. It seems that the best lineup for UNC is actually Paige/McDonald/Hairston/Bullock/McAdoo. According to Adrian Atkinson (@freeportkid), that McDonald lineup is leading ACC opponents 57-20 in the 21.5 minutes they’ve played together.

What happens when McDonald is in the game for Dexter? Obviously we haven’t seen a big sample size to know, but from what I’ve gathered, we are better on both sides of the ball. McDonald is a more efficient scorer than Strickland (especially from the left side of the court), and his presence as a shooter completely shuts down opponents’ intentions of double-teaming anyone. Defensively Strickland has gotten much public praise, however he really is just an average defender, mainly due to his short arms. McDonald has better reach and is harder to get around.

Keep an eye on this lineup, but don’t expect Roy to notice how well it has been playing until some time in May.

Hairston ?Co?-Player of the Week

February 19th, 2013

Congratulations to PJ Hairston who, along with NCSU’s Scott Wood, was named ACC Co-Player of the Week. There are a couple of problems, though:

1) What a bunch of wimps! "Co-" stands for "Cop Out". Pick ONE, media!

2) Scott Wood had a good week, but consider this:

  • Wood: 31pts, 83mins (.37 pts/min) – vs #8, #12
    Green: 51pts, 77mins (.66) – vs #3, #4
    Hairston: 52pts, 63mins (.83) – vs. #2, #3

Wood only scored 9 pts in the game against Clemson. He scored 3 of them on the last-second shot. He only had 9 rebounds all week. Green had 5. Hairston had 15.

Scott Wood had an excellent week, don’t get me wrong. He hit some clutch baskets, however his team might not have needed them if he were scoring at a PJ Hairston rate, now would they have? They might not have needed those shots if Wood played a lick of defense, either.

Come on! PJ Hairston solely deserved that award this week. He scored at a rate 25% faster than the nation’s leading scorer, for goodness’ sake.

UNC Goes Small For Big Game

February 14th, 2013

This season for the Heels has been an adventure, to say the least. The young team has played well against bad teams, but just can’t seem to get over the hump and win a game it isn’t supposed to win. Wednesday night’s game at Duke was a radically different game than we’ve seen, though the result with about what we expected.

Roy Williams made a major shakeup with his offense by playing four-around-one all night, adding guard PJ Hairston in the mix at the expense of a big man. For the first time in many weeks we found the Heels off to an early lead and keeping it! The addition of Hairston stretched Duke’s defense and opened many easy scoring opportunities that the Heels haven’t seen all season. Late in the first half UNC found itself with a 10 point lead of the #2 team in the nation.

From that point on the UNC offense sputtered, at times severely. The Heels began taking ill-advised shots, and wasted numerous possessions until 5 minutes remained in the game when the Heels found themselves down by 8.

Overall UNC finished scoring only 0.75 points per possession, worse than their performance against Miami. Their paltry shooting of 38% wouldn’t have beaten many teams even in the ACC. The defense was great, and held Duke to only 0.88 points per possession with 20.5 percentage loss of ball.  Against teams with only one good post player, Roy Williams absolutely should start this small lineup.

Why was the offense so bad? For one thing, the team hasn’t played this guard-centric style for very many minutes at all this season. While we only saw limited disruptive substitutions, the starting five, which each played over 30 minutes, aren’t used to what the others will do in this situation, and the play sets are different than they are used to. The team was also not very patient. Strickland, Paige, McAdoo, and Hairston were all guilty of taking “whatever” shots without giving the offense a chance to move the defense. Patience would come with playing together more, but it also is a result of the coaching.

The other problem that still remains is the play of the Heels’ starting backcourt. Paige and Strickland have combined for 34% shooting in league games and were only 41% last night. While the experiment of playing 4 guards worked well for at least half of the game against Duke, the number of minutes logged with the Paige/Strickland backcourt should be examined. Paige played 30 minutes at PG and Strickland played 10 minutes at that position.

The problems I outlined above (about patience) are symptomatic of a young point guard problem, and it would behoove the coach to play Paige less and Strickland more at the PG position if he wants this team to reach its potential.

We saw some good things last night that we haven’t seen before. The remaining feature five very winnable games and two home games against NCSU and Duke. Hopefully the coaching staff will continue to experiment with the lineups, because even though the offense still struggled, the moves Roy Williams made were a step in the right direction.

Inconsistently Inconsistent

February 5th, 2013

I have a friend I met in college and each winter when I run into her, we get on to the topic of UNC basketball. Her assessment every year is that the team is “inconsistent”. Whether it was an 8-20 year (2002) or a National Championship year (2005, 2009), she has said “they are inconsistent”. Obviously I was shocked when I recently saw her and she didn’t say this year’s UNC team is inconsistent. What? This team is the very definition of inconsistent!

Take a look at the table below. It shows the opponent with their offensive efficiency (ACC) rank and their defensive efficiency (ACC) rank. The next column shows UNC’s points per possession (Smith method), and the following column shows the opponent’s points per possession. For each game I have noted how UNC played on offense and defense. See a trend? I sure don’t.

  UNC OPP NOTES
@UVA (8,2) 0.73 0.90 bad offense, fair defense
Miami (3,1) 0.78 0.96 bad offense, soso defense
@FSU (10,9) 0.95 1.07 good offense, bad defense
Maryland (9,3) 0.73 0.64 bad offense, good defense
Ga. Tech (12,6) 0.84 0.65 bad offense, good defense
@NCSU ( 2,8) 0.92 0.99 good offense, bad defense
@BC (4,11) 1.04 0.96 good offense, soso defense
VT (7,12) 0.82 0.76 bad offense, good defense
WFU (11,12) ? ? should be an big win

note: underlined items went against the expected

If anything is consistent, is is that the Heels’ performance can best be predicted by the opponent’s ACC ranking. Against Wake Forest, the #11 offensive and #10 defensive team, UNC should have a good offensive and defensive night. In 8 games (16 elements), only 3 of the elements have been astray from the opponent’s typical league performance average, so at least the Heels aren’t so erratic that they could be world beaters one night and lose to the Little Sisters of the Poor the next night.

In a sense this team has beaten the bad teams and lost to the good teams in ACC play. That, after all, is “consistent”. However the team’s play surely hasn’t been, when you break it down. Some nights the offense is to blame, some nights the defense is to blame. With, essentially, a Freshman Point Guard and rookies rotating at Center, inconsistency is to be expected. With so many losses to the NBA, we knew that the Heels would have some bumps in the road. However is this team playing the way they could?

Point Guard

It is clear that the intent was to use Marcus Paige as the starter and use transfer Luke Davis as a backup. When both seemed shakier than expected, it was clear that a more experienced player needed to be bringing up the ball more. That man is Dexter Strickland, who has done a very sound job at managing the position during the minutes he has played it. This is the position for which he should have been groomed two years ago.

Shooting Guards

It is also clear that the coaches intended to use Dexter Strickland as the primary SG with Reggie Bullock playing the 3 position (essentially another 2). Coaches worked with Strickland’s horrendous shooting form all summer. The result? Strickland went from 0-2 behind the arc to 4-20 this season. His pop up jump shot from 15-20’ is equally horrendous. So, it is clear that the dream of Strickland developing into Shammond Williams has been brutally shattered. What now?

With freshmen in at Center and Point Guard, and a Shooting Guard who can’t shoot, the Heels are starting every game with only two scoring threats in the game: Bullock and McAdoo. No surprise the Heels have started with a deficit in nearly every game.

Roy Williams has usually introduced PJ Hairston 4-6 minutes into the game. While Hairston hasn’t matured enough to let the game come him (he’s a chucker), Hairston has unfairly played many minutes as either the sole scoring threat or one of two threats on the court.

Leslie McDonald, a player who has struggled against decent teams, missed several games, however this tightened the rotation and game fans and coaches alike a chance to see Hairston settle into more minutes. With Hairston’s concussion, however, the UNC offense still struggles to find a mix with three scoring threats. Scoring 0.82 points per possession against VT, the league’s worst defensive team, is not a good sign for the future without PJ Hairston. In fact, in the minutes of the BC game before Hairston entered and the minutes after his injury, the Heels were –5 against the Sagarin #124 team.

Frontcourt

The UNC frontcourt has struggled mightily as well. While the backcourt has had its issues, at least we have a good idea of what needs to be done there. In the frontcourt, the coaches intended to pair supposed NBA Lottery pick James Michael McAdoo with the inexperienced Hubert, Johnson, and James.

The inexperienced trio is a 3-headed monster. Hubert is a decent defensive player, Johnson is an effective, quick scorer and good rebounder, and James is a strong, physical force and good rebounder with a Brendan Haywood-like body. Unfortunately every other aspect of the game has been terrible for these three. Thus, it has been easy for teams to focus on and shut down McAdoo. The situation is so bad that it is arguable that Jackson Simmons is the second best player in the UNC frontcourt. Simmons may be a great guy, but if he’s one of the best players on the team, the guys have a lot of work to do.

The inability to find a solid second frontcourt player has forced the team to try James Michael McAdoo as a bad-to-the-basket player, which he is not. Finally in the VT game we saw McAdoo get the ball 15-18’ from the basket and try to get the ball by his slower defender. This is a winning strategy, and a change that shouldn’t go unnoticed when writing coaching report cards.

The Outlook

As inconsistent and disappointing as this team has been, they find themselves tied for 3rd place in the ACC at the halfway point in the conference season. Roy Williams’ reputation is that he is “stubborn”, however that isn’t the word I would use. He absolutely has made changes with this team. He has moved Dexter Strickland over to playing more time at PG. He’s pulled McAdoo out from the basket a bit. During the Boston College game it looked as if he finally recognized that PJ Hairston is at least the team’s third best player, and deserved longer stretches of playing time

How this team does is directly related to the return of PJ Hairston. Concussions are variable, and the program needs to consider Hairston’s long term health above all.

That said, the number one problem with this team is that we haven’t seen enough minutes with UNC’s best three players, together. When PJ Hairston is on the floor with Bullock and McAdoo, Hairston’s game changes. He no longer tries to chuck it every time he gets the ball. He gets more patient on offense and tries to attack the basket more. It is a better offense of geometric proportions. I’ll go out and say it: With this trio healthy and playing significant minutes,  UNC is arguably the ACC’s most dangerous team come March. Imagine this kind of rotation:

4/5: McAdoo and two or three other big men (by now the coaching staff should start settling in with only 2 or 3 other big men, and let the other 3 or 2 sit more and be ready in case of injury. My vote: Start Johnson and rotate James in. Use Hubert only against teams with excellent big men).

2/3: Hairston/Bullock – Tokoto and Strickland rotate in.

1: Paige/Strickland – playing about equal minutes

This is a dangerous team, my friends. However if Hairston does not get healthy soon, it means more minutes for McDonald. McDonald is not a versatile player. He is a good long range bomber from the left side of the court against bad teams. However he has shown no excellence outside of this. He and Dexter Strickland, when in at 2/3, should be used as cutters.

Tokoto is a player that still is actively improving, however. I like his mid-range game, and he is so athletic, teams will certainly play him for the drive, leaving him open.

Strickland should be red-lighted from ANY shots outside of 15 feet. Shots such as those pictured are still regularly showing up in his game, for some unknown reason. They all are missed and rebounded by the defense; that’s called a turnover. If Luke Davis enters the game and turns it over as much as Strickland effectively does, he gets pulled. The fun and games of playing Strickland as a shooting guard are over, and every game he is allowed to do this, is another game headed toward an NIT trip. There is no excuse to allow this to keep happening.

* * *

While UNC’s opponents have largely been from the top half of the league, they have really only played in one tough away venue (NCSU). The second half certainly has its challenges, too. At Miami, at Duke, at Georgia Tech, at Clemson, and at Maryland. The Heels that showed up against Virginia Tech on Saturday will lose all 5 of those away games. At home they face Wake, UVA, NCSU, FSU, and Duke. I think UNC will win 4 of those 5. So without Hairston, this team will go 4-6, and finish 9-9 in the ACC, 18-12 overall, with probably 3 tournament wins required to get into the NCAA tournament.

There is a lot of basketball to be played, and anything can happen. The ACC isn’t good, but there are still plenty of solid opponents ahead where UNC can start building a tournament resume. With a healthy Hairston this team can very reasonably go 8-2 down the stretch. That would put them at 13-5. With a win or two in the ACC Tournament, a seeding of 4, 5, or 6 in the NCAA tournament is not beyond reality.

The Heels are #27 in the Sagarin ratings, and a stretch like that would likely get them in the #10-#20 range. Plenty of ranked teams now already have 5 or 6 losses, so this season is wide open.


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