Sing With Me This is 40 (National Championship Preview)

April 3rd, 2016

The 40th game of the season for the Heels is for ALL the marbles. Let’s just say that no matter what happens, this team has done a fantastic job of reaching its potential. I’ve said for two seasons that this team will go as far as Joel Berry takes them, Brice Johnson needs to be strong, and Marcus Paige has to continue to be that special personality that draws us to college basketball. All three have happened, and now this team is able to be one of the best for one of basketball’s most storied programs.

The Heels entered the game against Syracuse knowing they needed to get the ball inside and respond quickly once Syracuse’s excellent defense collapsed, which they did. Defensively that had to put pressure on the guards and force some perimeter turnovers, which they did. In the end it was a game that felt much tighter than it really was. The Heels scored 1.01 points per possession to Syracuse’s 0.80. Total possessions were a wash, so rebounding was not a factor. The key to the game is that UNC’s interior men were able to catch and score, basically.

Villanova came out scorching against an excellent Oklahoma team. Nova shot an alarmingly high 71% from the field and 61% from behind the arc. Of course those are final stats, and Oklahoma gave up 2/3 through the game. Will Villanova be able to shoot the ball well on a second night; that is the question. While Villanova took 37% of their shots from behind the arc, they have taken 43% of their shots from behind the arc this season, a very high share. (UNC’s opponents have taken 36% of their shots from behind the arc). UNC poses a different threat, though, than Villanova is used to. UNC is large, fast, versatile, and scores at an impressive level of efficiency.

UNC has shown that they can score against any kind of offense. They can go small, they can play slow, they can be a jump shooting team; if they need to be. The real key to this game is whether or not Villanova lives or dies by the 3. UNC’s approach will be to play very fast against the thin Wildcats and wear them down. Few fouls will also be a factor in fatiguing Villanova. If UNC can keep Villanova’s 3-point percentage below 35%, they will win be a comfortable amount. We’ve seen teams live and die by the 3 in the past and it’s gone both ways. We’ll see which way it swings this year, closing out a fantastic season.

Heels Marching On to F8

March 26th, 2016

On Friday night the Heels found themselves facing the Big Ten’s best team for the last slot in the F8. They team stepped onto the court and put on the greatest offensive exhibition of the tournament, scoring 1.17 points per possession, and doing it in every way possible. While not unprecedented efficiency for UNC in the last month, it was their most complete offensive game starting with Marcus Paige’s hot shooting all the way down to Kennedy Meeks’ relentless play.

Offense is certainly this team’s forte, minus a small stretch in February. Defense is what will win this team a championship if it’s in the cards. Since the “locked in” look they showed in the second half against Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament, UNC has kept teams below 0.86 points per possession in each game until the Indiana game, where IU was able to freely score 1.00 points per possession.

With Notre Dame and possibly Virginia awaiting, the Heels have to go win the ACC Championship again, so to speak. Notre Dame is a team that understands UNC quite well now, and is seeking revenge for the 31 points beat down just 2 weeks ago. How will the Heels win it? While their offense is very strong, ND will likely come up with an defensive plan to limit the Heels to the ‘0.90s, but they aren’t a team built to really limit UNC. The real key is UNC’s ability to stop Notre Dame.

In both meetings Notre Dame shot below 35%. How, then, were they able to top the Heels in the first meeting? Penetration. In order to track possessions, I add FGAs, turnovers, and what I call “miscellaneous possessions” (MPs). The latter is the trips to the free throw line for 1+1s and 2 shots. Teams average 8.5 MPs against UNC, but in that game Notre Dame got 17, which means they drove the ball and we responded by fouling. This is the formula for beating this UNC team and it will be interesting to see if Mike Brey recognizes it. One of the main culprits here is Isaiah Hicks who has a very hard time defending without fouling. If Hicks is able to play more then 15 minutes, then Notre Dame isn’t exploiting the interior, and UNC will win.

* * *

With a foursome of ACC wins last night, the ACC guarantees two teams in the F4 and one team in the National Championship game. It will likely win a record number of games in the tournament for a conference. This is all thanks to Syracuse’s improbable run. A bubble team that really had no place in this tournament, that got easy F64 and F32 matchups, was able to heat up in the final minute and steal one from Gonzaga. It was a dramatic finish that ranks as one of the tourney’s best.

Syracuse will face UVA, and likely will not win. UVA looks really good. Much like UNC they are scoring from multiple positions across multiple nights. They also play great defense, and are a team worthy of the F4.

* * *

On the other side of the bracket I’m looking for Duke and oh, I don’t see them. On Thursday night they fell to Oregon, a good team. It was a night that Coach K was caught lying to the media. K claims to have spent extra time telling an Oregon player that he is a great player. That player and CBS audio confirmed that K was actually admonishing the player for showing off by hitting an unnecessary 3-pointer in the waning seconds and looking back at the Duke bench.

While I don’t disagree with K that such a display shouldn’t be tolerated, to lie in the press conference is not OK either. Perhaps he didn’t want to make a big stink out of his teaching moment, but it’s larger than ever now. (Not to mention that Duke players hit 3-pointers in the final 0:45 with a 15+ point lead on seven occasions.) The real story is that for many hours SB Nation was the only media outlet to acknowledge the lie. I wrote The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy and his reporter covering the game. Mike response was that he doesn’t like to call people liars from 2000 miles away and the reporter said she “wasn’t there so he didn’t lie to me”. Local media also refused to cover the story, proving that they, too, are afraid of crossing Krzyzewski. So much for journalistic integrity.

* * *

This game is UNC’s chance to get back to the F4 for the first time in 7 years. They’ve been to F8 in 2011 (KY loss) and 2012 (KU loss), but since then it’s been a string of F32 and F16 losses. Of course the Heels have been to the F4 in 2005, 2008, and 2009 under Roy Williams, but this would be his first trip without Doherty’s players and without Tyler Hansbrough.

Heels’ Obvious Woes Are Short Term, Irrelevant

February 9th, 2016

As we move into our last month of the regular season, the Heels find themselves wondering what is going wrong with this team, a team that was ranked #2 in the country, arguably #1. In five of the past six games the Heels’ offense has vanished as shooting woes have plagued the guards. Generally the numbers for defense have improved, but really we’ve just seen some mid-season sloppiness.

None of the recent problems, though, are what will ultimately be the anathema of this team: interior defense. The Heels interior lineup with Meeks and Johnson are still quite easy to drive against, and good guard corps will figure this out. Hopefully we can see better denial without fouling. It hasn’t clicked yet, but there is still time.

UCLA Proves Defense Still Needs Improvement

December 20th, 2015

Yesterday the Heels played really impressive offense in a 13-point win over #22 UCLA. Using the Smith method, the team scored 1.05 points per possession. It is the 9th time this 11-game season so far surpassing the stated goal of 0.95 pts/****., and the 7th straight game doing so, despite the absence of the injured started, Kennedy Meeks.

On Defense the story is not quite as rosey. This is the 5th game against a Top 60 Sagarin team, and in all games the team has failed to keep the opponent below 0.85 points per possession. This was their best defensive performance, statistically, of that group, keeping UCLA to 0.87 points per possession. UCLA turned the ball over on 20% of their possessions, however many of those were "unforced errors", especially in the 2nd half.

This team is going to do quite well playing at an offensive level like this, which is quite likely. However on nights when the shots aren’t falling, they are going to need to be able to ramp up the defense, and we haven’t seen that this season.

The next 10 games should not be a challenge, and probably won’t reveal anything new to us. @FSU is the only likely tournament team in that series. The brutal scheduling light switch flips on, however on February 1 where the Heels will really be tested for remaining 5 weeks. I see us easily being 19-2 entering the@Louisville game.

UNC Schedule Turning Out Tougher Than Expected

December 14th, 2015

As most teams have played about 1/3rd of their schedules, we start to see who the likely tournament teams are, and many of UNC’s foes appear on that list. Here are the Top 60 teams UNC plays this season:

  • #4 Louisville (away)
  • #5 Virginia (away)
  • #10 Duke (home, away)
  • #13 Miami (home)
  • #17 Maryland (home, W)
  • #23 Pittsburgh (home)
  • #27 Notre Dame (away)
  • #30 Texas (away, L)
  • #36 UCLA (neutral)
  • #38 Florida State (away)
  • #45 Northwestern (neutral, W)
  • #51 Kansas State (neutral, W)
  • #58 Georgia Tech (home)

Tough, tough schedule, my friends. That is 14 games out of 31 regular season games against likely tournament teams. Only 5 are at home. Don’t forget that Syracuse (2x) and Davidson are bubble teams not included in that stat. Brutal.

Heels Showing Toxic Defensive Woes

December 13th, 2015

We’ve played enough minutes now with the full complement of players to understand what this team is about. I love watching the starters play offense! However this team is having problems on Defense. Against the four Top 60 opponents this season we have held them to:

  • 0.96,
  • 0.85,
  • 0.95,
  • 1.04 points per possession.

Keep in mind that Dean Smith stated the goal is go keep the opponent below 0.85 points per possession.

What’s really disturbing is that the head coach’s primary comments after the Texas game were that "we didn’t hit enough shots". (UNC scored an incredible 1.19 points per possession, exceeding their goal of 0.95 by a very comfortable margin). He isn’t even recognizing (at least publicly) this team’s defensive shortcomings.

Even more disturbing… this team has the best complement of depth, talent, and experience of any in college basketball. We should be seeing a veteran team like this stand up against tournament teams better than we’ve seen.

North Carolina Loses The Great Teacher

February 9th, 2015

2015-02-08 12.59.14On the evening of Saturday, February 7, UNC lost perhaps its most important family member of the school’s storied history. Coach Dean Smith had suffered from dementia for many years, and his life ended quietly. The irony that such a sharp mind that steered so many storied comebacks would not be able to mount one in his own life is a bitter pill to swallow. That we are not in control of our fates is just one of the lessons Smith taught us.

There are hundreds of great stories being passed around these days about great Smith moments. Mine came after reading his book Multiple Offense and Defense. It is a fantastic, concise X’s and O’s manual for running several of the offensive and defensive sets Smith used in the first half of his coaching career. There are also great lessons about team play, running structured practices, acknowledgment of the groundbreakers that came before us, and the beauty of math in the game we love. That final point led me to corral my own stats for the team, which eventually blossomed into this website 20 years ago.

In the book Coach Smith explained his system for evaluating offensive and defensive efficiency, and stated that his team’s goals are to exceed 0.85 points per possession and to keep the opponent below 0.75 points per possession. The book was written before the advent of the 3-point shot, leaving me to wonder about how much that rule changed the stated goals. Woody Durham hosted a weekly call-in show with the coach and I was able to ask him my question on the air. He first stated,”Very good! You’ve done your homework,” then stated his updated goals of 0.95 and 0.85, respectively.

Apparently I’m not alone in being fascinated by the statistics basketball brings us, as evidenced by the popularity of Ken Pomeroy’s work. Pomeroy’s stats differ from Smith’s because Smith considered a possession to end when a field goal is attempted while Pomeroy considers it ending when the other team gets possession of the ball. Pomeroy reaches this figure by subtracting offensive rebounds from field goal attempts, making Total Possessions an irrelevant statistic. Smith’s method, on the other hand, leaves a Total Possessions differential which reflects the true rebounding, making his method much more useful.

When I was in Chapel Hill for college and dental school, I only had a couple of brushes with Dean Smith. One morning my dental class sat in a hallway waiting to take an exam. A hush fell on the group as Dean Smith walked down the hall by us after completing an appointment with one of our professors. It was as if we all wanted to be put into the game. We all got a chuckle at how we responded, but also were impressed that someone like Dean Smith thought that highly of our teacher.

I was lucky enough to get to sit behind the bench in ‘93 to watch the eventual National Champions play Duke on Senior Day. Committed recruits Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis sat in front of me while uncommitted Rasheed Wallace sat two seats toward midcourt. Wallace, of course, chose UNC over his hometown Temple, and Smith would later proclaim Wallace to be the best player Smith coached. The photo above is from the book Return to the Top, and shows me right behind Stackhouse and McInnis. Jim Valvano sat across the court doing his final full broadcast. Phil Ford, one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time, and Bill Guthridge, one of the best big-man coaches in the history of the game, were 10 feet in front of me. It was an incredible experience to be a spectator around these great masters of their craft. Of course from that angle one gets an appreciation of the vertical elements of basketball, but I was also able to appreciate the level of focus players from each team carried.

We essentially lost Coach Smith several years ago with the onset of dementia. Unlike other coaches, Smith retired and made few public appearances. In one of the many pieces of irony surrounding Smith, he was always proud of his ability to teach, yet could have taught us all so much about the game and life after retiring from coaching. Smith could be ruthless in team practices, slicing giants to pieces with his words. However those were  players (and families) into which he had emotionally invested. He would never have felt comfortable criticizing the play of players he didn’t know, so he never pursued the chance to teach us more.

Smith learned basketball from Phog Allen who learned basketball from the game’s inventor, James Naismith. While Smith may be gone and the building bearing his name may not stand for the remainder of our lives, Smith leaves an indelible mark on both the game and the culture of the State of North Carolina through not only his bountiful coaching tree, but also through the many of us whose lives were enriched by his work.

Heels Sputtering Engine A Long Term Worry

February 3rd, 2015

As we enter the final month of the regular season, we see a Tar Heel team that carries the same issues it did entering the meat of the ACC season. The team continues to outrebound opponents in the majority of games. However it’s defense has faltered in 6 of the last 9 games. The offense, the way Roy Williams is trying to run it, is maxed out and only delivering in half of the last 9 games. It is a team that finds itself vastly overrated at #12.

The core problems on offense begin at, but aren’t exclusive to, Point Guard play. In 7 of the last 8 games the team has turned the ball over on 14% or more of their possessions, breaking 20% in two games. Nate Britt’s assist:turnover ratio is 1.4, which is not awful, but not good either. Passes aren’t getting to the right places on big men, and jump shooters are having to corral on catches instead of catching in shooting position. The Point Guard play doesn’t have to be Kendall Marshall-level stellar for this team to be a deep threat in the tournament, but it has to be better than forgettable.

Another problem with UNC’s offense is the rotation. Williams is using too many people and there never is any kind of flow with any of the lineups. It is February, and it is too late in the season to be experimenting with players like James and Simmons.

Great Point Guard play will not come until Joel Berry is healthy and gets enough playing time, so that is out of Williams’ control for now. However instead of 4:4,  the rotation really needs to be a 3:5 grouping:

  • 4/5: Meeks, Johnson, Hicks
  • 1/2/3: (Berry), Britt, Paige, Tokoto, Jackson

With Berry and Pinson out, it puts a strain on the lineup. However the biggest problem with the rotation is in the frontcourt. There are 80 minutes to be had at the two frontcourt positions, and if Meeks and Johnson are going to play 28 and 26 mins, then Hicks should be getting 26 minutes. This exposes the primary problem with the big men, however, because Hicks is one of the most frequent foulers in the history of the UNC program. Johnson seriously lacks defensive control, so the coaches’ inability to teach these players how to play without getting dumb fouls a la Bill Guthridge is destroying this team’s frontcourt rhythm. Meeks and Johnson need to play 32 and 30 minutes, leaving 18 minutes for Hicks. This way the sets can be more consistent. This way the passing can be more tailored. This way UNC can run the ball into the post on the 2nd pass like it should.

There are only 8 games remaining in the regular season, and it is getting too late to make big changes with this team. Tightening the rotation in the frountcourt is the best thing Roy Williams can do for his backcourt. Once Berry gets healthy enough to play, he needs to play 20 minutes a game to get any kind of improvement before the tournament.

The sky isn’t falling on the program, but this season is quickly coming to a close and is headed toward being a pretty disappointing season, given the amount of talent on UNC’s bench. It will be interesting to see if Williams will make changes to give this team a chance to be excellent.

Heels Have The Tools, Need Tune Up

January 14th, 2015

The first part of this 2015 season has been a trying one for UNC fans. The team, sporting 6 McDonald’s All-Americans, has struggled to show any kind of cohesiveness and consistency. They have played great some games, terribly in others. While the Heels aren’t a beautiful team, areas of their performance thus far are historically outstanding and now show us how this team can go from good to great.

Against the 5th most-difficult schedule in the country thus far, UNC has held opponents to only 0.78 points per possession. That’s the best defensive of any UNC team in the 19 years I’ve tracked this statistic. That’s a period where the school has won 2 National Championships, been to 5 Final Fours, and put dozens of players into the NBA. The goal is to keep teams below 0.85, and this team is surpassing the stated goal by an impressive amount.

  • UNC is averaging 4.5 more possession than opponents, the largest
    margin in the tracking period, too. This means that this team is the best rebounding UNC team in the last two decades.
  • UNC is the #4 team in the nation in defending the 3-pointer (and that’s including the stats from the Notre Dame game).
  • UNC is averaging 0.90 points per possession on offense. That ranks
    #15 in the 19-year period. (goal is to be >0.95)
  • UNC is turning the ball over on 14.4% of its possessions. That’s a fairly average performance compared to other years.

Therefore we can easily conclude that this UNC team is being held back by its shooting, specifically its jump shooting. The team is shooting 31% from 3, good for a #271 national ranking (345 ranked). They are #302 in 3 pointers made in each game.

With this weakness with outside shooting, one would think UNC would play to its strengths, however they are attempting 24% of their shots from beyond the arc. Usually Roy’s teams can shoot the 3 well, and only take about 22% of their shots from behind the arc.

Adrian Atkinson has posted other statistics about this UNC team on Twitter (@freeportkid). The two key conclusions from his stats are that UNC’s offense falls apart when Kennedy Meeks is on the bench and that UNC’s offense is better with Marcus Paige at the SG spot than it is with him playing PG.

How can the Heels become a top-tier contender for the national championship? There are three steps:

  • Guard Play – UNC has to have Joel Berry as its primary PG in order to be great. With Paige being the only reliable outside shooting threat and nursing a nagging plantar fasciitis injury, Paige does not need to be playing PG. Nate Britt has seen many minutes at PG, however his ball handling and quickness will ultimately keep him from being the PG this team needs to be top shelf. Berry has the tools (the ballhandling, the speed, the penetration ability), but is raw. We are two months away from the ACC Tournament, and it is time for this team to transition so Berry can be seasoned for the post season.
  • Narrowing the Rotation – As we say every year at this time, Roy is playing too many lineup combinations for the team to ever get any offensive flow. At some point he will narrow the playing time to 9 guys, yes, but two years ago it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day, and it was too late for the team’s offense to gel. Currently 10 players are averaging at least 9 minutes. It is time to sit James, Simmons, Hubert, and use Britt and Jackson as the 8th and 9th men.
  • Key on Meeks – Kennedy Meeks is averaging 22.4 minutes per game. It is time to get his minutes up to the 28-30 range, and run the offense through him. Every halfcourt possession needs to start with an entry pass to a big man whose response moves the defense. Paige needs to be used solely as a jump shooter and cutter, but not as a PG. The team also needs to experiment more with playing only one big man, with Tokoto at 4 and Pinson at 3. That would be a lineup that would blow by most teams.

There is still much ball to play this season, however given the play in the 16 games thus far, UNC is not headed toward having a memorable season. They look like a team that might make the Sweet 16, and not a serious contender for the Final Four. They do have the tools, however, to tune up and be one of the elite teams in the country and in the rich history of the program.

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.

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