En route to a Maui Invitational championship, Carolina faced opponents at either end of the tempo spectrum. Oklahoma State, who the Heels blew out in the semifinals, ranks 10th in the nation with an adjusted pace of 75.4 possessions / 40. Conversely, UNC’s victim in the title game, Wisconsin, plods along at the 3rd-slowest tempo in the country (62.5 possessions / 40). Not surprisingly, there were 78 possessions in the OSU game and only 65.5 against the Badgers.
Perhaps more surprisingly in how ruthlessly efficient the Heels’ halfcourt offense was in both victories. Under Roy Williams, UNC has been consistently lethal in transition– both in its primary and secondary breaks. As possession length creeps above 10 seconds, however, Williams’s teams have not always maintained their effectiveness. In many years, this “transition premium” (the early-offense efficiency gain) has been dramatic.
For example, the 2009 championship Heels, while efficient in all shot-clock segments, had the following splits:
1st 10 seconds of the clock: 121.9 oRtg, 62.2 %Poss.
Final 25 seconds of the clock: 111.4 oRtg, 37.8 % Poss.
for a transition premium of 9.4%.
The 2012 Heels, also a vintage Roy Williams edition, had these splits:
1st 10 seconds of the clock: 119.1 oRtg, 64.8 %Poss.
Final 25 seconds of the clock: 102.5 oRtg, 35.2 % Poss.
for a transition premium of 16.2%.
Scoring early was (relatively) more important to the ’12 team than the ’09 one (primarily because it lacked a Ty Lawson to create in late-clock/halfcourt situations). As a methodological aside, it’s important to note that “scoring early” also means put-back/2nd-chance opportunities. If the original possession lasts 28 seconds, but leads to an offensive rebound/quick follow-up score, that is categorized in the “early offense” bucket (although it’s not a transition score, per se). Likewise, some secondary break actions bleed past the first 10 seconds of a possession (such that not all “transition” offense is perfectly captured in seconds 1-10). So, “transition premium” is bit of a misnomer; it’s more aptly named “early-offense premium.”
So, getting back to this piece’s premise, let’s investigate UNC’s scoring efficiency by possession length for its final two games in Maui. As seen in the tables that follow, Carolina’s halfcourt efficiency (i.e., oRtg on possessions lasting 11-30 seconds) was actually higher than its early-offense efficiency in both game. Against Oklahoma State, the distribution of possessions was more typical of a Roy Williams-coached team, with more than half of all possessions ending in the first 10 seconds (although this is still significantly lower than the season-long marks in the low-to-mid 60s for 2009 and 2012). And, again, the Heels were predictably efficient during these frequent quick possessions. The trademark of any Williams offense has always been its ability to create a high volume of high-efficiency early-offense possessions.
Moving to the Wisconsin game, however, it’s evident that the Badgers were able to successfully limit both the frequency (%Poss of 34.8%) and effectiveness (oRtg of 87.0) of Carolina’s early offense. They did this by a.) prioritizing transition defense at the expense of their own 2nd-chance opportunities, and b.) doing a fantastic job of keeping the Heels off the offensive glass. In fact, the glacial Badgers actually outscored the jackrabbit Tar Heels 23-20 in early offense (seconds 1-10 of the possession) in the Maui final. Had you told me prior to the game that that would occur, I would have been bracing for a defeat instead of a comfortable 15-point win (that wasn’t even nearly that close in reality).
So, given that fact, how did UNC get past Wisconsin so easily? Obviously a big part of it was due to a terrific defensive. But, perhaps even more importantly, it was due to a clinically effective halfcourt offense. Nearly two-thirds of the Heels’ possessions vs. UW ended in the final 20 seconds of the clock. And, on those 43 possessions, Carolina scored 51 points (oRtg of 118.6). It was the typical Williams halfcourt fare: freelance passing game (albeit with a little more 4-out motion to take advantage of Isaiah Hicks’ skill set), some box sets, and some late-clock pick-and-roll. While UNC’s spacing, screening, and ball/player movement looks crisper so far this year, that’s more a testament to a veteran, well-oiled machine than to a dramatic re-envisioning of the scheme.
And, oh yeah, having a point guard playing at the level of Joel Berry helps, too. Against Wisconsin, Berry got to the rim for a couple late-clock “and-1s.” He also hit several halfcourt jumpers off the dribble, both from mid-range and behind the arc. And he does all his scoring without being a ball-stopper. Although he’s certainly not in the Kendall Marshall/Ed Cota class as a post-entry passer, his ability to feed the post has improved each year. And, just as importantly, his ability to quickly move the ball (rather than over-dribbling) has facilitated the post-entry passing skills of UNC’s wings (most notably Justin Jackson and Kenny Williams).
While some of UNC’s inflated halfcourt efficiency was due to pure shot-making (that tends to have lots of game-to-game volatility), much of it was due to creating easy opportunities with crisp offensive execution. That the Heels were able to dominate a game in which they (inefficiently) scored just 20 points in the early offense bodes well for the remainder of the season. There seem to be very few teams that are equipped to stop both UNC’s early offense (primary, secondary, and put-backs) and its halfcourt attack. When you slow down neither (like Oklahoma State), it’s biscuit time. When you slow down one or the other (like Wisconsin), you at least have a fighting chance (Wisconsin’s inability to knock down perimeter jumpers ultimately doomed their “fighting chance”).
I’ll update these metrics all year, and post them periodically on the blog or in the weekly newsletter.