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Author: Adrian

Carolina-Kentucky: Round 1 Recap

Carolina-Kentucky: Round 1 Recap

Due to life getting in the way, I haven’t had much time to blog recently.

But here are some pieces I wrote following the first matchup:

1.) Defending Monk

2.) Defending Ball Screens (Fox)

3.) Transition D and Late-Game Execution

There obviously no Kenny Williams this time around (who did the lion’s share of the work against Malik Monk in December). And, of course, Theo Pinson has returned to take Williams’ spot as the starting 2 (and likely assignment on Monk). It’s almost comically over-simplistic, but Carolina’s ability to slow down Monk and De’Aaron Fox (and limit their efficiency if that their scoring) will likely determine Sunday’s result. The Heels will need to do a better job against the ball screen than they did in Las Vegas last December.


Wrapping Up the Duke Win

Wrapping Up the Duke Win

While most Carolina fans have probably moved past the Duke game and onto the ACC Tournament (or March Madness/bracketology concerns), I still have a few loose ends to tie up regarding that big win to conclude the regular season. So let’s start tying:

Efficiency by Possession Length

Let’s break the offensive efficiencies for Carolina and Duke down by length of possession:

  • Like usual, Carolina was more prolific in the early offense. The Heels used 46% of their total possessions in the first 10 seconds, compared to just 34% for Duke. Those numbers were strikingly similar to the first matchup, when UNC used 42% of its possessions early vs. 34% for the Devils.
  • Like in the first game (Duke: 126.1, UNC: 121.4), Duke had a slight edge in early-offense efficiency. Carolina’s transition defense tightened up a bit in the second half, however. After allowing 19 early-offense points in 14 first-half possessions, the Heels only allowed 12 in 10 second-half ones.
  • As it’s been doing for much of the season, the Heels won this game with its half-court offensive efficiency. Although Carolina had seven fewer half-court possessions than Duke, it was only outscored 52-48 on trips that lasted longer than 10 seconds. Most of UNC’s big hoops down the stretch (Jackson 3: 22 seconds, Maye layup: 16 seconds, three late Berry hoops: 23, 22, and 22 seconds) occurred in the final half of the shot clock.
  • Limiting Duke’s transition and second-chance 3-pointers was a big key to the win. The Devils got a late transition 3 (Kennard-to-Allen in the corner), but Carolina limited the early-offense kick-out 3s (following offensive rebounds) that can be so deadly against Duke.
  • Like in the previous game against Virginia, many of Carolina’s favorite secondary break options were limited against Duke due to familiarity and good preparation. Well-coached ACC teams will usually do a good job of taking away the back screens, slips, and easy entries that create early offense through UNC’s secondary break. Berry, however, was aggressive in probing the defense early, and able to get some quick baskets off the bounce. In general, the Heels went to more secondary break ball screens and dribble hand-off action to create early offense.
  • Another secondary break wrinkle that I loved seeing was the post-up for Justin Jackson. After cutting backdoor against an overplaying Matt Jones (denying the Meeks secondary reversal pass), Jackson immediately looked to post up the smaller defender. Rather than kicking back to Seventh Woods on the left wing, Meeks instead took a couple of dribbles to the right wing to set up an entry angle to Jackson. This type of secondary option is a great way to get early touches for Jackson on the block against a smaller defender (with the backdoor option available for keeping overplaying defenses honest). Not sure if this was a Duke-specific secondary set that the staff implemented, or if it was just Jackson and Meeks making a play in the moment.


Pinson as a Passer

Despite not scoring for the second game in a row, Theo Pinson’s offensive impact was still profound. Unlike the Virginia game, when the Heels’ offense sputtered (and more Pinson off the dribble may have been an option worth pursuing), it’s hard to argue with 90 points on 72 possessions.  Pinson was clearly Carolina’s top play-maker against Duke, leading the team in assists (7), potential assists (12), and hockey assists (3). His 12 potential assists set up the following shots for the Heels:

  1. A made Hicks layup in secondary after a Pinson post entry
  2. A made Jackson primary break dunk
  3. A missed Meeks face-up jumper after a Pinson post entry
  4. A made catch-and-shoot Maye jumper from just inside the foul line
  5. A missed Maye 3-pointer
  6. A made Jackson lefty layup
  7. A missed Meeks jump hook after a Pinson post entry
  8. A made Maye leaner
  9. A made Hicks layup in secondary after a Pinson post entry
  10. A missed Britt 3-pointer
  11. A missed Jackson 3-pointer
  12. A made Jackson primary break layup (against late Duke pressure)

Pinson also threw two entry passes to Hicks that resulted in unassisted layups (since Hicks backed down smaller defenders off the dribble). Likewise, two of his entry passes turned into hockey assists after inside-out 3-pointers. For the game, Pinson threw a team-high nine post entry passes. Those passes resulted in six made baskets, two missed baskets, and a turnover. The clip below shows one of the Pinson post entries to Hicks that didn’t result in an assist. Still, Pinson’s ability to recognize the mismatch (Kennard on Hicks) and get the ball to the right spot is one reason why his presence is so important to UNC. On this play, Berry failed to take advantage of either of his mismatches (taking Jefferson off the dribble, or feeding Hicks in the post). Pinson, however, immediately capitalized on Carolina’s advantage—something he’s been excellent at doing all season. None of Pinson’s assists against Duke were super-flashy. And his two turnovers could have easily been more (he had some questionable passes that were deflected, but not outright stolen). Still, his ability to seamlessly mix in the simple pass with the high-risk/high-reward one has paid great dividends for the UNC offense, while allowing Berry to focus on his strengths (scoring, perimeter ball movement) rather than his weaknesses (feeding the post).


Carolina’s Defense / Guarding the 3

In the first matchup against Duke, Carolina’s defense allowed 13 made 3-pointers on 27 attempts. Of those attempts, I charted 24 to be open or lightly contested (including all 13 of the makes). So how much did UNC improve its perimeter defense in the second Duke game? Of the 19 Duke 3-pointers (already a big improvement!), only 12 were categorized as open/lightly contested. Duke went 5-of-12 on its clean 3s, a little less lucky than the 13-of-24 it shot on them in Cameron. So, while better shot luck also played a role, the bigger factor was the Heels’ ability to cut the rate of clean 3-point looks in half relative to the first Duke game.

That reduction in clean 3-point looks came at a cost, however. Since Carolina was more committed to sticking to shooters, it put a bigger onus on its on-ball and interior help defenders to stop dribble penetration (rather than using its wings to help early). Duke relentlessly attacked off the bounce, drawing a ton of free throws (usually against UNC’s primary defender, but sometimes against late-helping bigs). It more than doubled its free throw rate from 28.1 in the first matchup to 64.8 this time around. Using the wings to help early against the drive sets up the drive-and-kicks that Duke’s 3-point attack thrives on. But not helping with the wings will put a ton of pressure on ball defenders to curtail wing penetration without fouling (especially difficult against Duke since they’re aggressive, talented, and coached to draw/exaggerate contact). There’s not necessarily a right and wrong way to defend Duke—UNC allowed 1.27 PPP in the first game and 1.19 in the second (both pretty bad). It’s really just a matter of trade-offs: what are you hoping to take away, and what are you willing to live with? Duke’s good enough offensively t0 take advantage of what you give it (penetration/drawing fouls/finishing in the paint last Saturday). That said, I thought the defensive adjustment to take away 3s was the appropriate one. While it’s annoying to watch your rival parade to the line 35 times, that strategy did take away most of the back-breaking, momentum-generating 3s that the Duke offense has historically feasted on. With a different crew of referees (and/or some better UNC defensive discipline), that strategy could have been even more effective.

One play (late in the game) in which the Heels did help early from the wing is highlighted below. Berry starts the defensive possession with good ball pressure to blow up a Duke ball screen. He then makes an excellent help-and-recovery close-out to content a Frank  Jackson 3. This was more of a fake-and-retreat move, as Berry was already recovering back to Jackson before Tatum even released the kick-out pass. If Berry was longer (like Jackie Manuel, Danny Green, or Theo Pinson), this type of play would be even more effective. It represents the ultimate form of defense against Duke: help early from the wings to prevent deep penetration/fouls, but still recover to shooters in time to contest the 3. It takes a perfectly timed help-and-recover (plus some combination of length/lateral quickness) and, of course, introduces the possibility of overhelping. These help decisions are really hard to make in real time, but Berry did a great job on this late possession.



OK, on to Brooklyn!

Big Game Berry

Big Game Berry

#MauiJoel is back. That’s the guy who carved up Juwan Evans and Bronson Koenig to the tune of 46 points on 22 FGAs (10-13 of 2s, 6-9 on 3s, 8-8 on FTs) over the final two games of the Maui Invitational.

Of course #MauiJoel was originally known as #BigGameBerry, the guy who won the ACC Tournament MVP and was inches away from a potential Final Four Most Outstanding Player award last season. And, now that the calendar’s rolled around to March again, Carolina fans are hoping he’s back to stay.

Berry, in case you’re just awakening from a coma, torched Duke for 28 points in Saturday’s big win, including, memorably, 5-of-5 first-half shooting from behind the arc. Let’s chronologically recap how Berry got his scoring opportunities (14 FGAs + 3 trips to the line) against the Blue Devils.

  1. After receiving a Tony Bradley cross-screen in the post, Luke Maye caught a Theo Pinson entry feed on the left block (extended; he was pushed several feet off the actual block). Pinson then cut to set a screen for Berry, who knocked down a top-of-the-key 3 after Maye faced up and located him coming off the screen. Good movement and screening within the freelance passing game to create a clean perimeter look here.
  2.  Berry pushed the ball hard in transition (following a Bradley rebound of an Amile Jefferson miss), pulling up from the right elbow extended for a 16-footer off the dribble. This hoop capped off a quick 5-0 Berry run to turn a 10-9 Duke lead into a 14-10 Carolina one.
  3. Jayson Tatum got switched onto Berry after a series of perimeter exchanges in Carolina’s freelance motion. With the taller defender on him, Berry jab-stepped to create space and, once Tatum dropped his hand, buried a 23-footer from the top of the key in his face to break a 5-0 Duke run and tie the game at 19.
  4. In the secondary break, Pinson lobbed an entry to Isaiah Hicks on the left block. A solid wall by Jefferson forced Hicks under the basket without an angle for releasing a shot, so he whipped a brilliant lefty pass out to Berry on the right wing for an inside-out, secondary break 3 to give UNC a 22-19 advantage. Like on Berry’s first hoop, Pinson got the hockey assist here. In addition to leading the Heels with seven actual assists, he also led them with three hockey assists.
  5. Berry got all the way to the rim in transition, necessitating a help rotation by Jefferson who was able to force Berry’s first miss of the game. The penetration created an easy put-back opportunity for Hicks and, in the words of the esteemed Jay Bilas, acted “almost like an assist” for Berry.
  6. Berry used a secondary break screen from Bradley to knock down a left-wing 3-pointer off the dribble. Harry Giles hedged on the Bradley screen, but then tried to recover to the roller (as a surprised Luke Kennard seemed to be expecting a switch). This defensive miscommunication created an open 3-pointer for Berry, who didn’t miss it (and cut Duke’s 40-36 lead down to a single point). In general, Duke really struggled defensively with Giles on the court (as he was a total disaster on that end).
  7. Berry converted a pair of free throws after the Grayson Allen technical foul for elbowing Brandon Robinson. This again cut Duke’s lead back to a point at 42-41.
  8. Berry received a dribble hand-off from Robinson to knock down another top-of-the-key 3 (his third in the half from this location). Frank Jackson went underneath the exchange (a mistake he’d repeat on a Justin Jackson’s key second-half 3), while Tatum didn’t switch or hedge. The mishandling of the dribble hand-off by the pair of Duke freshmen gave Berry another clean look for his fifth 3 of the half, this time giving the Heels another lead (46-44).
  9. Using a secondary break ball screen from Bradley that resulted in a Tatum switch, Berry got the whole way to the rim, but missed a right-handed layup from the left side of the hoop. The Heels used the identical secondary action on the ensuing possession, this time resulting in a Berry lob to a rolling Bradley for a layup (and Carolina’s final basket of the first half).
  10. After another Duke switch put Tatum on Berry again, he tried to create a mid-range jumper on an isolation possession, but had it heavily contested/partially blocked by the taller Blue Devil with six seconds left on the shot clock. Kennedy Meeks was able to draw a foul on the tip-in attempt, splitting a pair of subsequent free throws.
  11. Berry turned down a Bradley ball screen to drive left on Allen, ultimately having his layup attempt blocked by Jefferson as he tried to get back to the right-side of the rim.
  12. An aggressive drive by Berry in transition forced a bump by Allen, resulting in a pair of free throws. Berry converted both to give the Heels a 69-67 lead.
  13. Plays 13.-16., occurring during crunch-time, are detailed here. To summarize: Berry missed a catch-and-shoot short corner jumper created by Jackson’s drive; finished a drive at the rim with his left hand; knocked down a contested mid-range jumper from the left elbow (after turning down the opportunity to feed the post); and banked in a short floater from the right side. Finally, with Carolina protecting an 85-80 lead in the final minute, Berry knocked down the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity before missing the second shot.

While Berry did most of his damage from behind the arc (5-5), he scored at all four levels against Duke. He was 2-of-4 from 10-20 feet, three of them off the dribble and one on a catch-and-shoot. He made his only shot from 5-10 feet, the late floater. At the rim, he was least efficient, converting just 1 of 4 field goal attempts. That’s been pretty consistent with Berry’s year-to-date numbers, as he’s struggled (especially in ACC play) to finish his close opportunities. On the season, his eFG%’s by scoring level are:

  • Close: 47.3% (43-91)
  • 5-10′: 59.1% (13-22)
  • 10-20′: 45.2% (19-42)
  • 3-pointers: 63.6% (75-177; 42.4%)

Once Duke started running Berry off the 3-point line, he did a nice job of creating 2-point chances for himself. Still, the Duke strategy was the correct one in the second half. Forcing Berry to hit contested mid-range jumpers and finish at the rim over size is definitely the best way to curtail his efficiency. He’s a good enough scorer to make those shots (and, in fact, did when it mattered against Duke), but it’s a better percentage play then giving him the type of lightly contested 3s he feasted on in the first half.

Speaking of those first-half 3s, Berry hit three from the top of the key and one each from the right and left wings. He did a nice job of getting to his favorite spots as, on the year, he’s knocked down 50% (22-44) on his top-of-the-key 3s and 45% (22-49) from the right wing.

While scoring 28 points, Berry only had a single assist (the secondary break lob to a rolling Bradley that was detailed above). He only had four potential assists on the night, too. But, with Pinson moving into the role of de facto point guard / half-court distributor (he had seven assists and 12 potential assists against Duke), Berry’s been freed up to hunt for his shot and be more aggressive as a scorer. Pinson creating shots and Berry completing them is the best use of each’s relative talents, in my opinion. With Theo’s emergence into a full-fledged distributor, #BigGameBerry has been unleashed to do what he’s wired to do: put the ball in the basket.


Closing Out a Championship

Closing Out a Championship

Throughout the season, we’ve spent countless words detailing Carolina’s late-game execution in crunch-time situations. Oftentimes this year (including the first Duke game), the Heels have been out-executed down the stretch. Even in some wins (like at Clemson), the Heels’ late play (and decision-making) left plenty to be desired. But Saturday night, on the season’s biggest stage, the UNC close-and-late performance was top-notch. And, sometimes, it’s less about execution and more about just stepping up and making winning plays.

We’ll start this close-and-late breakdown as close as it can get: tied at 71 with 6:15 on the clock following a Luke Kennard tip-in. On the court for the Heels was the (regular) starting five–a unit that played 7:03 of the final 9:07, leading 19-10 over that period (the Heels trailed 8-4 in the 2:04 without all five starters down the stretch).

UNC1 (74-71): After running some active (but somewhat frantic and unfocused) freelance motion, UNC dialed up dribble hand-off action between Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson with about 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Duke’s Frank Jackson, an explosive freshman scorer, made the cardinal sin of going under the exchange, leaving his namesake free for a clean 3-point look from the top of the key. The Heels’ Jackson, who had missed his first six 3-pointers (including two from the top of the key, a spot where he’s shooting just 36.7% (18-49) this season), calmly drilled this clutch opportunity to put the Heels back in the lead.

DU1 (74-71): Using a ball screen from Amile Jefferson, Jayson Tatum, Duke’s stretch 4, attacked off the dribble (as he was looking to do all game). Unusually, the Heels opted not to switch this big-big exchange, with Kennedy Meeks flat-hedging while Hicks worked hard to recover to a driving Tatum. Hicks recovered just enough to force Tatum to fade left while attempting to finish to his right, with Jackson arriving late to get a help-side hand up. Make no mistake, though, this was a pretty good (and close) look for Tatum, who certainly didn’t have his best night as a finisher (some due primarily to good Carolina defense, some not so much). Meeks corralled the defensive rebound.

UNC2 (77-71): In its secondary break, Carolina went immediately back to the identical dribble hand-off action from the previous possession between Jackson and Hicks. This time, Frank Jackson was conscientious to fight over the top of the exchange. A solid Hicks screen, however, allowed Justin a driving lane as Frank frantically tried to recover. Jefferson, stuck a bit in no man’s land, was forced to step up to stop Jackson’s drive, allowing Carolina’s Player of the Year candidate to thread a perfectly delivered pocket pass to a rolling Hicks. Hicks, guarded by an overmatched Frank Jackson now, easily finished at the rim while drawing the foul. It was his 13th “and-1” of the season (and second of the game), tying Meeks for the most on the team. He knocked down the free throw, the 10th time he’s completed a 3-point-play opportunity.

DU2 (77-73): After Nate Britt and Luke Maye checked in for Theo Pinson and Hicks, Duke immediately exploited the Britt-Kennard matchup (with Britt giving up several inches and dozens of pounds). It used a floppy set to curl Kennard off a right-block screen. He then rolled in a floater over Britt in the paint. Britt defended it well positionally; he simply wasn’t big enough to adequately stop it.

UNC3 (79-73): Carolina went back to its freelance passing game, again using Jackson in a two-man game. This time, it was Maye who set a ball screen for Jackson on the right wing. Duke, who had been switching all exchanges all game, actually hedged and recovered here (with Frank Jackson on the ball and Jefferson as the hedger). Jefferson was late to get back to a rolling Maye, and Jackson was able to hit him for an open layup.

DU3 (79-75): Also sticking to what was working, Duke again ran Kennard off a curl out of floppy (this time using a left-block screen). After receiving the ball in the paint, he took Britt to the hoop to draw a foul (then knocked down both free throws).

UNC4 (79-75): For the fourth straight trip, the Heels utilized Jackson in two-man action. On this possession, it was Meeks setting a ball screen for Jackson on the left wing. He drove baseline then, upon being cut off by the Duke help defense, threaded a wrap-around bounce pass to Joel Berry in the opposite short corner. It was a clean look for Berry, though he was a bit off-balance (and not really ready to catch and shoot, a bit surprised by the odd angle of the Jackson pass, perhaps) which led to a missed 16-footer. Although

DU4 (79-78): With Jackson along one baseline (after his pass) and Berry along the other (after his shot), Duke was able to grab the defensive board and push tempo (following a strong Tatum outlet pass to Kennard). Britt was left by himself in transition to stop Kennard and Allen and, given Duke’s trademark floor spacing, was unable to prevent Allen’s 3 after he sprinted to the left corner. This was just high-level transition offense and shot-making by Duke to take advantage of bad Carolina floor balance.

UNC5 (81-78): With Duke on a 5-0 run, Berry made one of his signature momentum-shifting shots. After Jefferson switched onto him following some perimeter exchanges, Berry drove middle from the left wing in an attempt to get to his preferred right side. Tatum made a strong help rotation, forcing Berry back to the left-side of the rim (and his left hand). This was a fantastic finish from Berry, who’s not always at his best when forced to his left.

DU5 (81-79): UNC switched Britt onto Allen, opting for Jackson’s size on Kennard. Duke used a pick-and-pop to create an iso opportunity for Tatum against Maye (an action it used about a dozen times on Saturday night to isolate Tatum against Hicks/Maye). He attacked immediately to draw a foul on Maye, then split a pair of foul shots to cut the lead to two.

UNC6 (81-79): As Duke was consistently isolating his bench players, Williams went back to his starters with Pinson and Hicks returning to the court. Using a Hicks ball screen, Jackson settled for a contested 18-footer over Jefferson (who switched this time). While Jackson’s getting plenty of praise (deservedly so) for his mid-range game, it’s probably worth making a distinction between 3-level and 4-level scoring (treating the four scoring levels as 1.) close, 2.) 5-10′ (post moves and floaters, generally), 3.) 10-20′ (catch-and-shoot or pull-up mid-range jumpers), and 4.) 3-pointers). Jackson’s been great between 5 and 10 feet this season, almost always utilizing his lethal floater from this distance. But, after this miss, he’s shooting just 24.2% (8-33) from 10 to 20 feet on the season. And, on mid-range pull-up jumpers like this attempt, he’s made just 1 of 17 all year (5.9%). Given that data (and how well-contested the shot was—not to mention that it was a really long 2), this was definitely a win for the Duke defense and a settle by the Carolina offense (although, if you’re going to settle, settle with your best scorer, I guess).

DU6 (81-79): Pinson was back on Kennard, and Duke went back to its right-block floppy screen for him. This time, given Pinson’s size/physicality, Kennard cut to the right wing rather than curling to the right elbow like against Britt. He got a pretty clean 3-point look off, but rushed it a bit due to Pinson’s length/impending close-out. It missed short, with Tatum out-battling (and possibly shoving) Hicks for the offensive board. The Devils reset their offense, going back to the Tatum pick-and-pop iso set. On this occasion, Hicks and Jackson (defending Allen) switched the ball screen, leaving Tatum isolated against Jackson. Undeterred, the brash rookie immediately looked to attack. But Carolina’s wily veteran was one step ahead, moving his feet well to force a Tatum push-off/offensive foul. It was only the fourth offensive foul that Jackson’s drawn this season (all in ACC games), but this one was certainly at a critical time.

UNC7 (83-79): Following a Meeks pindown screen out of a Carolina box set, Berry received the ball on the left wing. Meeks immediately sealed Jefferson after setting the screen, giving Berry an option. He could have taken one hard dribble to the left and spun in a lefty entry pass to Meeks to lead him perfectly to the hoop for a layup. Or, he could have taken one hard dribble to the right to launch a contested 16-foot, left-elbow jumper over the longer Allen. The percentage play, especially in Carolina’s post-centric system, was probably the former—an entry to Meeks. Berry, of course, chose the latter, knocking down the tough mid-range jumper. If nothing else, this play provides a perfect view into the crunch-time mind of Berry. When the chips are down, and the choice is to trust his passing or shot-making abilities, he’ll fall back on his scoring ability nearly every time. The good news for UNC fans is that Berry is a cold-blooded assassin in situations like this. He’s not afraid of taking big shots, and can create/hit them even when well-defended. On the year, Berry’s now shooting 50.0% (18-36) on mid-range jumpers off the dribble.

DU7 (83-79): Allen used a little brush screen by Kennard beyond the arc to drive on Jackson, before wildly throwing his body into a helping Meeks to again get to the line (he had 11 FTAs on just 4 FGAs on Saturday night). As possible cosmic intervention from his earlier foul-drawing theatrics (or, more likely, late-game fatigue or good, old-fashioned choking/bad luck), Allen missed both free throws with Hicks grabbing the defensive board.

UNC8 (85-79): After turning down a Hicks ball screen late in the shot clock, Berry drove right on Kennard, then banked in a short floater over a helping Allen. Learning from his earlier offensive foul drawn by the helping Jefferson, Berry didn’t over-penetrate this time, opting for the floater rather than getting all the way to the rim. Though not as prolific with the floater as Jackson, Berry’s actually been more accurate with his this season, converting 57% of his 21 such attempts this season (speaking of 4-level scorers!).

DU8 (85-79): A Tatum drive-and-kick, which hoped to set up a clean 3-point look for Frank Jackson, was thwarted by a great fake-and-retreat maneuver by Berry. After faking a help rotation, he quickly recovered to contest Jackson’s 3 after the kick-out pass (this fake-and-retreat style of defending the drive-and-kick was memorably used by Raymond Felton on his late deflection/steal to essentially seal the 2005 national championship against Illinois). Berry’s good close-out forced a Jackson brick off the backboard which, when rebounded by Pinson, gave the Heels the ball and a six-point lead with only 1:2o left on the clock. This would essentially wrap it up for the Heels (despite a silly Pinson foul that allowed Kennard to convert a 3-point play and cut the Duke deficit to three; Theo immediately made up for it by hitting Jackson for a transition layup, his seventh assist of the game).

When the pressure was on, Carolina did a great job of getting the ball to its best scorers. Jackson and Berry drove all the action, either as shooters or playmakers. The Heels leaned on two-man action (ball screens and dribble hand-offs), mixing in a box set or two along the way. On the defensive end, Carolina made a strong Duke offense work hard for its looks. The help rotations were crisp, as were the hedges/recoveries. It certainly wasn’t perfect defensive execution (and even that won’t stop an elite scorer like Kennard from getting buckets), but Saturday’s sense of urgency on that end will be what’s required for another march through March.

Big Game Berry + defensive urgency + late-game execution bodes well for a Carolina postseason run. Buckle up: it’s about to get fun!


UNC-Duke: Game-Day Notes

UNC-Duke: Game-Day Notes

Hey! I’ve been knocked out most of the week with the flu (did watch a copious amount of old UNC-Duke games on ESPN Classic in between naps), so didn’t get a chance to do much posting. I’m feeling mostly better today, though, so thought I’d write up a few pre-game notes for tonight’s huge matchup.

  • The earlier UNC-Duke this season had 67.5 possessions, moving Duke’s record against the Heels to 8-3 in the Roy Williams era in games with fewer than 70 possessions. When UNC’s able to ramp the tempo above 70, it improves to 8-9 in the rivalry under Williams.
  • The reason for the above stat, generally, is that Duke has out-executed Carolina in the half-court. Oftentimes, that’s as simple as spreading the court and running high ball screens to set up drive and kicks for its shooters. In the first matchup, Duke also ran some of its NBA-inspired sets (floppy sets for a curling Kennard, or horns sets for Allen dribble hand-offs) to get its scorers the ball in advantageous spots. With Frank Jackson in the starting lineup this time, there might be a return to more of an emphasis on high screen action. Since Jackson, Kennard, and Allen are all players who can finish in the paint as well as kicking to open shooters, they can be tough covers. It’s not as simple as sticking to shooters (as that will risk foul trouble to UNC’s bigs and/or finishes at the rim), and all Carolina fans are aware of the dangers of overhelping against the Duke drive (open 3s!).
  • In that first matchup, the offensive efficiencies by possession length were:
    • 1-10 seconds: UNC—121.4 in 42% of possessions, Duke—126.1 in 34% of possessions
    • 11-30 seconds: UNC—112.8 in 58% of possessions, Duke—126.7 in 66% of possessions
  • Duke used more of its possessions in the halfcourt, and also used them more efficiently than Carolina. As the possession grew longer, Duke became more efficient, scoring 1.37 PPP in trips that took 18 seconds or longer.
  • I charted 19 Duke high screens in the first UNC matchup. Those screens resulted in six offensive resets (i.e., no immediate action directly resulting from the screen/subsequent attack). Of the 13 that did result in immediate action, Duke shot 6-of-9, including 4-of-7 on 3s. It also drew two fouls while committing only one turnover. Again, with Jackson seeing more minutes, there might be even more pick-and-roll offense. The Heels will need to defend it better to walk away with a win.
  • In ACC games, UNC is using 52% of its possessions in the early offense (seconds 1-10). On the season, it’s 56%. The typical Roy Williams Carolina team has been closer to 60% in this metric. In any case, the Heels will need to find a way to improve upon its early offense rate of 42% from the first Duke matchup (while maintaining its early offense efficiency in the 120 range). Part of that is through more transition (primary/secondary break) opportunities, but another big part of “early offense” is creating second-chances/quick put-backs (although this, too, is often easier in the open court/against recovering defenses). An important metric to keep an eye on tonight is how many early offense possessions the Heels are getting (and, obviously, how effectively they’re converting them).
  • Speaking of early vs. half-court offense, Carolina is coming off a season-worst half-court PPP of 0.52 versus Virginia. The Heels scored just 15 points on 29 possessions of between 11-30 seconds against the Cavs. Their early offensive efficiency (1.o4 PPP in 48% of possessions) wasn’t great, either, of course. In two games against UVa. this season, UNC was shut out (o points in 11 possessions) in the final six seconds of the shot clock.
  • After the UVa. game, Carolina is now less efficient in the halfcourt than in the early offense for the first time this ACC season. In conference games, the Heels have scored 1.16 PPP in seconds 1-10 of the clock (52% of possessions) and 1.15 PPP in seconds 11-30 (48% of possessions). In all games, UNC is still slightly more efficient in the halfcourt (a first for the RoyW era): 1.17 PPP in seconds 1-10 (56%) and 1.18 PPP in seconds 11-30 (44%). It’s been an excellent half-court team this season that will need to bounce back from a very poor offensive performance in Charlottesville.
  • In the first Duke matchup, UNC threw only 19 post entry passes, down from its season average of about 24 per game. Part of that was no Isaiah Hicks. A bigger part, perhaps, was how well/aggressively Amile Jefferson fronted (or three-quartered) the post against Kennedy Meeks. Jefferson was really physical, and worked really hard to deny Meeks easy entries (and second-chances) in Durham. That, in my opinion, was an underrated aspect of Carolina’s loss in the first edition of the rivalry. The Heels were fairly successful when they did feed the post (8-of-12 shooting, one foul, three turnovers, three offensive resets)—they just didn’t do it as often as usual. That’s not surprising against Duke, who always tries to take away post entries by pressuring the ball and fronting the post. Rather than trying to force-feed the paint, the Heels will need to attack off the dribble early and often. Let the bigs get their touches on the offensive glass. There, of course, will be opportunities (especially in the secondary break) to make clean post entries. But the default mentality should probably be to attack off the bounce rather than to probe for a post entry (a deviation from how the Heels attack most opponents).
  • UNC’s defense has been performing much better overall than when it played Duke the first time around (in game 12 of the ACC season). Let’s break down the Heels’ defense by ACC segment:
    • Games 1-4: 97.1 defensive efficiency, 90.6 adjusted defensive efficiency (8th in nation if maintained over the course of the season)
    • Games 5-8: 105.2 defensive efficiency, 97.0 adjusted defensive efficiency (48th)
    • Games 9-12: 120.5 defensive efficiency, 108.8 adjusted defensive efficiency (251st)
    • Games 13-17: 91.1 defensive efficiency, 83.0 adjusted defensive efficiency (1st)
  • As seen, the first Duke game completed a terrible four-game stretch of defense for the Heels in which they were allowing 1.21 PPP Even adjusting for the strength of opposing offenses, Carolina allowed 1.09 PPP—a mark that would place it 251st in the country if maintained season-long.
  • Since the first Duke game, however, UNC has allowed just 0.91 PPP (down to 0.83 when adjusted for opposing offensive strength). While some better shot luck has played into that stronger defensive number, there’s no denying that the Heels have been significantly better on the defensive end since the first loss to Duke.
  • In the first Duke matchup, UNC allowed 24 open or lightly contested 3s (Duke made 13 of them). That number will need to come down this time around (or the Heels will need to hope for lots of shot luck). In the last game against Virginia, UNC allowed only 13 of the Cavaliers’ 24 3s to be open or lightly contested (they made 8 of those 13, compared to just 2-of-11 that were well-contested). Against Duke in round 1, 89% of the 3s that UNC allowed were open/lightly contested. Last game against Virginia, only 54% were. If tonight’s number is closer to 54% than 89%, the Heels will probably emerge victorious.

I’ll be back after the game with some quick statistical tidbits, then later this weekend with some more detailed charting analysis.

Enjoy the game!


Pack-Line Problems

Pack-Line Problems

Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense has traditionally produced some of the best defenses in the country. Including his three-year stint at Washington State, Bennett’s teams have been in the top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency nine times in his 11 seasons as a head coach. Six times Bennett has fielded a top-10 defense, including four top-5 defenses in the last six seasons. This year, the Cavaliers lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. So, suffice it to say, the way that Bennett teaches his pack-line principles is very effective (including hard hedges, immediate big-to-big doubles on post entries, and clogging driving lanes with help defenders rather than overplaying the wings).

Let’s take a closer look at some of the Carolina offensive struggles on Monday night.

Shot Distribution

On Monday night, the UNC shot distribution looked as follows:

  • Close: 9-21 (42.9%) –> 44% of FGAs
  • 5-10′: 2-6 (33.3%) –> 13% of FGAs
  • 10-20′: 2-5 (40.0%) –> 10% of FGAs
  • 3-pointers: 4-16 (25.0%) –> 33% of FGAs

On the season (entering last night’s game), the Heels’ distribution of FGAs was:

  • Close: 60.2% –> 42% of FGAs
  • 5-10′: 41.4% –> 14% of FGAs
  • 10-20′: 35.3% –> 13% of FGAs
  • 3-pointers: 37.3% –> 30% of FGAs

Carolina created the same shots it always does—in fact, a slightly higher proportion at the rim, and a slightly lower fraction from the low-efficiency mid-range. The rate of 3-pointers was up a tick, but only due to a few late-game, desperation attempts. The obvious discrepancies between the Monday night and year-to-date numbers, of course, are the shooting percentages—particularly at the rim and from behind the arc. Of UNC’s 16 3-pointers, I classified two as open, 11 as lightly contested, and three as contested. The Heels’ two primary shooters, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry, combined for 11 of the 16 attempts behind the arc (including a Berry attempt that was erroneously credited to Kennedy Meeks). It was a different story at the rim, however, where Virginia blocked eight of Carolina’s 21 attempts. Many of the non-blocked close attempts were also well-contested (often using Bennett’s signature style of going straight up with the hands while using the lower body to bump/displace the shooter). The Cavs’ rim protection was excellent on Monday night, but close attempts are exactly what Roy Williams’ offense is trying to create. Those weren’t shot selections issues—just a combination of stellar UVa. paint defense and some problems finishing through contact for the Heels. Overall, the shot selection for Carolina was satisfactory. Jackson took a couple contested 3s, plus a very bad, off-balance long 2. Britt had a contested mid-range attempt that UNC can probably live without. There was only one late-clock situation that required a tough shot (a Seventh Woods’ pull-up jumper). But, in general, the Heels got the shots they needed to in order to win the game. Based on season averages, Carolina will score about 43 points on 21 close attempts and 16 3-pointers. Against Virginia, the Heels managed only 30 points on those 37 attempts.

Even given the UNC turnover issues (the Heels turned it over on 25% of their possessions, including 40% in the first half—their year-to-date average entering the game was 16.3%), it did enough to win the game had it simply knocked down a couple more 3s and finished a couple more close attempts. In just 56 offensive possessions, Carolina threw a staggering 30 post entries (it averages about 23 per game on the season). Those passes resulted in eight made field goals, 10 missed field goals, eight turnovers, one foul (non-shooting), and three offensive resets. The glaring number there, of course, is the eight turnovers. Most of UNC’s miscues were a function of trying to feed the post (and the subsequent action following the hard post-to-post Virginia double teams). Let’s take a closer look at how Carolina handled the big-to-big doubles:

UNC vs. the Big-to-Big Double

I charted 13 times in which the Cavaliers immediately send a big-to-big double following a UNC post touch. Let’s see what happened on those plays, in chronological order:

  1. Meeks, left block: Meeks attempted to hit a diving Hicks at the front of the rim, but a helping Kyle Guy was able to disrupt the play from behind to force a turnover. This is exactly how the Heels wanted to attack the double. Meeks’ pass was a split-second late, and Hicks needs to be stronger with the catch. Had this been successfully completed, however, it’s an easy layup/dunk.
  2. Hicks, right block: This time, Hicks was able to successfully complete the pass to the diving Meeks. With UVa. point guard Ty Jerome helping down (and giving up five inches and 70 pounds), Meeks simply needs to finish this opportunity at the rim. Good execution, bad finish.
  3. Hicks, right block: Hicks, after catching the entry pass too far off the block, used an escape dribble to reset the offense.
  4. Meeks, left block: Following the Hicks escape dribble/reset, UNC immediately entered the ball to Meeks on the opposite block. He was stripped by a doubling Devon Hall while trying to make a pass. This is a case of Meeks needing to be stronger with the ball.
  5. Meeks, right block: Meeks immediately turned baseline (away from the approaching double) to bank in a short jump hook. This was a quick decisive move by Meeks, who, given his proclivity for turning left shoulder, will generally do better against post doubles when receiving it on the right block.
  6. Meeks, left block: Meeks was forced to pass it back to Britt in the ball-side corner here, a win for the UVa. defense since the ball stayed on the same side of the court. With the possession sputtering following the post double/kick-out, Britt settled for (and missed) a contested mid-range jumper.
  7. Maye, left block: Maye kicked it to the opposite wing here to Seventh Woods. Had this been Berry at point guard, it would have resulted in a clean 3-point look. Woods, a reluctant perimeter shooter, shot-faked, then traveled on his drive to the hoop. This was well-executed by Maye/UNC on the post double, but just a personnel issue in this particular lineup.
  8. Meeks, left block: Again, Meeks passed to the opposite (right) wing—this time for a clean inside-out Britt 3-pointer. This is Carolina’s bread-and-butter—a post touch leading to an inside-out look.
  9. Meeks, left block: For the third consecutive post double, a UNC big (Meeks again) on the left block looked diagonally to the right wing. This time, it was Berry receiving the pass and missing a lightly contested 3-pointer. Can’t argue with the execution or shot selection here.
  10. Meeks, right block: Like his earlier make, Meeks again spun quickly to the baseline to attempt a jump hook. This one was better defended by Virginia, but still a strong, decisive move by Meeks by attacking before the double can arrive.
  11. Hicks, left block: Hicks used an escape dribble to relocate to the left wing. Meeks then filled in Hicks’ vacated spot on the left block to receive a post entry from him. Meeks turned it over by trying to spin around Jack Salt (setting a solid wall) in the paint. This was vintage Roy Williams basketball; Meeks just needs to be more efficient in the paint.
  12. Maye, left block: Maye used a single escape dribble to create some space, then kicked it opposite to Berry on the right wing. This time, Berry knocked down the clean look. Great work by Maye here against the post double.
  13. Meeks, left block: Meeks, this time spinning middle, was able to get off a clean jump hook in the paint. He missed, but no issues with the shot selection here.

So on 13 post doubles (and 12 possessions), Carolina scored eight points. Meeks made 1-of-3 shots while fighting through doubles/shooting before they arrived. The Heels also made 1-of-3 3s created from inside-out passes following a big-to-big double team. After attempting to hit the diving big on the first two tries, UNC got away from that option later in the game. While it certainly wasn’t a clinic on defeating Virginia’s post double (Brice Johnson was much more effective in last year’s match-ups, creating more close opportunities for his diving fellow post), Carolina’s execution here was adequate. It certainly wasn’t the reason the Heels lost the game. More problematic, perhaps, was UNC’s execution on its ball screens (against Virginia’s hard hedging strategy).

Attacking the Hard Hedge

Bennett’s defensive philosophy includes hard-hedging of ball screens, meaning the help defender aggressively moves into the ball-handler’s path to force him laterally (or even backwards) while the on-ball defender recovers. This technique used to be (as recently as the middle of last season) Roy Williams’ preferred one against the ball screen, too. But due to some physical (Meeks) and mental (Brice Johnson and Hicks’ proclivity for picking up cheap fouls by bumping the dribbler) limitations, Williams moved to a flat hedge technique designed to curtail dribble penetration and force mid-range jumpers. One could, of course, argue that if Johnson/Hicks were allowed to be as physical with their hedges as Virginia’s big were last night, Carolina would still be employing the hard hedge. But that’s a bit of a digression.

“Attacking” is probably the wrong word for how UNC responded to the Cavs’ hard hedge last night. To successfully beat this technique, ball-handlers generally need to turn the corner or split the defenders to get into the paint. The Heels did neither consistently last night, instead allowing the Virginia helping big to force them laterally (or, too often, backwards) and force an offensive reset/turnover. This Carolina team, while having a variety of guards/wings that can get to the basket off the bounce, lacks that Ty Lawson-style attacker who can turn the corner on anyone, As such, it’s sometimes susceptible to an aggressive ball screen defense like Bennett used on Monday night. Another way to beat the hard hedge is by slipping screens. This is a core option of Carolina’s secondary break, but the Heels only slipped a single screen on Monday (resulting in a Hicks travel after a great Virginia help rotation).

Carolina used 31 high screen against Virginia (the vast majority of which were hard hedged). Those actions resulted in the following outcomes: 3-of-10 shooting, three drawn fouls (one shooting foul drawn by Brandon Robinson), five turnovers, and 13 offensive resets (where UNC just had to restart its offense, generally as a result of being pushed out deep by the hedger). On 31 ball screens, the Heels created only seven points. Breaking it down by Carolina ball-handler:

  • Berry: 11 screens—4 missed shots (Jackson pick-and-pop, Hicks missed lay-up as after pocket pass to roller, Britt missed 3 after drive-and-kick, Pinson missed 3 after perimeter pass), 4 resets, 2 fouls (when Berry aggressively drove into the hedger to force the whistle), and 1 TO (a Berry ball-handling turnover near the UVa. bench)
  • Pinson: 9 screens—4 resets, 3 TOs (Bradley charge after a pocket pass, Hicks charge after a pocket pass, Hicks travel after slipping a screen), 2 made shots (pick-and-pop with Hicks who hit a 12-footer, pass to Maye who entered the ball for a Bradley layup)
  • Jackson: 8 screens—4 resets, 2 missed shots (a Jackson long, contested 2 off the bounce, a missed Bradley layup), 1 made shot (a Bradley dunk after Jackson hit Pinson as a pressure release, who whipped it in to a rolling Bradley), and 1 TO (a Jackson ball-handling turnover when trying to split the defenders)
  • Robinson: 1 screen—1 foul (successfully split the hedge to draw a foul at the rim)
  • Woods: 1 screen—1 missed shot (a Maye pick-and-pop 3)
  • Britt: 1 screen— 1 reset

The Heels only tried to split the hard hedge three times: Robinson’s foul, Jackson’s turnover, and another time by Jackson when he found Meeks in the paint, but the ball was deflected out of bounds. And, as mentioned, there was only one attempted slip (the Hicks travel). What did happen was plenty of side-to-side dribbling. If Carolina meets Virginia again in the ACC Tournament, it will be interesting to see what (if any) adjustments it makes in attacking the hard hedge.

Virginia’s obviously a very disciplined and well-drilled defense. It executes its pack-line principles excellently, while also trying to take away its opponents’ go-to sets. In Carolina’s case, that meant shutting down the secondary break by bumping/holding cutters and hard hedging ball screens. The Heels got an early lob to Meeks off of a secondary back screen, but otherwise the Cavs shut down most of the initial looks via physical defense/keeping UNC from getting to its spots in a timely manner. Rather than continuing to run secondary without creating good scoring chances, Carolina could have tried more quick hitters out of its 1-4 set. Very early in the game (to make the score 4-0), the Heels ran Jackson off an elbow curl to create a short floater for him. As he was being guarded by the smaller London Perrantes, going back to that curl repeatedly might have made sense. UNC didn’t run it again after that early Jackson hoop. Virginia was also well-scouted on Carolina’s use of the box sets. The Heels didn’t have a ton of success with its box formations, as physical defense and scouting conspired to take away most of the options. Carolina, anticipating Virginia’s help defense/hedge, was able to slip Bradley (after he screened in an attempt to free Jackson coming through the elevator doors) on the final play of the first half. This was a nice call by the bench, but resulted in a missed Bradley attempt at the rim following another good Cavalier help rotation.

While it’s easy to be critical of the coaching staff after the team lays an egg offensively, I actually thought Carolina got a lot of the shots it wanted. Plenty of post touches/close attempts, as well as clean looks for its best 3-point shooters. Certainly the bigs need to be stronger with the ball, and with finishing through contact. A few wrinkles against the hard hedge (more slips, or pressure release passes) might be a nice adjustment, as would be moe quick hitters/Jackson curls in the early offense (rather than such a steady diet of secondary break). Really, though it’s easy for us as Carolina fans to view things through a Heels-centric lens, the Virginia defense deserves a ton of credit for its tremendous effort and execution of Bennett’s defense. He’s a terrific defensive coach and, sometimes, you just need to tip your cap to the opponent (even if it’s a physical, hand-checking, body-bumping one that maybe took advantage of some favorable officiating).

I’ll be back later with a bit on Carolina’s defense (spoiler alert: I actually thought it was even better than against the Cavs in Chapel Hill), then we’ll be on to Duke!



Jackson Makes His Case

Jackson Makes His Case

With Pitt riding some Senior Day emotion, the first 17 minutes of Saturday afternoon’s game were back-and-forth with neither team possessing more than a six-point lead. After Michael Young hit a 3-pointer following a Cameron Johnson pin-down screen (Luke Maye’s navigation of the screen was poor; he was obviously out of his defensive comfort zone here), the Panthers cut the Carolina lead to two at 30-28. Over the three minutes that remained before the halftime break, however, Justin Jackson stated his case for ACC Player of the Year.

Let’s break down that 10-0, Jackson-led scoring run. It was a quick one, involving just four offensive possessions and four defensive stops for the Tar Heels.

UNC1 (33-28): Against the Pitt zone, Jackson hit Tony Bradley at the left elbow, then got it back on a dribble hand-off from him. Jackson was looking to launch a 3, but a strong Pitt close-out denied him that opportunity. So he again found Bradley and used him to facilitate a hand-off. This time the exchange created just enough space for Jackson to release a contested 3 from the left wing that he knocked down with a second left on the shot clock. This was one of Pitt’s better zone defense possessions, which made Jackson’s dagger at the buzzer even more disheartening.

PITT1 (33-28): After a solid possession of half-court defense by the Heels, Young settled for a step-back 3 from the left wing that was well-guarded by Maye. Jamel Artis out-battled Jackson for the offensive board (this hasn’t happened much: in ACC game, Jackson has 44 defensive boards while only allowing seven offensive rebounds), but had his put-back attempt altered by Tony Bradley. Joel Berry came crashing in for a strong defensive rebound in traffic.

UNC2 (35-28): Upon grabbing the board, Berry immediately pushed the pace himself. He skipped the ball to Jackson on the left wing. Jackson, having a decent transition look from his favorite spot, instead opted to bounced an entry pass to Maye on the left block for an easy lefty layup. This was an example of a selfless superstar giving up a good look to get a great one. It’s also one of the reasons why Carolina’s offense can be so hard to defend; the Heels are relentlessly committed to getting paint touches (which sets up the perimeter game). While Jackson got the primary assist here, the hockey assist went to Berry—one of UNC’s season-high 15 secondary assists (Jackson led the way here, too, with 4; Britt/Berry/Hicks had 3 apiece, while Woods and Pinson each had 1).

PITT2 (35-28): Pitt ran a ball screen with Sheldon Jeter setting a pick for Chris Jones. Jackson fought over the top of the screen, while Meeks flat-hedged the action in an effort to contain Jones’ penetration. Jones was still able to turn the corner, but Meeks corralled him well enough to set up Berry’s helpside rotation. Berry slid over to draw the charge—one of two that he picked up against the Panthers. Berry’s now drawn 13 offensive fouls this season, second on the team to Kenny Williams’ 17.

UNC3 (37-28): Against the Pitt zone, Jackson whipped a Pinson-like pass into Meeks on the left-side of the hoop. While Young recovered to block the initial attempt, Meeks was left wide-open for the subsequent tip-in. Although Jackson didn’t get credit for the assist here because of the offensive rebound, it was clearly his bullet pass that created the scoring opportunity.

PITT3 (37-28): Johnson took Pinson off the dribble from the right wing, forcing a Pinson bump/hand-check in the paint to control the penetration. The Panthers were still in the single bonus and Johnson, an 82% free-throw shooter, missed the front end with Meeks controlling the rebound.

UNC4 (40-28): The Heels capped off their 10-0 run the same way they started it: on a Jackson 3. This one was again late in the shot clock, and set up by Berry splitting the zone with a drive. After Berry picked up his dribble near the foul line, Jackson curled to the right wing to receive the kick-out pass. The spacing wasn’t great on this play, as both Britt and Jackson were simultaneously cutting to the same area. It didn’t matter, though, as Jackson was still able to make a contested catch-and-shoot 3 with four seconds left on the shot clock (and about 13 seconds left on the game clock). Both of Jackson’s 3s during this critical 10-0 run were in the final six seconds of the shot clock. He’s been an assassin in late-clock situations this season, with a True Shooting% of 90.1% with less than six seconds left in the possession (12-18 from the field, 8-12 behind the arc, and 3-3 from the foul line).

PITT4 (40-28): On the final possession of the half, Pitt used a Young ball screen to create a drive-and-kick opportunity for Justice Kithcart. He was able to get penetration and set up a left-corner 3 for Jeter, but a solid close-out by Meeks forced a miss as the clock expired.

All 10 of the Heels’ points in this defining half-ending spurt were scored or set up by Jackson. Some of it was good offense (like the secondary break entry to Maye for the layup), while some (like Jackson’s contested 3s) was just individual shot-making. UNC used some Jackson brilliance along with a couple good breaks (the 50-50 call on the Berry charge—close to being an “and-1” for Pitt, the front-end miss by a good shooter) to quickly turn a close game into a comfortable halftime margin. Pitt would never truly threaten in the second half, as Jackson’s late-half knockout-punch 3s effectively ended the Panthers’ chances. A player of the year does more than just fill up the stat sheet: he makes big plays in big situations. Jackson made his case again on Saturday afternoon, and it’s a compelling one.


Pinson’s Passing

Pinson’s Passing

Those of you who like alliterative titles have come to the right place (“Pinson’s Pinpoint Passing Paralyzes Pitt”?)!

While the story of the game (along with another monster scoring performance from Justin Jackson) was probably Carolina’s second-chance points (led by Kennedy Meeks’ offensive glass dominance), let’s focus on the passing of Theo Pinson. He was officially created with seven assists in 24 minutes, but even that doesn’t truly do justice to how well he passed the ball on Saturday. Let’s break it down one potential assist at a time (in chronological order):

  • On UNC’s very first possession of the game, Pinson bounced a pass in from the right wing to Isaiah Hicks on the right block. Hicks missed a turnaround jumper that was well-contested by Pitt’s Michael Young.
  • Against Pitt’s 1-2-2 zone, Jackson hit Hicks in the left short corner, then cut middle before flaring out to the opposite (right) corner. Hicks kicked it out to Pinson at the top of the key, who skipped it to Jackson in the corner. The pass led Jackson away from the recovering defender to set him up for a 3 that he knocked down. This was really nice possession of zone offense: the short corner touch to flatten the zone, the quintessential Jackson cut/movement without the ball, and the well-executed skip by Pinson to get the assist.
  • Pinson bounced one in to Jackson at the (left) high post against the Pitt zone, who then dribbled out to the left wing before returning the ball to Pinson at the top of the key. Pinson immediately whipped it back to Jackson, who missed a left-wing 3.
  • Another high-post Pinson entry against the zone, this time to Hicks at the right elbow, leads to a high-low pass to Meeks for a reverse layup. Primary assist to Hicks, hockey assist to Pinson.
  • Hicks, as the trailing big in secondary, cut to the hoop against the Pitt zone. The attention drawn on the perimeter by Jackson and Berry allowed Pinson to have a clear passing lane to hit Hicks for a layup attempt. He missed at the rim, with imposing Roselle Nix contesting.
  • Pinson again found Hicks, this time whipping a touch pass to him in the right short corner. Hicks attacked the rim, missing a contested lefty reverse over Nix and Young.
  • Pinson brought the ball up after grabbing a defensive board, hitting Berry on the left wing. Berry got it back to Pinson at the top of the key and, after pausing a beat and looking to the interior to suck in the zone wing defender, he returned it to Berry for a left-wing 3. Berry missed a clean look, but it was a good example of Pinson subtly shifting the zone with a pass fake (and his threat to thread the needle for interior entries). All of the action up until now occurred in the starting five’s first shift of the game (5:18 of game time). In six Carolina possessions, Pinson had six potential assists and a hockey assist.
  • With Pitt now in man-to-man, Pinson received a ball screen from Meeks on the left wing, then hit a rolling Meeks on the left block. He made an agile spin move to the middle to create a short jump hook over his left shoulder, earning another assist for Pinson in the process.
  • Another Pinson-Meeks ball screen, this time on the right wing, caused Pitt to shift its help defense to compensate for the Meeks roll. Realizing this, Pinson hit an open Hicks at the left elbow, who drew a foul with an immediate drive. Pinson got credit for a “free throw assist” in the charting stats for this one (a pass leading directly to a shooting foul).
  • Following a hit-ahead from Seventh Woods in transition, Pinson tried to fit one in to Hicks filling the lane. This probably should have been a bounce pass, and resulted in a deflection from a recovering Nix. Hicks ran down the loose ball in the right corner, handing it off to Pinson who immediately threw a slick bounce-pass entry to Meeks for an open layup. The first pass was ill-advised, but the second was a beauty.
  • With Pitt back in the zone, Jackson flashed to the right elbow to receive a high-post entry from Pinson. Jackson missed a contested turnaround jumper from 14 feet.
  • As the shot clock dwindled down, Pinson bounced a gorgeous entry pass in to Meeks on the right block. Meeks, in the process of drop-stepping to the hoop, allowed the shot clock to expire, resulting in a Carolina turnover. This was a risky entry by Pinson given the clock situation, but probably worth rolling the dice since it nearly set up another easy hoop.
  • On the first possession of the second half, Jackson used a little brush pin-down screen from Berry to flash to the right wing. Pinson hit him there for a clean 3-point opportunity, but Jackson was unable to knock it down.
  • In a quintessential Carolina free-lance motion possession, a Pinson-Meeks ball screen coincided with a block-to-block screen from Jackson to free Hicks. Pinson whipped a well-timed bounce pass entry to Hicks, who used the Jackson screen to exchange from the left block to the right block. Hicks missed the layup at the rim, a shot he’ll nearly always convert. Despite the miss, this was beautiful offensive execution by the Heels.
  • In one of Pinson’s rare bad decisions against Pitt, he picked up his dribble 30 feet from the hoop. Trying to relieve pressure by passing to Jackson, Pinson threw the ball away, leading to an easy transition dunk for Cameron Johnson on the live-ball turnover.
  • With Sheldon Jeter in foul trouble and Nix (at 300+ pounds) unable to play long stretches, Pitt was forced to go small for parts of the second half. That resulted in plenty of low-block mismatches which were ruthlessly exploited by the Heels. In this one, Jamel Artis was matched up on Hicks on the left block. Pinson threw a simple entry from the left wing, allowing Hicks to back down the smaller defender for the easy layup. Pinson wasn’t credited with an assist here (since Hicks’ back-down dribble/drop step set up the score), but his ability to make the easy play (and recognize the advantage) set up the score.
  • This time, it was Tony Bradley who had the mismatch. With Johnson trying to front him in the paint, Bradley easily sealed him off to create a lob entry angle. Pinson delivered it perfectly from the right wing, allowing Bradley to finish at the rim without ever bringing the ball down.
  • After setting a ball screen for Pinson, Bradley rolled to the left block to receive an entry against a slow-recovering Nix. Bradley powered up to draw the foul, giving Pinson his second free throw assist of the game (and 10th of the season).
  • Immediately following a Pitt basket, Woods threw a hit-ahead pass to Pinson on the left wing. Pinson dropped a slick little bounce pass to Bradley, who filled the lane for an easy dunk after beating Nix down the court in transition.
  • Pinson threw a right-block entry to Hicks from the right wing, then cut to the opposite block. The undersized Panthers scraped down on Hicks in the paint, allowing him to find a wide-open Pinson for the easy layup.
  • With Jeter just returning to the court with four fouls, UNC executed a set play that ran Pinson off of staggered screens from Meeks and Jackson to receive the ball on the left wing. Meeks, upon setting the screen, immediately sealed Jeter to set up a great entry angle for Pinson, who led him right to the rim with the pass for an easy layup.
  • Another low-post mismatch, this time with 6’1″ backup point guard Justice Kithcart on Hicks, resulted in another Pinson entry from the right wing. Carolina wisely identified this matchup right away, isolating Pinson and Hicks on the right side for the lob entry against a helpless Kithcart (with no Panther defender able to help their fronting post defender due to the iso/floor spacing). The final result was another Hicks dunk set up by a Pinson pass.

Adding it all up, Pinson had 17 potential assists against Pitt, resulting in seven box-score assists plus two free throw assists in his 24 minutes. Ten of those potential assists created layups or dunks (or fouls at the rim)—that is, “potential close assists.” On the season, Pinson easily leads the Heels in this metric with 7.71 per 40 minutes (his rate against Pitt—16.67 / 40—was much higher than his season-to-date mark).

Of Pinson’s seven assists against Pitt, three went to Meeks, two to Bradley, and one to Hicks. Both of his free throw assists went to UNC’s bigs, too (one to Hicks, the other to Bradley). On the year, 25 of Pinson’s 37 box-score assists, or 68%, have gone to the Carolina post quartet of Meeks/Hicks/Bradley/Maye. His distribution of assists looks as follows:

  • Meeks: 9
  • Hicks: 7
  • Bradley: 5
  • Maye: 4
  • Jackson: 4
  • Williams: 3
  • Britt: 3
  • Berry: 2

Pinson’s mark of 68% is far higher than most of Carolina’s other guards/wings. Only Jackson at 67% is close: 48% of Berry’s assists have gone to UNC’s bigs; Woods (50%), Britt (49%) and Williams (39%) are likewise at or below 50% in this metric.

That highly correlated combination of creating a ton of close opportunities and creating a ton of shots for UNC’s bigs makes Pinson a perfect fit for a Roy Williams offense. In a system that runs a double-post offense with an emphasis on getting deep paint touches, Pinson’s passing skills are an ideal fit. He can make high-degree-of-difficulty deliveries, but also the simple entries that often present themselves in Williams’ offensive structure. When low-block entries aren’t available (due to fronting the post, strong post defense/pushing the UNC bigs off the blocks, etc.), Pinson’s also capable of getting to the rim off the dribble. He’s been a dangerous handler on UNC’s ball screen sets (both out of secondary and in the freelance passing game)—both as a passer (like against Pitt), and as a slasher/finisher.

Pinson’s ability to distribute the basketball is what frees up Berry and Jackson to launch 20 3-pointers (and hit nine) like against Pitt. Likewise, his ability to feed the post helps the Heels to dominate the paint. If Carolina continues to get that inside-out offensive balance, it’ll be a very tough out in March. And, if Pinson keeps on facilitating like he did against Pitt, that seems like a safe bet.

The Primary Break: UNC-Pitt Quick Takes

The Primary Break: UNC-Pitt Quick Takes

Here are some quick statistical nuggets following Carolina’s 85-67 win over Pitt.

  • After a really slow 27.5-possession first half, the Heels picked up the pace in the second half with 37 possessions. UNC’s defense was consistent half-over-half, allowing exactly a point per possession in each stanza. Carolina’s offense was also strong throughout, scoring 1.48 PPP in the first and 1.22 PPP in the second.
  • The Heels allowed 17 points in their first 10 defensive possessions (as Pitt rode some senior-day energy to hit some early 3s), but then settled down to give up just 5o points on their final 55 possessions (PPP of 90.9). Carolina held Pitt to 7-of-24 3-point shooting (including just 3 of its final 18), but it came at the cost of plenty of Panther free throws (30 of them on just 48 FGAs).
  • The story of the game was probably Carolina’s season-high 24 offensive rebounds. Its entire frontline had at least three of them: Kennedy Meeks led the way with seven, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye had four apiece, and Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson had three each.
  • I talked about the historically strong A:TO for UNC’s post players here. The quartet of Meeks/Hicks/Maye/Bradley combined for 10 more assists today against only a pair of turnovers (Hicks led the way with a career-high six assists). On the season, that foursome of bigs now has 119 assists and 126 turnovers (a 0.94 ratio).
  • Speaking of passing, Theo Pinson had seven assists and two more FT assists (passes leading directly to shooting fouls). Eight of those nine passes were to Carolina’s bigs (4 to Meeks, 3 to Bradley, 1 to Hicks), and Pinson also had a couple more potential assists that Hicks (uncharacteristically) failed to convert. On the season, 25 of Pinson’s 37 box-score assists (plus 9 of his 10 FT assists) have gone to Tar Heel post players. Suffice it to say, his presence has made the UNC bigs better and more efficient.
  • Meeks had his 10th double-double of the season with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Carolina’s 10-0 in those games. He moved past Eric Montross into ninth place on UNC’s all-time rebounding list with 949; the top 8 all have over 1,000 (Brad Daugherty’s eighth with 1,003).
  • Jackson’s 23 points moved him past Shammond Williams and Jason Capel into 32nd place in UNC history. He has 1,459 now; Dennis Wuycik’s next on the list with 1,469 points.
  • Jackson and Joel Berry combined for nine made 3s on 20 attempts. On the season, they’ve made 151 3-pointers (Jackson 83, Berry 68)—the fifth-most of any pair of UNC teammates in a single season. The Carolina record is 177 by P.J Hairston (89) and Reggie Bullock (88) in 2013. Jackson became the ninth different Tar Heel to hit at least 80 3s in a season. It’s been done 12 times in all (Shammond Williams, Donald Williams, and Marcus Paige all had two 80+ seasons). The all-time single-season record is Shammond’s 95 in 1997. Both of those 3-point records seem poised to be broken this year.
  • UNC’s starting lineup was tied 23-23 in 14:30 of court time. Lineups with at least one reserve were +18 (62-44) in 25:30 on the floor. Maye-Bradley combinations, which lead all Carolina frontcourts in ACC +/-, were +10 today (22-12). The Heels also had a strong 14-7 run in the late second half with Brandon Robinson at the 2 alongside the other four starters (Berry-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks).
  • UNC had three dunks (Bradley’s 18th, Jackson’s 10th, and Hicks’ 39th), and now have 87 on the season. Two were assisted by Pinson (7 assisted dunks this year), and one by Meeks (5).
  • Berry drew the Heels’ only two offensive fouls. He has 13 on the season, including eight in the ACC. Both those numbers are second on the team to Kenny Williams (17 and 10).

I’ll be back with more on this game after I get a chance to chart it later this weekend.

The Saturday Clipboard

The Saturday Clipboard

A few charting-related nuggets to pass along before the Carolina-Pitt game tips off at noon:

First, let’s break down Carolina’s top scorers (Jackson and Berry) by their early offense vs. half-court offense splits.

  • As seen, each player uses roughly half his weighted shots (FGAs + 0.475*FTAs) in each segment. Combined, Berry and Jackson score 16.6 points per game in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, and 16.7 in seconds 11-30.
  • Both players shoot 2-pointers better in the early offense (due to transition opportunities), but 3-pointers better in the halfcourt. Jackson’s 3-point split is more dramatic. Also, not surprisingly, both players draw significantly more fouls in the early offense (against oftentimes unset/scrambling/transitioning defenses).
  • Both players also shoot more 3s (as a proportion of total FGAs) in the halfcourt. The combination of 3-point volume and efficiency from Berry and Jackson in seconds 11-30 is why Carolina’s offense has been so good and balanced (between early and halfcourt) this season.
  • Jackson 3-point percentage actually gets higher and higher and the shot clock gets shorter and shorter:
    • 1-10: 31.3% (26-83)
    • 11-17: 41.8% (28-67)
    • 18-24: 48.6% (18-37)
    • 25-30: 60.0% (6-10)
  • Only three Tar Heels have taken double-digit FGAs in the final six seconds of the shot clock (Meeks and Hicks each have nine FGAs).
    • Berry: 50.0 FG% (11-22), 60.0 3Pt% (6-10), 67.7 TS%
    • Jackson: 62.5 FG% (11-16), 60.0 3Pt% (6-10), 83.2 TS%
    • Britt: 11.8 FG% (2-17), 20.0 3Pt% (1-5), 14.7 TS%
    • Berry’s actually been trending in the wrong direction here (after a really efficient start to the season in late-clock situations). Jackson’s been consistently great all year with an expiring shot clock; Britt’s been consistently bad.
  • UNC’s leaders in off-hand FGAs:
    • Meeks: 13-17
    • Jackson: 9-15
    • Britt: 9-11 (doesn’t really have an “off” hand, I guess—these are lefty attempts (all at the rim), though)
    • Berry: 5-7
    • Pinson: 3-7
    • Hicks: 3-7
    • Woods: 4-5
    • Williams: 4-4
    • Maye: 2-4
    • Bradley: 2-2
    • Meeks has been using his left hand more and more from the left-side of the rim, and has been steadily raising his close FG% from that side. It’s still at just 50.0% (31-62), though, compared to 65.4% (17-26) from the close middle and 69.2% (63-91) from the close right. Bradley, likewise (who still doesn’t use his left hand much), is shooting 58.1% (25-43) on close left attempts. That’s below his close middle (63.0% on 17-27) and close right (71.4% on 20-28) marks.
  • Jackson’s left wing/right wing 3-point splits continue to be extremely pronounced. He’s made 35-of-67 3s from the left wing (52.2%), but only 15-of-55 (27.3%) from the right wing. From the top of the key, he’s somewhere in between at 35.7% (15-42).
  • The Maye-Bradley frontcourt has been heavily used by Roy Williams in the ACC, and has had fantastic +/- results. It’s actually the second-most-used frontcourt in conference games, and has the highest efficiency margin of any combination.
    • Hicks-Meeks: 224 ACC minutes, +18.1 efficiency margin
    • Maye-Bradley: 93 ACC minutes, +33.5 efficiency margin
    • Maye-Meeks: 85 ACC minutes, +6.5 efficiency margin
    • Pinson as 4: 57 ACC minutes, +3.9 efficiency margin
    • Jackson as 4: 55 ACC minutes, -7.9 efficiency margin
    • Hicks-Bradley: 49 ACC minutes, +17.0 efficiency margin
    • Bradley-Meeks: 14 ACC minutes, +24.9 efficiency margin
  • As the above data shows, Carolina’s small-ball lineups have not been effective (from a +/- perspective) in the ACC. Pinson’s efficiency margin splits by position have been:
    • As a 2: 72 minutes, +26.4 efficiency margin (110.4-84.0)
    • As a 3: 65 minutes, +32.9 efficiency margin (115.9-83.1)
    • As a 4: 57 minutes, +3.9 efficiency margin (124.8-120.9)
    • The offensive efficiency has been great with Pinson at the 4. However, the team’s inability to get consistent stops has more than offset any gains in scoring production. The defense has been terrific in Pinson’s wing minutes (whether at the 2 or the 3). His minutes have been pretty evenly split across all three spots so far; since Kenny Williams’ injury, of course, they’ve been shifting more heavily to the 2.
  • Berry-Pinson has also clearly been UNC’s best backcourt against top competition. In minutes against Pomeroy Tier A&B opponents (top-100, venue-adjusted competition), Berry-Pinson has an efficiency margin of +27.1 in 60 minutes. Berry-Williams and Berry-Britt have both played 221 minutes against Tier A&B foes, with respective efficiency margins of +14.5 and +6.9.