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Author: Adrian

Lawson ’09 vs. Berry ’17

Lawson ’09 vs. Berry ’17

Although Joel Berry’s been great this year, his season still pales in comparison to Ty Lawson’s sublime 2009 campaign—the G.O.A.T. point-guard statline in Carolina history (with apologies to a couple of Phil Ford seasons, Kenny Smith in ’87, Raymond Felton in ’05, etc.). He does stack up quite favorably to Lawson in some key categories, while falling well short in some others.

Let’s break it down with a series of side-by-side comparisons for: I.) Shooting/Scoring; II.) Passing/Turnovers; III.) Defense; and IV.) On-Court Impact.

I. Shooting/Scoring Comparison

  • From a pure scoring volume and efficiency standpoint, Berry ’17 and Lawson ’09 are nearly indistinguishable. It’s how they get their points where the differences lie.
  • Lawson was a better and (significantly more) frequent close finisher than Berry. He attempted nearly 50% more shots / 40 minutes at the rim than Berry (5.66 vs. 3.95), and also made a higher percentage (62.4% vs. 58.8%). For each point guard, most of that close offense was created off the bounce. Factoring in Lawson’s FTA Rate in ’09—over twice as high as Berry’s this season (a little closer if you look at FTMade Rate since Berry’s at 91.2% vs. “only” 79.8% for Lawson)— and his ability to finish through contact (nearly quadruple the number of “and-1s” / 40), and it’s clear that he was the vastly superior scorer at the rim.
  • While Lawson’s better at the rim, the edge at the other two scoring levels (mid-range and behind the arc) would probably go to Berry ’17. Though Lawson made a higher percentage of his 3s in ’09 (47.2% vs. 42.6%), Berry’s attempting nearly twice as many from behind the arc per-40. Each point guard was super-efficient from the top of the key, and most prolific from the right wing. Lawson, in very limited attempts, was also money from the corners. ’09 Lawson was a more dangerous transition threat from behind the arc (though, again, Berry’s shoots transition 3s much more frequently), and both were deadly off the dribble and in the half-court.
  • While neither point guard made his living with the floater (each was more comfortable pulling up for a jumper or (especially in Lawson’s case) getting the whole way to rim), Berry was more efficient with that shot. Both point guards were lethal on mid-range (10-20′) pull-up jumpers.

II. Passing/Turnover Comparison

  • The biggest differentiator between Lawson ’09 and Berry ’17 was in the passing metrics. Lawson’s assist and potential close assist rates were significantly higher than Berry’s this year. He also created a higher percentage (relative to all potential assists) of open shots for his teammates. Despite creating more and better opportunities for others, Lawson was able to maintain a lower rate of turnovers / 40 than Berry. Combining those two factors, Lawson ’09 had more than double the A:TO (factoring in FT assists) of Berry ’17. For a point guard, that’s obviously a huge, glaring advantage.
  • Each point guard had a very similar turnover distribution. Berry commits passing turnovers at a higher rate (by over a half-turnover / 40), but all other turnover categories look nearly identical.
  • Lawson also created drive-and-kick 3-pointers at nearly triple the rate of Berry. Having wing snipers like Wayne Ellington and Danny Green waiting to catch and fire helped here. But Lawson was also better at getting into the paint to create for others (in addition to himself).
  • Although I didn’t include this data in the table, each point guard had a similar post-entry passing profile. Lawson threw 10.6 post entries / 40 with a Success:Failure (made FGs + fouls / missed FGs + TOs) of 0.90 in ’09. Berry’s currently at 8.6 and 0.79 in those categories. Slight advantage Lawson, but having Tyler Hansbrough in the post is certainly a nice luxury for an entry passer.

III. Defensive Comparison

  • In the early part of the season (through Maui), this is the one area in which I would have given the clear advantage to Berry. His Stop% was up in the low 70s through the first half-dozen games, and he was applying consistent ball pressure to fuel Carolina’s 22 defense (and set up its preferred wing overplays/denials). But, post-ankle injury and illness, Berry has been a significantly less disruptive defensive force. Fatigue’s been an issue, too, as the Heels demand so much of Berry on both ends in big games.
  • The two point guards have been equally disruptive (as measured by forced turnovers and deflections), but Lawson was better at denying opponents scoring opportunities (in large part due to keeping them out of the paint a little better than Berry does). ’09 Lawson allowed a couple fewer FGAs and points per-40 compared to ’17 Berry.
  • Though Lawson’s defensive consistency was vastly improved by his junior season, it was still somewhat sporadic. But, when engaged and motivated (see the ’09 national championship game), it’s hard to deny that he could be a disruptive defensive force and lockdown on-ball defender. This category’s close (with plenty of time for Berry to rewrite the script), but I’d give the slight edge to Lawson.

IV. Plus/Minus/On-Court Impact Comparison

  • Each point guard had a huge and profound offensive on-court impact in his respective season. The ’09 Heels were also slightly better on defense with Lawson on the court, while the ’17 Heels (especially in ACC play) have been significantly worse on that end in Berry’s minutes. This is partially a tribute to how well and hard the Carolina bench units (generally some combo of Woods/Britt/Robinson/Maye/Bradley, plus a starter or two) have defended. It’s also probably an artifact of the noisiness and general unreliability of +/- data—especially in a smaller (half-season) sample in Berry’s case.
  • Suffice it to say, each point guard made his team better. Though, again, I’d give ’09 Lawson the advantage for on-court impact (assuming that quality of back-up PGs—SR Frasor/FR Drew II in ’09 vs. SR Britt/FR Woods in ’17—was roughly equal between the seasons).

In terms of pure scoring ability/efficiency, Berry has been downright Lawsonian this season. He does it a bit differently (more from behind the arc, less at the rim), but just as effectively. It’s the other areas of point guard play (play-making and ball protection, primarily), however, that made Lawson’s 2009 campaign such a historically great one, and have separated it from what Berry’s accomplished so far in 2017.

What to Do About the Starting 5

What to Do About the Starting 5

First: the big story of Monday night’s game was indisputably Roy Williams securing his 800th win (against only 212 losses—the second-fastest coach to reach that milestone). I don’t want to gloss over that achievement, so congratulations to Coach Williams for another impressive accomplishment in a Hall-of-Fame career. So now let’s move on to the type of decision for which all-time great coaches earn their millions to make.

It took nearly 20 games, but Carolina fans finally got to see its expected starting 5 of Joel-Berry-Theo Pinson-Justin Jackson-Isaiah Hicks-Kennedy Meeks take the floor. In the first three games of Pinson’s return, he had played just a minute (and change) at the 2G spot. And even that was paired alongside Brandon Robinson at the 3 (rather than Jackson). For the first 31 minutes against Syracuse, it was more of the same: a mix of exclusively Pinson at the 3 to relieve Jackson, or as a small-ball 4 alongside him. But, over the last nine minutes against the Orange, Pinson logged six minutes at the 2. Let’s break down how that lineup did against Syracuse, then consider the pros and cons of Kenny Williams versus Pinson as the starting 2.

Against Syracuse:

After playing Pinson at SG for about 2.5 minutes as part of a lineup with Nate Britt at PG and Jackson at SF, Coach Williams subbed in Berry for Britt at the 6:40-mark of the second half with the Heels leading 70-59. Let’s take a quick possession-by-possession look at how that Berry-Pinson-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks unit performed.

SU1 (70-61): After springing a halfcourt trap on Tyler Lydon, he located Tyus Battle in the right corner, who was able to penetrate against a scrambling defense to draw a foul on Pinson at the rim. Battle hit both foul shots.

UNC1 (72-61):  After lots of perimeter passing against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, Pinson finally attacked a gap and kicked it out to Jackson it the right corner. Jackson penetrated baseline and missed a contested floater, but Hicks battled for the offensive board and finished with a follow-up hoop in the paint.

SU2 (72-64): Lydon hit a top-of-the-key 3 following a nifty SU set in which it used a staggered ball screen for the point guard, then had the second screener (Thompson/Roberson) set a downscreen for the first (Lydon). The Orange used this action twice for Lydon 3s, and Hicks really struggled to navigate the  downscreen each time. I thought this was a really clever play design, and wouldn’t mind seeing RoyW steal it to create Jackson 3s in small-ball lineups. Hicks does need to be more aware defensively, however. Here’s a quick clip of the two plays (including the one to make the score 72-64).

UNC2 (72-64): UNC got a high-post touch for Meeks, who immediately looked opposite to Pinson on the right wing for an open 3. This was pretty good zone offense, as it created a clean inside-out lo0k for a perimeter player (albeit one, in Pinson, who’s an inconsistent (at best) 3-point shooter).

SU3 (72-64): The Orange turned the long rebound on Pinson’s missed 3 into a transition opportunity, finding spot-up specialist Andrew White in the right corner for a 3. Pinson did a nice job of locating White in transition, and closing out to contest the shot. Jackson grabbed the defensive rebound.

UNC3 (74-64): For the second straight trip, the Heels missed a right-wing 3 against the zone—this time by Berry. Unlike last time, though, when it came following some side-to-side reversals and a high-post touch, this one  came after just two perimeter passes. While Berry can certainly make this type of deep 3, I’m sure the staff would recommend better patience against the zone. Following the miss, Hicks was free on the left baseline for a stick-back dunk. It was his fourth dunk of the night, and his ACC-leading 30th of the season.

SU4 (74-64): After Pinson and Hicks switched on a ball screen (the Heels were switching all exchanges 1-5 at this point in the game), Lydon attempted to exploit the mismatch by taking Pinson to the post. The Orange looked for a high/low entry feed to Lydon, but Meeks, anticipating the entry, was able to deflect it twice and ultimately corral the loose ball for a turnover. This was terrific defensive awareness by Meeks, and his hands were excellent as usual.

UNC4 (76-64): Like so often happens with the Tar Heels, a live-ball turnover was quickly converted into a primary-break bucket. Meeks immediately threw a diagonal outlet to Jackson, who found Berry filling the lane for a transition layup. Hockey assist to Meeks, box score assist to Jackson.

SU5 (76-64): The Orange iso’ed Lydon at the top of the key, and he looked to attack Hicks off the dribble. He spin-moved into a righty hook shot in the paint that was well-contested by Hicks, resulting in one his Lydon’s rare misses on the night (he was 11-of-14 from the field). Meeks controlled the defensive board.

UNC5 (76-64): More good zone offense here, although it again didn’t result in a score. Jackson threw a high-post entry to Meeks from the right wing, then took a couple decoy steps to the left before cutting back hard to the right to receive the Meeks kick-out pass. This catch-and-shoot action was analogous to coming off of a screen to receive a pass (and resembled Jackson’s big late 3 against Wake Forest), which is a more comfortable type of shot for Jackson than having his feet set against a zone defense. This shot was directly on line, just a bit long.

SU6 (76-64): Another long rebound led to another Syracuse run-out, with White missing an alley-oop dunk. The Heels were obviously fortunate here to collect their fourth consecutive defensive stop.

UNC6 (79-64): Jackson grabbed the defensive rebound on the missed slam, then proceeded to take it coast-to-coast and finish with the right hand from the left side while drawing a foul. Finishing through contact hasn’t always been a strength of Jackson, so it was nice to see him convert here. It was his fourth “and-1” of the season, of which he’s completed two (including his one to increase the Heels’ lead to 15).

Following the Jackson free throw, Williams and Maye would check in for Pinson and Hicks. The presumed starting 5 would return for one more possession on each end with just 65 seconds left on the clock. They’d get their fifth consecutive stop as a unit, with Hicks contesting a Battle pull-up 3 after switching a ball screen with Berry (following a Syracuse baseline underneath entry). Pinson gathered the defensive board, and was fouled immediately by the Orange, knocking down both free throws to extend the Carolina lead to 85-68. At this point, Jim Boeheim called off the dogs, removing his starters from the game (with RoyW quickly following suit).

In total, the Berry-Pinson-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks quintet played 3:16 together, leading 11-5 in those minutes (an efficiency margin of +85.7). Seeing this lineup back on the floor, one had to wonder if the Heels are considering a shake-up to the starting lineup. Let’s briefly make the case for keeping Kenny Williams in the starting 5, then the counter-case for inserting Pinson in with the starters.

The Case for the Current Starting 5:

  • “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Carolina’s current starting 5 has played 171 minutes together this season, posting a strong efficiency margin of +37.6 (offensive efficiency: 129.0, defensive efficiency: 91.4). In 110 minutes against Pomeroy Tier A/Tier B opponents (i.e., top-100 teams, after adjusting for venue), that lineup’s posted a strong efficiency margin of +27.7 (124.2-96.5). Moreover, the Heels’ starters have been getting them off to some strong ACC starts—at least at home (the starting 5 led 16-4 against NC State, 14-5 against Florida State, and 9-2 against Syracuse prior to the initial Carolina substitution).
  • Kenny Williams might be a better fit alongside the “Big 4” of Berry/Jackson/Hicks/Meeks. With four relatively high-usage offensive players on the court, Williams’ brand of offense (take open shots, otherwise move the ball quickly) works well. He hardly ever acts as a ball-stopper by probing off the dribble or looking to isolate/attack in space. If an open look is there, he (generally) takes it. If not, both the ball and himself are moving quickly to keep the offense running smoothly. He provides floor spacing benefits as a 3-point threat, but is about as low-maintenance a fifth scoring option as you’d ever want.
  • Williams off the bench is an unknown commodity. While Pinson has proven that he can provide production, impact, and energy off the bench, Williams has never been in a 6th-man type role. It likely wouldn’t matter, but this gets back to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra from above. More interestingly, perhaps, it’s possible that Pinson—a more capable facilitator and shot-creator (for himself and others)—is a better fit with UNC’s bench-heavy lineups (generally a mix of Britt/Woods, Maye, and Bradley, plus a starter or two) than Williams would be.

The Case for the New Starting 5:

  • As I wrote about here, Pinson has been great alongside the other two juniors (Berry and Jackson). Additionally, the Berry-Pinson-Jackson combination at the 1-2-3 spots played really well to begin last season (in the six games that Marcus Paige missed due to injury). This lineup isn’t a total unknown: there’s historical precedent that predicts it being very successful.
  • Berry, Pinson, Jackson, Hicks, and Meeks are Carolina’s five best players (at those respective positions), and should therefore start. This isn’t really how basketball works, of course, as there are often compelling reasons to bring more talented players off the bench. This one could be re-framed as “Pinson was expected to be the starter pre-injury, and should therefore not lose his starting status because he got hurt.” These considerations really aren’t that important at all, though, in my opinion. Roy Williams earns a lot of money to make these types of chemistry/lineup fit decisions, and his 800-212 record/Hall of Fame resume suggest that he’ll generally make the right choice.
  • Maybe it is broken. In the six ACC games, the (current) starting 5 has played 73 minutes and posted an efficiency margin of +10.3 (115-9.105.6). All other lineups, have posted a +19.5 (114.5-95.0) during 172 ACC minutes. Especially on the defensive end, the starting 5 has taken a big step big during conference play. The usual caveats apply here: six games is a tiny sample for this type of super-noisy +/- analysis. But the fact remains that the starting 5 hasn’t been dominant lately (it was outscored 24-19 in its final two stints vs. Syracuse after starting the game 9-2). That alone makes it easier to insert Pinson into the starting 5.
  • Pinson makes those around him better (like Hicks). By surrounding him more often with more talent, you’re maximizing the impact he can have on his teammates. The logic here is that Pinson can make Hicks better than he can make Maye, just because Hicks is better-suited athletically to take advantage of what Pinson provides.

There could also be a third category here, loosely summarized as “it doesn’t matter who starts, it matters who finishes.” While the crunch-time, close-and-late lineup is ultimately most important (I suspect it will include Pinson—either at the 2, or as a small-ball 4 with (situationally) Hicks or Meeks at the 5), the starting 5 matters, too. It is, by an order of magnitude, the lineup that plays the most minutes in a given game/season in a Roy Williams system. If the team is trying to maximize, say, the amount of minutes that Pinson-Hicks (or Pinson-Jackson) combos play together, inserting Pinson as a starter is the only feasible way to do that. That (i.e, how to maximize shared court time for given player pairs/combos) may or may not be something the staff is considering. But, to the extent that they are considering it (and I’d be shocked it they weren’t—see again: 800 wins), the starting 5 is absolutely vital to that lineup calculus.

My guess: RoyW moves Pinson back into the starting lineup soon. I think he skillfully (and intentionally) avoided the Pinson + “Big 4” lineups until late in the Syracuse game. But the move then to return Pinson to the 2 was a test run of sorts, a harbinger of things to come. Kenny Williams has been a really valuable contributor this season. He’ll need to continue to be one if the Heels are to reach their postseason goals. But, for Carolina to maximize its chances of cutting down the nets this April, the Berry-Pinson-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks lineup will need to be doing the heaviest lifting (which, at least to me, implies starting each half together).

The Pinson-Hicks Effect

The Pinson-Hicks Effect

After only playing together a couple minutes during the NC State and Wake Forest games (when Pinson was used more as a 3 alongside Maye-Bradley frontcourts, and as a small-ball 4 with Meeks at the 5), Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson have been sharing the court much more frequently against Florida State and Syracuse (averaging over 11 MPG together over those games). The eye test has indicated that the Pinson-Hicks chemistry has been strong, and Hicks’ offensive numbers have certainly been trending up over the past couple of games. So let’s look inside the numbers and see how Hicks has played when on the floor with Pinson.

HUGE CAVEAT: The Pinson-Hicks sample is still only 25 minutes. That’s way too small to be drawing any kinds of meaningful conclusions. At best, the takeaway here should be: “This seems to be working. Let’s keep on eye on it over the following weeks.”

Caveats aside, the data is presented below:

As seen, Hicks’ per-40 minutes are up significantly across the board when paired in a lineup with Pinson. Again, this is a tiny sample size (a little over one half of basketball). It’s obviously not feasible to expect that Hicks will continue throwing down over six dunks per 40, for example. Still, though, there’s compelling early evidence that Pinson is making Hicks a better offensive player. Both his usage (significantly) and efficiency (slightly) increase with Pinson on the floor. He’s drawing way more fouls, getting more close attempts (including dunks), and also committing more turnovers per 40.

(Interestingly, this is about the same points/40 split as for Jackson as a 3 vs. Jackson as a 4—though that one’s in a larger sample. He’s scoring 21.8 /40 in about 510 minutes as a 3, and 30.9 / 40 in about 110 minutes as a 4.)

It’s still unclear if there’s any causation here, or merely correlation. Hicks is certainly been more effective lately, but is it at all due to Pinson’s presence on the court? Other non-Pinson factors that are effecting his aggressiveness include: 1.) more minutes as a small-ball 5 (with either Maye or Pinson at the 4); 2.) fewer post entries/back-to-the-basket touches (and, correspondingly, more facing up) over the last couple games (due to Florida State’s overplaying defense and Syracuse’s zone, along with some slight tweaks to the offense, perhaps).

On the other hand, it’s fairly apparent that Pinson has been creating some easy opportunities for Hicks with his elite court vision and passing ability. Of Hicks’ 20 points when paired with Pinson (7-12 from the field, 6-6 from the line), Pinson’s passes have accounted for half of them (2 dunks, a layup, and 4 free throws at the rim). Pinson has been creating double the rate of potential close assists compared to the next-best Heel in that category (Seventh Woods). Through four games, he’s undisputedly created more close opportunities for his teammates. And, given that fact, it makes sense that Hicks—far and away UNC’s best and most-athletic finisher—would be best-positioned to take advantage of those chances.

Let’s keep an eye on this over the next few games: both the amount of shared minutes for Pinson and Hicks, and Hicks’ effectiveness in that floor time.

The Primary Break: UNC-Syracuse Quick Takes

The Primary Break: UNC-Syracuse Quick Takes

In the spirit of the great Adam Lucas’s “Rapid Reactions,” here are some quick insights/statistical nuggets from Roy Williams’s 800th win—an 85-68 victory over Syracuse.

  • Three of Theo Pinson’s five assists on the night were for Tar Heel layups and dunks. He also had a pass that led directly to free throws at the rim. On the season, 10 of his 15 assists are for layups/dunks (plus two close free throw assists). His rate (per-40 minutes) of creating potential close attempts for his teammates (what I call “Potential Close Assists”) is more than twice as high as any other Tar Heel.
  • Justin Jackson made only 2-of-8 3s against the Syracuse zone. He’s now shooting just 16.7% on 18 3-point attempts against opposing zones this year. Berry, who went 2-of-5 behind the arc tonight, is now shooting 45.8% (11-24) on zone-defense 3s this season.
  • F0r the first time all season, the Pinson-Jackson combo shared the wings (2-3 spots) together for UNC. The Heels led 15-7 in 5.7 minutes with that pairing on the floor. That included an 11-5 lead in 3.3 minutes with the Berry-Pinson-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks quintet on the court. It was the first time all season that those five—ostensibly UNC’s starting 5 pre-Pinson injury—shared the court together. It seems like Roy Williams might be preparing to move Pinson into the starting lineup (or at least to ramp up his minutes at the 2, with Britt shifting to the backup point guard). Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods were cut entirely out of the second-half rotation (and Robinson from the rotation completely).
  • Isaiah Hicks had four dunks, and now leads the ACC with 30 on the season. He has 109 in his Carolina career. Hicks joins Tyler Hansbrough, Brice Johnson, and John Henson as the only Roy-era Heels with a trio of 30-dunk campaigns.
  • With just 66.5 possessions, this was easily UNC’s slowest ACC game of the season (the Wake Forest game, with 75 possessions, was the next-slowest). Syracuse used its zone to dictate tempo, but couldn’t stop UNC’s offensive which recorded 1.29 points/possession. The Heels’ defense allowed 1.01 PPP.
  • UNC, the nation’s top offensive rebounding team, grabbed 18 offensive boards in 36 opportunities—an impressive 50.0%. Not surprisingly, Kennedy Meeks led the way with six. Justin Jackson, however, chipped in with five offensive boards. In the season’s first 19 games, he had just 18 ORs.
  • Carolina’s bench posted a perfect 11-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio. The starting 5 had a more pedestrian 11:9 A:TO.
  • Despite making just 7-of-24 3s (29%) and 8-of-15 free throws (53%), the Heels posted their impressive PPP of 1.29. They, of course, dominated in the paint/near the rim, limited turnovers, and created a ton of second-chance opportunities.
  • UNC’s starting frontcourt of Jackson/Hicks/Meeks combined for 54 points and 30 rebounds. They were two Hicks rebounds away from all having double-doubles (Meeks had 15-12; Jackson 19-10). I’ll have to research the last time that Carolina had a trio of players with points-rebounds double-doubles (much less its three starting frontcourt players).

Check back in at some point tomorrow for a more detailed breakdown of the game. I might look into UNC’s zone offense, or possibly how the “starting 5” (with Pinson at the 2) looked in its possessions. Might also break down the Heels’ defense on Tyler Lydon (who was terrific for the Orange).

Welcome Back, Theo!

Welcome Back, Theo!

Although Theo Pinson returned to the court three games ago, Saturday’s game against Florida State served as his official “I’m back!” moment. It wasn’t just the 12-point, 10-rebound double-double he posted. Nor was it merely the thunderous dunk he threw down to bring the Dean Dome to a fever pitch. It was all the little things that Pinson did to help the Tar Heels emerge victorious. In this piece, we’ll focus on some of the winning plays that Pinson made in his minutes against the Seminoles.

Let’s specifically narrow it down to two of Pinson’s stints on the floor: 1.) the final 2:57 of the first half when Pinson played the 5 to help key a 7-4 run leading into the locker room; 2.) a 3:57-stretch late in the second half (from 5:53 to 1:56) after Justin Jackson went to the bench with his fourth foul when UNC went on an 11-4 run to put the game away.

Theo as a 5

With Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Luke Maye nursing two fouls apiece, Roy Williams went to an unorthodox lineup to end the half. In an essentially all-wings frontcourt, he paired a two-PG lineup of Joel Berry and Nate Britt with Brandon Robinson, Jackson (at the 4), and Pinson (at the 5). Pinson’s versatility is what made this lineup work, as he didn’t flinch at matching up against the massive Michael Ojo (despite giving up seven inches and 100 pounds).

The Heels were up 43-37 when they went to this combination, and immediately began switching all perimeter exchanges 1-5. On FSU’s first possession, that led to Berry guarding Ojo after a ball screen. FSU didn’t look to exploit the mismatch, however, instead creating a drive-and-kick 3 for Bacon when Xavier-Rathan Mayes turned the corner on Britt. He missed, and Pinson crashed in for the defensive board, saving it to Robinson before flying out of bounds. Robinson went coast-to-coast by himself, drawing a foul on Rathan-Mayes in the paint (but missing both free throws). Pinson also created a good look at the rim for Robinson in UNC’s secondary break by hitting him on a backdoor cut after attacking Ojo off the dribble. Ojo did recover to block the shot, however, leaving Carolina with an empty possession.

The Seminoles, in fact, scored the first four points with the small lineup on the court. The first basket was when P.J. Savoy hit a contested step-back jumper over Robinson in isolation (well-defended, but good shot-making). The second was a more traditional way to attack the Heels’ small configuration. After feeding Ojo in the post, he backed down Pinson (who flopped in vain to try and draw a charge) to throw in a short hook. On FSU’s next possession, however, Pinson would get those two points back. Following a missed C.J. Walker pull-up jumper (lightly contested, as Berry had sagged off to help on a rolling Ojo), Pinson’s strong boxout of Ojo drew an over-the-back call on the Seminole giant. With the Heels in the bonus, Pinson connected on a pair of free throws to extend the lead back to 45-41.

After Kenny Williams checked in for Robinson at the 3, UNC would then go an a 5-0 run to end the half. The spurt would start with a transition hoop after great ball movement that was created by a live-ball turnover. Phil Cofer, now in the game for Ojo, received the ball in the post against Pinson but was quickly doubled by Jackson. Jackson’s quick recovery to Walker prevented a kick-out 3, and his subsequent bad swing pass to the top of the key was stolen by Britt. The Heels quickly capitalized on that miscue, with some slick Britt-to-Berry-to-Pinson-to-Jackson ball movement. Pinson’s assist—an on-the-move touch pass to Jackson for a dunk—was the clear highlight of the play. In case it wasn’t clear prior to his return, Pinson is the best passer on this Carolina team by an order of magnitude. His court vision and ability to create/deliver the ball on time (whether spectacularly or just for a simple entry pass) are elite skills. After Savoy missed a pair of free throws, UNC took over with a four-second differential between the shot clock and game clock. Britt penetrated and kicked to Williams on the right wing, who shot-faked ad shoveled it back to Britt near the elbow. Rather than panicking in the face of an expiring clock (and a bit of a tough spot after the Williams pass), Britt calmly located Berry on the left wing and hit him for a clean 3-pointer with a couple seconds left on the shot clock. The Heels’ end-of-half execution hasn’t always been perfect this season (too many early-in-the-clock shots, etc.), but (make or miss) this is the type of possession a team wants to close the half. Berry’s big 3 gave the Heels a 50-41 lead heading into the locker room, providing all the cushion they’d need for the second half.

Clinching the Win

After Jackson picked up his fourth foul with 5:53 left in the game (and UNC substituted Robinson for him, going with a Berry-Britt-Robinson-Pinson-Maye lineup), Xavier Rathan-Mayes split a pair of free throws to cut UNC’s lead to 80-76. Pinson rebounded the missed second shot, pushing the break himself (always a nice luxury from your 4). He blew past Jonathan Isaac, exploding to the rim for a huge dunk that blew the roof off the Dome and forced a Leonard Hamilton timeout.


Out of the timeout, the Seminoles ran a set play that used a backdoor cut by Dwayne Bacon to create a layup. Pinson’s help rotation on this play was nearly in time to draw the charge. Despite being a half-step late on this play, his defensive impact was profound against FSU. Pinson forced 3.5 turnovers (including drawing an offensive foul) in addition to logging four deflections, three floorburns, and eight defensive rebounds. His defensive versatility was also huge, as he defended the 3-5 positions (Bacon, Isaac, and Ojo/Cofer). After the Bacon layup and a couple empty trips, Carolina subbed in Hicks for Robinson at the 4:43 mark. Pinson slid from the 4 to the 3. From that point (when the Heels led 82-78) to the 1:56 mark when Jackson returned (with the lead stretched to 91-80), Pinson made the following key plays:

  • An assist to Hicks for an alley-oop dunk; this pass culminated a great ball movement sequence against FSU’s extended 1-3-1 pressure in which all five Heels touched the ball, zig-zagging it from left-to-right-to-middle-to-right-to-the front of the rim in a matter of seconds.
  • An energetic help-and-recover closeout to force a traveling violation on Braian Angola-Rodas; Pinson punctuated this forced turnover with a fist pump.
  • A great boxout and tip of a missed shot, allowing Maye to grab the defensive board and throw a home-run outlet to Hicks (who had forced the missed 3, then leaked out immediately) for the dunk; when your 3 can compete like this on the defensive boards, it allows your 4 to release early for transition hoops
  • Helped on a Terance Mann drive to force a contested miss after switching a pick-and-roll with Maye
  • Drilled his first 3-pointer of the season after an aware Hicks kicked it to Pinson on the right wing  following a Williams baseline drive
  • Reached in to deflect the ball of a driving Bacon to force another FSU turnover; solid positional defense/penetration containment by Williams allowed Pinson to force this turnover as a help defender; this sequence (Theo 3, immediately followed by the forced turnover) was again capped off with a Pinson fist pump; as the teams left the floor for the under-4 timeout, the home crowd was rocking, the Heels were up 11, and the game was essentially over

Those six bulleted plays above happened over an eight-possession, two-and-a-half-minute span, and show how profoundly Pinson can impact the game as a scorer, passer, rebounder, and defender. While we like to focus on the quantitative and empirical here at The Secondary Break, there’s also no denying that Pinson’s energy, leadership, and enthusiasm are integral to this Tar Heel team. No other Heel can incite the home crowd like Theo, and his unique brand of high-octane play can prove contagious and spark key scoring runs.

With Pinson, you’ll sometimes need to live with the occasional bad decision: a poor 3-point shot selection, a passing/ball-handling turnover from trying to make the big play, or a failed defensive gamble that leads to an open shot. While this may irk Roy Williams on occasion, the enormous upside of Pinson’s style of basketball—on full display in the late run against Florida State—generally means that the “winning plays” are outweighing the head-scratching ones.

Facing (Up) His Problems: Hicks’s 22 Points

Facing (Up) His Problems: Hicks’s 22 Points

Through the first 18 games of the season, Carolina averaged 26 post entry passes per game. That’s nothing new under Roy Williams, who has always prioritizing pounding the paint in his double-post offense. And it’s certainly hard to argue with the results; the Heels have ranked in the top-12 in adjusted offensive efficiency 10 times in Williams’s 14 seasons (including a current ranking of 11th).

Against Florida State, however, UNC largely abandoned its preferred method of entering the paint via the pass. The Heels threw only nine post entries all game, instead opting to get their paint touches off the dribble (and, like usual, through second-chance opportunities). Carolina scored directly off its post entries just twice in nine tries: on a Luke Maye jump hook and Isaiah Hicks free throws. Kennedy Meeks scored on a put-back, too, after having his initial attempt blocked by Michael Ojo following an entry feed. In total, UNC shot 1-of-5 from the field, 2-of-2 from the line, and committed three turnovers on its (first-chance) entry opportunities.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, Hicks exploded for his best scoring performance of the season (22 points) in this more face-up, attacking style of offense. He also more than doubled his previous season-high (against a D-I opponent) in free throw attempts, getting to the stripe 14 times. Let’s break down (in chronological order) how Hicks got his 22 points against the Seminoles—possession numbers are in parentheses (the Heels had 85 offensive possessions against FSU).

  • (UNC1) On the very first possession of the game (after winning the opening tip), Hicks took a dribble hand-off from Joel Berry in Carolina’s freelance passing game. Florida State switched the exchange, putting Xavier Rathan-Mayes on Hicks, who proceeded to attack off the bounce from the top of the key. This was a bit of a herky-jerky drive, but demonstrated Hicks’s ability to handle against pressure (and a smaller defender). The drive culminated with Hicks banking one in from the left side of the basket.
  • (UNC3) UNC’s second basket was also created by Hicks’s dribble game. After receiving a drive-and-kick pass from Berry on the right wing, Hicks shot-faked, took one hard dribble into the paint, then shuffled it back to Kenny Williams for a clean right-wing 3. After averaging just 2.6 drive-and-kick 3-pointers over the season’s first 18 games, the Heels generated seven of them against the ‘Noles (knocking down three of them).
  • (UNC5) After inbounding the ball against FSU’s full-court pressure (which used the length of freshman Jonathan Isaac to shadow the ball-handler), Hicks received a backcourt pass from Berry, then immediately attacked the basket to convert a layup from the right side. This hoop was scored within the first five seconds of the shot clock.
  • (UNC8) After looking to take Ojo off the dribble upon receiving the secondary break reversal pass at the top of the key, Hicks kicked it out to Justin Jackson. Jackson missed a pull-up jumper, but Hicks snuck to the left baseline to corral an uncontested offensive rebound. He was fouled at the rim immediately, proceeding to hit the first two of his 14 free throw attempts.
  • (UNC11) This one looked a lot like UNC5 a couple of bullets up. The Seminoles again pressed full-court, and Berry this time found Hicks near mid-court as a pressure relief option. Hicks looked to attack immediately upon catching the pass, and drew a foul at the front of the rim after a nifty spin dribble. He again connected on both foul shots.
  • (UNC14) Seventh Woods turned down a Luke Maye ball screen in secondary, opting to drive left. He was able to get the whole way to the hoop, but couldn’t finish a contested lay-up over Florida State’s size. Since Woods’s penetration drew Jarquez Smith as a help defender, Hicks was left alone to pursue the offensive board. He displayed his elite athleticism and body control on the tip-in, banking it in from the left of the rim despite being pushed (in mid-air) by a Seminole defender.
  • (UNC29) The Heels got out in transition after Meeks’s strong help rotation on a Bacon drive allowed Woods to recover to force a turnover. Jackson picked up the loose ball, and Carolina was off to the races. Though unselfish as the always, UNC over-passed on this one, as Jackson could have finished himself, or immediately found the trailing Hicks for a dunk. Instead, Jackson first went to Williams, who then found Hicks to force the foul on the primary break. Hicks converted both free throws to run his streak of consecutive makes to a season-high 15.
  • (UNC34) Following a secondary break post entry feed from Berry to the right block, Hicks drop-stepped right away on 7’4″ Christ Koumadje to draw a foul at the rim. He missed the first to break his streak of 15 a row, but then knocked down the second. These were Hicks’s only two post entry points of the game (and the Heels only had four as a team—six if counting Meeks’s stick-back that followed his own post-entry-pass miss).
  • (UNC52) Hicks’s first second-half points came in transition after Berry pushed the ball to the rim in secondary. While Berry was engulfed by Seminole help defenders and unable to get the ball to the rim (it wasn’t created as a field goal attempt), this was essentially another offensive rebound score for Hicks (though it wasn’t officially created as an OR). He made both free throws after drawing the foul right near the rim (is this starting to sound familiar?). Hicks ran the court hard on this possession (as he almost always does when he’s the lead big) to establish deep post position in secondary and put himself where he needed to be for some garbage points.
  • (UNC54) A couple of possessions later, with UNC running its freelance motion, Hicks slipped a ball screen for Williams and received a pass cutting to the hoop. Following another athletic spin move, Hicks again found himself at the free throw line after nearly completing an “and-1.” This time, he split a couple of foul shots.
  • (UNC64) With the shot clock running down, Nate Britt created off the dribble, but lost the ball while going up for the shot. Maye crashed in to grab the loose ball, but had his short hook blocked. Hicks grabbed the offensive rebound to the right of the rim and, keeping the ball high in a manner that would have made Brad Daugherty proud, went straight back up to draw yet another foul. Again, he calmly knocked down both free throws to extend UNC’s lead to 73-66.
  • (UNC78) Down just four (82-78), Florida State extended its 1-3-1 trapping zone (a defense that had given the Heels some trouble most of the game with Isaac at the point of it) in hopes of getting a key stop. But UNC responded with perhaps its prettiest play of the night. Within a few seconds, all five Carolina touched the ball, zig-zagging it in a sigma pattern as Berry (left-side) went laterally to Williams (right-side), who went diagonally to Maye (middle, at top of the key), who kicked it diagonally to Pinson (right corner), who instantly lobbed it to Hicks at the front of the rim for an emphatic throw-down.
  • (UNC80) It didn’t take long for Hicks to cap off his scoring night with another dunk, this time receiving a Maye home-run outlet pass. Hicks leaked out after (very effectively) contesting an Isaac 3-pointer in the left corner, beating the FSU freshman down the court. Pinson made the under-the-radar play here by boxing out/tipping the rebound to Maye to deliver a bomb reminiscent of his dad.

In case you’re wondering, the other three post entries that Hicks received resulted in two Hicks turnovers (one when he tried to back down Isaac and mishandled the ball, and the other when he simply failed to catch Berry’s entry feed) and a missed jump hook over Isaac (turning over the left shoulder after receiving the feed on the left block). His other missed field goal (he went 5-of-7 from the field in addition to 12-of-14 from the line) was a secondary break right-elbow jumper off of one dribble. This shot was in-and-out, and one he’ll get a lot more of the rest of the season—especially if he continues to attack the him as aggressively in secondary as he did against Florida State. Teams will probably start playing off of him when he receives the secondary reversal at the top of the key, daring him to consistently make those mid-range jumpers (or reverse the ball to the other wing to continue the Carolina offense).

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s zero turnaround/fadeaway jumpers for Hicks this game following a post feed. Just about all of his offense was from facing up/attacking off the dribble, running the court in transition, or going after the ball on the offensive glass. To me, that’s where Hicks is at his most effective. While he’ll continue to get his back-to-the-basket looks (and he’s been fairly efficient with them this season), the Heels offense will operate at its peak efficiency when Hicks is in face-up/attack mode.

Jackson & Berry: Best-Shooting UNC Duo Ever?

Jackson & Berry: Best-Shooting UNC Duo Ever?

Justin Jackson and Joel Berry combined to make 6-of-11 3-pointers in the big home win over Florida State. That’s nothing new, though—that combo is shooting 41.5% (88-212) from behind the arc this season on a healthy 11.8 attempts per game (accounting for the two games that Berry missed). So how does that compare to the greatest Carolina 3-point shooting tandems of all-time?

To answer that question, let’s use Points Above Replacement Shooter (PARS), a metric that combines shooting efficiency and shooting volume. It assumes a replacement-level 3-point shooter makes 30.0% of his shots and, unlike here where we used PARS/1,000 minutes, we’ll use PARS / game for this analysis. All 3-point attempts per game are pace-adjusted.

As seen in the table, Berry and Jackson are currently third on UNC’s all-time list for combined PARS / game for a pair of teammates. While it will be difficult to maintain their lofty percentages as the schedule continues to intensify, it’s a safe bet that this duo will remain in the top 5 on this list all season. We’ll keep an eye on this leaderboard as the season progresses, but it’s safe to say that the Berry/Jackson combo has exceeded even the most optimistic Tar Heel fan’s expectations in terms of 3-point shooting.

I’m charting the exciting win over the Seminoles this evening, and will be posting a game story at some point this weekend. So stay tuned for that.

Winning the Transition Battle

Winning the Transition Battle

Led by Roy Williams and his love of up-tempo basketball, North Carolina generally doesn’t worry about winning the transition game. The Heels, in fact, usually relish the opportunity to play a fast-paced opponent who won’t mind running with them (like, say, Florida State this season). But is this a typical Carolina team? If you believe the numbers, this particular edition of UNC has been more comfortable in the half-court (on both ends) than in transition.

When Florida State, 16-1 overall and an undefeated 4-0 in the ACC, and Carolina meet in Chapel Hill on Saturday at 2pm, the outcome could be decided by which team wins the fast-break battle. And, at least on paper, that matchup favors the Seminoles. While both teams love to play fast—Carolina’s average offensive possession length is 10th-shortest in the country and FSU’s is 15th-quickest, according to—the ‘Noles have been doing it better. According to Synergy Sports’ charting data, Leonard Hamilton’s long and athletic bunch (they’re running away with the ACC lead in dunks with 89; UNC has 57) uses 22% of their possessions in transition. FSU ranks in the 90th percentile in the country in terms of transition efficiency (Dwayne Bacon, FSU’s high-usage 6’7″ sophomore wing, has been especially dangerous in the open court). UNC uses fewer of its possessions in transition (19%), and uses them significantly less efficiently (34th percentile nationally). It’s the same story on the defensive end, too: the Heels rank in just the 14th percentile in transition defensive efficiency, while FSU is an elite 97th-percentile in that metric. It should be noted that UNC is harder to run on than the Seminoles, allowing 12% of its possessions in transition versus 17% for FSU. Both teams tend to prioritize crashing the offensive glass over sending bodies back for floor balance, so open-court opportunities shouldn’t be scarce on Saturday.

While the transition numbers are atypical for a Williams-coached team, Carolina has been elite in the halfcourt this season. Synergy places them in the 87th and 95th percentiles, respectively, for halfcourt offensive and defensive efficiency. Florida State is no slouch in the halfcourt either, placing in the 93rd and 83rd percentiles for halfcourt offense and defense. In terms of scoring efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a Carolina killer in past match-ups, ranks in the 94th percentile in the nation. Hamilton always uses a heavy dose of ball-screen offense against the Heels (going back to the days of Toney Douglas and Michael Snaer), and it figures to be no different on Saturday (with Rathan-Mayes doing the heavy lifting, and Bacon getting some ball screens too). Defensively, Florida State has been effective in post-up possessions, placing in the 92nd percentile. Given its interior size, that’s not terribly surprising. Given UNC’s emphasis on pounding the post, however, it could be problematic. One area in which the ‘Noles have been susceptible is defending the pick-and-roll (47th percentile). That’s not typically a huge part of the Carolina offense, although there are plenty of ball screens opportunities built into its secondary break, and Joel Berry will usually call for one in late-shot-clock situations. It will be interesting to see how the UNC offense is tweaked in this game. I’d expect fewer post entry feeds and more ball screens/attacking off the dribble. Tony Bradley’s absence (and its almost-certain guarantee of more small-ball lineups with Pinson or Jackson at the 4) increases the likelihood that we’ll see a less-traditional Tar Heel offense against the ‘Noles.

More generally, let’s take a look at UNC’s offensive and defensive efficiencies by possession length during its first four conference games (@Georgia Tech, @Clemson, NC State, and @Wake Forest).

Some highlights from the table (or at least tangentially related to it):

  • UNC’s efficiency margin in its early offense (seconds 1-10 of the clock) is only +2.0. In seconds 11-30 (loosely categorized as “halfcourt”, although the Heels’ secondary break often leaks into this length range), it’s +26.7.
  • Though in a very small sample, Carolina has been lethal in the final six seconds of the shot clock. Berry and Justin Jackson have done most of the damage here (either as shooters and/or play-makers).
  • These numbers are consistent with UNC’s non-conference numbers—all four segments are between 5 and 8% worse in ACC play. In pre-conference action, UNC used 59% of its possessions in seconds 1-10 with an oRtg of 117.2. Its halfcourt oRtg was 122.4. Those respective dRtgs were 100.9 and 83.2 (with 42% of opponents’ possessions used in the early offense).
  • Not surprisingly (if you’ve been following the blog this season), UNC is still playing slower with Berry at PG in the ACC—using 56% of its possessions in seconds 1-10 with him vs. 67% without. In a surprising twist, however, the Heels have also been more efficient in their early offense in the without-Berry minutes (115.9 vs. 105.7). That’s probably a small-sample-size artifact, but it does highlight Berry’s relative strength as a halfcourt point guard (in ACC games, UNC’s oRtg in seconds 11-30 is 117.9 with Berry on the court; it’s 102.7 without him on the floor).
  • The transition/early defense has also been significantly worse with Berry on the court. ACC opponents have an oRtg of 111.0 in seconds 1-10 in UNC’s Berry minutes; in non-Berry minutes, it plummets to 89.0. There are sample-size effects here, too, perhaps (and overweighting the NC State game in the non-Berry minutes), but it’s also possible that Berry is being overworked in his current role. From a defensive charting perspective, he’s had some clear breakdowns in late-game situations (often in transition) that appear fatigue-related.
  • The defense in the non-Berry minutes has been incredibly efficient in general through four ACC games. The Heels have allowed just 42 points in 69.5 conference possessions (defensive efficiency of 60.4) without their starting point guard. That breaks down to 50.0 in 34 NC State possessions, and 70.4 in 35.5 possessions in the other three ACC games. This is a testament to how well Seventh Woods has defended, and also Carolina’s bench units in general (usually with some mix of Woods, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, Brandon Robinson, Luke Maye, and Tony Bradley).
  • There’s probably some bad luck involved in these transition/early-offense numbers, too. UNC is shooting just 26.2% (11-42) on early-offense 3s compared to 45.3% (24-53) on halfcourt-offense 3s. The Heels have shot much better on 3s in seconds 11-30 all season (especially on inside-out opportunities, or when running set plays for their shooters), but the gap hasn’t been as dramatic as in the first four conference games. This will start to even out a bit. And, in the case of UNC’s opponents, the early/halfcourt 3-point splits are reversed: they’re shooting 48.4% (15-31) on early 3s vs. just 29.3% (17-58) on halfcourt ones. This, too, figures to even out some (although it should be noted that the average quality of the 3s that UNC allows in transition is better than for those attempted against its set defense).
  • Not surprisingly, it’s easier to grab offensive rebounds in transition/early offense. UNC has an OR% of 46.9 in seconds 1-10, as compared to 36.5 in seconds 11-30. Its ACC opponents have an even more dramatic “early-offense OR% premium”, with respective marks of 36.7 and 20.0%. It’s been incredibly hard to get second-chance opportunities against the Heels’ set defense this season.

We’ll check back in on a couple of these key barometers after the game—specifically, the transition battle and how successfully Carolina is able contain the Florida State ball screens. While it’s not exactly going out on a limb, it’s a safe bet that if Carolina wins (or merely breaks even) in transition and suppresses FSU’s pick-and-roll efficiency, it’ll have a very high likelihood of emerging victorious.

Small Lineups, Big Problems: Part II

Small Lineups, Big Problems: Part II

Following Part I, which focused on an 11-4 Wake Forest run from 15:01-11:47 in the second half to cut the Heels’ lead to 66-61, let’s fast-forward a few minutes here to 6:23 left in the game. UNC had extended its lead to 75-69 after the Isaiah Hicks/Kennedy Meeks frontcourt spurred a 7-4 spurt. But Hicks had just picked up his fourth foul, prompting Roy Williams to return to the small-ball lineup with Theo Pinson at the 4.

Hicks picked up No. 4 like he’s gotten so many of his fouls over the years: reaching instead of sliding his feet. After John Collins received a left-block post entry against Meeks, Hicks had the right idea to help in the paint. Instead of moving his feet and just getting in position to establish a solid wall, however, he gave up verticality to reach for the ball. Pinson checked in for him to make Carolina’s lineup: Joel Berry-Kenny Williams-Justin Jackson-Theo Pinson-Kennedy Meeks.

UNC1 (78-69): After Collins missed a pair of free throws following the Hicks foul, Carolina ran a set play out of its box formation with Jackson playing the 4. The Heels set a back screen to run Jackson from the right elbow to the left block, but it was well-defended by Wake Forest. So UNC countered with its next option—a screen by Meeks to free Williams for a top-of-the-key 3. Berry delivered the ball on time, and Williams knocked down a big shot (with Meeks getting just enough of the defender to free him for the opportunity).

WFU1 (78-72): With Pinson playing the defensive 4 (guarding Dinos Mitoglou with Meeks on Collins), Wake Forest ran a side ball screen (on the left wing) with Bryant Crawford and Collins. Berry did a great job to fight over the top of the screen (with Meeks flattening out instead of hard-hedging), forcing Crawford to kick the ball to the right wing to Mitchell Wilbekin. The Deacs immediately ran another side ball screen with Wilbekin and Collins (the identical action, just from the other side of the court). This time, Williams went under the Collins pick (with Meeks again providing a flat hedge), allowing Wilbekin to pull up for a 3 off the dribble that he drilled. With UNC’s strategic decision (which has worked really well in general) to move away from the hard hedge, it’s even more imperative for Carolina’s guards/wings to fight over the top of all ball screens (at least against proven shooters). Williams’s defensive lapse here was immediately costly. This was an instructive sequence for the film room, since the Heels defended the same action twice in a row: once successfully by Berry, and once unsuccessfully by Williams.

UNC2 (80-72): While Pinson was operating as the offensive 4 (inbounding the ball, then serving as the 4 in the secondary break actions), Wake was actually guarding Jackson with its 4 (Mitoglou). Carolina isolated Jackson at the top of the key in its freelance motion, allowing him to attack his much-larger defender off the dribble. Mitoglou (who played a really nice defensive game and, according to’s on-court/off-court data, is easily WFU’s most-impactful defender from a +/- perspective) covered Jackson’s drive well, blocking his left-side layup attempt. Jackson was able to recover the loose-ball offensive rebound on the baseline, locating Pinson near the right elbow with a pass. Pinson immediately attacked the paint, setting up Meeks with a really slick, close-range bounce pass. Meeks, who had five of his nine misses against Wake blocked, was rejected by Collins on his attempt at the rim, but recovered to bank in a tough little 4-footer (from a weird, in-between distance).

WFU2 (80-72): Ol; Roy, that sly devil, pulling from his bag of tricks, dusted off Coach Smith’s famed Point Zone for the first time this season (although the Heels have used some 2-3 zone situationally). It morphed from a 1-3-1 look to a 2-3 once Wake threw the ball from the top of the key to the left wing. From there, the Deacs mangled a high-post entry feed to Mitoglou, and Meeks scooped up the loose ball for the steal (he had three steals and three blocks in the game—will have to do some research to see how frequently that’s occurred for UNC in the RoyW era). Nice little wrinkle by Coach Williams on this defensive possession.

UNC3 (80-72): Immediately after securing the steal, Meeks whipped one of his patented outlets to Williams to trigger UNC’s primary break. Williams drew the foul at the rim, although he was unable to finish through contact for the “and-1.” More troubling, he also missed both free throws. Although he played well (and scored efficiently—can’t argue with 12 points on three FGAs), this was a tough sequence for Williams (going under the screen in WFU1, then missing the two freebies here).

WFU3 (80-75): After a little confusion about whether they were in man or zone, Pinson signaled the defense to return the Heels to their trademark man-t0-man. Keyshawn Woods received the ball at the right elbow against Williams, and immediately looked to take him off the dribble. Despite the drive being well-contained by Williams, Pinson made a really poor help-side gamble to leave Childress open for a corner 3. Not only was Pinson’s help too early, it was also too casual/lazy. He swiped for the ball rather than moving his feet to cut off the dribble, and his poor balance on the play left him in bad position for his recovery close-out on the corner shooter. Pinson can definitely be a disruptive defensive force, but this was a case of a gamble not paying off. A more conservative help-and-recover technique would have been the preferred move in this situation.

UNC4 (80-75): Again with Jackson at the offensive 4, Carolina called for another of its box sets. This time, it ran Williams through the elevator-door screens of Meeks and Jackson. Ball pressure on Berry (which forced him to turn his back) caused the timing of his delivery to be a beat late, allowing the defender to deny Williams a 3-point attempt. Williams then made a bad decision to throw an impossible-angle post entry to Jackson, and the pass was easily stolen for a UNC turnover. The right choice here would have been to just reset the offense by getting the ball back to Berry. This possession is one example of why Berry’s not considered as pure of point guard as some of his UNC predecessors at the position. On a set play like this, it’s imperative that the ball’s delivered on time. Don’t get me wrong: Berry is an unbelievable lead guard who’s having an all-ACC-caliber season. But he’s still learning the nuances of making his teammates better/executing UNC’s offense (e.g., feeding the post).

WFU4 (80-78): Wake ran a double high ball screen for Childress on this possession. Berry did a good job of fighting over the top of both screens, maintaining contact with the dribbler (on his hip, although trailing by a half-step due to the screens). Meeks, who flat-hedged the second screen, helped on the penetration and contested the shot at the rim. Childress, though, made a tough shot (while drawing the foul) over Meeks before completing the old-fashioned 3-point play. The Heels actually defended this ball screen pretty well. Meeks, due to physical limitations, is just not a true rim protector (despite three blocks on Wednesday, and 124 in his career). A longer and/or more-athletic help defender probably would have been able to block this shot (or alter it without fouling, at least). No clear defensive breakdown here, in my opinion—just good offense by Wake and shot-making by Childress.

After the Childress 3-point play (and coinciding with the under-4 timeout), Carolina brought Hicks back into the game for Pinson, pairing him with Meeks in a traditional double-post lineup. He immediately received a sweet pass from Jackson and threw down a dunk after finding a soft spot in Wake’s 2-3 zone. UNC would go on a 7-3 run over the next three minutes to open up an 87-81 with 41 seconds left, at which point RoyW made offense-for-defense big-for-small substitutions the rest of the way.

There was nothing specific or obvious about the small lineups that caused UNC issues during these runs (i.e., Pinson wasn’t getting repeatedly posted up a bigger 4, or the team wasn’t allowing a bunch of offensive rebounds due to lack of size on the defensive glass). If anything, the small combos should have been better (on paper) at defending Wake’s go-to offense of ball screen/dribble penetration/drive-and-kick. Many of the issues were (likely) related to Pinson’s lack of floor time this season. As he plays himself into game shape, and the team acclimates to playing with him (both on the wing and as a small-ball 4), the results should improve. It will be fascinating to watch as Carolina continues to evolve with Pinson back in the mix. It’s never easy to integrate a new player into an established rotation, and it can be even more difficult when that player is as dynamic/unpredictable as Pinson.


Small Lineups, Big Problems: Part I

Small Lineups, Big Problems: Part I

With concussion-like symptoms sidelining Tony Bradley, and fouls plaguing Luke Maye and Isaiah Hicks, Roy Williams resorting to a heavy dose of small-ball in the second half of Wednesday’s 93-87 win at Wake Forest. And, while the small-ball units can’t be blamed exclusively for the 53-point second-half outburst that Carolina allowed, they certainly failed to stop the bleeding on the defensive end.

UNC’s traditional 2-post lineups led 31-23 in  10:50 on second-half action. The starting frontcourt of Hicks and Meeks was + 11 (31-20) in 10:13 of the second stanza (Maye picked up two quick fouls in his 37-second stint, then didn’t see the court again). But the small-ball lineups with Theo Pinson as the (defensive) 4 were outscored 30-13 in their 9:10 of court time in the second half. While none of Carolina’s lineups were particularly effective on defense after the break, the small-ball units were especially victimized, allowing 1.5 points per possession. Let’s break down a couple of Wake scoring runs against the small-ball lineups to see where things went wrong.

We’ll start with 15:01 left in the game, and the Heels leading 62-50 with the basketball. Pinson had just checked in for Meeks (who would get his only 40 seconds of second-half rest until the game’s final 15 seconds) to make the lineup: Joel Berry-Kenny Williams-Justin Jackson-Theo Pinson-Isaiah Hicks.

UNC1 (62-50): Coming out of the dead-ball, UNC ran a set play (with Jackson at the offensive 4) out of its 1-4 formation. The same set the Heels ran at the end of the half against NC State, this one involved Jackson and Berry running pick-and-pop at the top of the key while spreading the rest of the floor. Jackson again popped to his preferred left wing, as Berry delivered the ball on time after dragging the defense to the right with the dribble. Despite Jackson missing the 3-pointer, this was a well-executed set that got the Heels the exact look they were hoping for.

WFU1—part 1 (62-50): Wake Forest ran a double ball screen for Mitchell Wilbekin, who was being defended by Williams. After fighting over top of the initial screen, Williams went underneath the second one (set by Hicks’ man, as UNC flat-hedged rather than showing hard), This allowed Wilbekin to pull up for a 3-pointer off the dribble which he missed (as Williams closed out late on the shot attempt). With Hicks recovering late to his man (the 280-pound Sam Japhet-Mathias, a seldom-used freshman called into duty due to John Collins’s foul trouble), Wake had inside position and Hicks committed a foul fighting for the rebound (had a hold of Japhet-Mathias’s arm). This is one clear disadvantage of having Hicks at the 5, but, with Bradley unavailable, there really weren’t other options (and Meeks did play over 95% of the second-half minutes).

WFU1—part 2 (62-52): After the Hicks foul (non-shooting, and with Wake not (quite) yet in the bonus), Nate Britt checked in for Williams. The ensuing baseline out of bounds (BLOB) set was defended as usual by the Heels. Since making the change to its BLOB defense in mid-2011 to take advantage of John Henson’s length, UNC will put its 4 (or sometimes its longest/bounciest defender) on the ball while playing a tight diamond zone initially with the other four defenders. As soon as the ball is successfully entered, Carolina will scramble to recover the man closest to them to play its trademark man-to-man. The idea is to make the entry pass difficult (or even deflect/steal it) with length on the ball. And this was certainly happened dozens of time since UNC switched to this BLOB defense. The trade-off is that it invites mismatches/chaos when UNC scrambles to locate assignments. In fact, some teams have successfully game-planned to attack this BLOB defense. Virginia Tech, under Seth Greenberg, would simply enter the ball to the corner closest to the passer to his best penetrator (Malcolm Delaney), then iso him when a UNC big (the one defending the ball) matched up. In this case (with Pinson defending the ball on the entry), Britt ended up an 6’10”, 255-pound Wake power forward Dinos Mitoglou. The Deacs patiently exploited this mismatch by moving the ball to the left corner to create a good entry angle to Mitoglou on the left block. He easily overpowered Britt in the post to draw a shooting foul (then knocked down both shots).

UNC2 (64-52): Meeks checked back in for Hicks during the Mitoglou free throws. With Pinson playing the offensive 4 this time (generally, it was Pinson as the offensive 4 in secondary-into-freelance, and Jackson as the offensive four in any box/set that UNC ran or against the zone), he and Jackson ran a secondary break pick-and-pop. After a popping Pinson received the pass on the left wing, he quickly through a post entry to Meeks on the left block. Meeks, with Collins (and his three fouls) defending him, was able to quickly spin to the baseline and drop in a reverse lay-up (using the rim to shield the blocked shot attempt). With Meeks creating off the spin/bounce, Pinson wasn’t created with an assist here. It was a well-timed entry pass (and decision) by him, though.

WFU2 (64-52): Bryant Crawford curled off a screen at the elbow with Britt trailing by a step. Berry, whose man threw the pass to Crawford, made a quick help reaction and used his quick hands to get a deflection/force a steal. Pinson also showed good hands to corral the ball for the Heels after Berry tipped it towards the baseline. Great hands/help defense here by Berry.

UNC3 (64-52): The Heels missed an opportunity in the primary break after the live-ball turnover, as Berry rifled a pass to Jackson rather than throwing him a transition lob. Jackson then entered the ball to Meeks again on the left block. This time, with Mitoglou on him, Wake defended the post much better. Mitoglou didn’t allow Meeks to back him down, forcing him to shoot a contested hook over a solid wall.

WFU3 (64-54): On the ensuing battle for the offensive board (after Pinson came flying in to tip the ball/keep it alive), Meeks was whistled for a questionable over-the-back foul on Mitoglou. There was certainly contact here, but it was of the type you’d expect when two bigs (each weighing at least 255 pounds) battle for the ball. Wake, now in the bonus with 13:37 left in the game, took advantage of the 1-and-1 with Mitoglou making both free throws to cut the lead back down to 10.

UNC4 (64-54): With Pinson playing the offensive 4 against Wake’s 2-3 zone, UNC created a left-wing 3 for Berry after getting a high-post touch for Meeks. The immediate kick-out pass by Meeks was nice, but Wake’s close-out was also well-executed to contest Berry’s 3-pointer.

WFU4 (64-57): After Brandon Childress turned down a ball screen and drove left, Jackson recovered well with his length to block his mid-range jumper out of bounds (Jackson, despite being 6’8″, went the first 17 games of the season without recording a block; he had two against the Deacs, though). On the ensuing BLOB play (with 15 on the shot clock), more defensive scrambling occurred. Jackson made a bad gamble to attempt a steal on a perimeter pass, allowing Keyshawn Woods a wide-open drive which led to an open corner 3 for Crawford once the help rotation came. This was a very poor decision by Jackson on the gamble, but it was also a symptom of Carolina’s BLOB defense strategy.

UNC5 (64-57): Berry traveled in the backcourt after not noticing the token ball pressure that Wake was applying. As a point guard, he needs to be more alert here (although he was looking to push it up-court quickly after the WFU score).

WFU5 (64-57): The backcourt turnover resulted in another BLOB entry for Wake. This time, Meeks was mismatched against Childress upon the entry. After Wake isolated Childress on the left wing to exploit it, Pinson and Meeks switched mid-play, allowing Childress a clean look at a 3 (which he missed). Meeks was also late recovering to Mitoglou after the switch, allowing him an easy offensive rebound opportunity. Luckily, Meeks recovered to make a clean block from behind on Mitoglou at the rim before tipping the defensive rebound out to Britt. The BLOB strategy didn’t cost the Heels here, but only because Wake missed its clean 3 and Meeks made a great individual defensive play.

UNC6 (64-57): Britt pushed the ball hard in transition, and UNC quickly created an open 3 for Pinson in the right corner as Britt and Jackson rapidly swung the ball around the horn. This was a good shot/transition opportunity in general, but not necessarily a good one for (the still-rusty) Pinson.

WFU6 (64-59): The long rebound following a questionable shot selection led (as it often does) to a run-out opportunity for the opponent. This time, Crawford pushed the ball the whole way to the rim and, following a poor job by Berry to stop/get in front of the ball, forced a reach-in foul by Britt to prevent the lay-up. Crawford hit both foul shots.

UNC7 (66-59): Wake again went into its 2-3 zone, this time with Jackson playing the offensive 4 for the Heels (exchanging with Meeks between the high/low posts and short corners). Pinson actually inbounded the ball on this possession, and acted as the 4 in secondary. Once Carolina got into its zone offense, though, Jackson assumed the responsibilities of the offensive 4 in UNC’s system. Pinson threw a nice mid-post entry to Jackson here against the zone, allowing him to attack off the dribble. The Wake help defense forced Jackson into a tough angle on this lay-up, however, causing a miss. Meeks, in his fight for the offensive rebound, caused the ball to go out of bounds off of Wake. On the ensuing BLOB for the Heels, WFU easily sniffed out UNC’s pindown screen for Berry to create a corner 3. So Jackson swung it to Pinson instead at the top of the key. With the shot clock expiring, Pinson attacked off the dribble and was able to draw a reach-in foul (the type that Wake so consistently drew for most of the second half) with 5 on the clock. He made both free throws.

WFU7 (66-61): Wake ran another ball screen, this time with Doral Moore setting it for Childress. Berry fought over the top, and Meeks did a very effective job with his flat hedge—poking it the ball to actually re-route Childress’s drive. Meeks had the penetration contained and had forced a tough shot by Childress over a much-taller defender. Berry, however, in his attempt to recover, came flying back into the play to foul Childress with the body. This wasn’t a good job of situational awareness by Berry, and resulted in two more made free throws for the Deacs.

So Wake used 8-of-8 shooting from the free throw line (I thought only the over-the-back on Meeks was questionable in this stretch) and some BLOB breakdowns to cut a 12-point lead to five with an 11-4 run. Wake would further cut the lead to a single point (66-65) against small-ball lineups before the Hicks-Meeks frontcourt returned to push the Heels’ advantage to 75-69 with 6:23 remaining in the game (using a 7-4 run, including a bucket each by Hicks and Meeks).

We’ll pick it up here at the 6:23 mark (right after Hicks leaves the game with his fourth foul) later today. Stay tuned.