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Four Factor Friday: 4 Questions (Jan. 20)

Four Factor Friday: 4 Questions (Jan. 20)

UNC is 17-3 and 5-1 in the ACC after 20 games. The Tar Heels have won five in a row after dropping its ACC opener on the road at Georgia Tech. Carolina resumes play at Boston College on noon Saturday.

Now that we’re through 20 games, in this edition of Four Factor Friday, we’ll try to answer four questions using the four factors, box score data, and a couple different online resources:

1) What’s the most dependable factor for this UNC team?

2) How does this UNC team stack up against previous great Carolina teams?

3) How is UNC projected to finish this season?

4) Who are the officials UNC has seen most often this season?

What’s the most dependable factor for UNC?

Here’s the short answer. The Tar Heels win by outrebounding their opponents.

UNC has proven it can still win while turning the ball over more, shooting less effectively, and attempting fewer foul shots than their opponents because of Carolina’s ability to rebound.

UNC’s ability to rebound is its most dependable and consistent factor. This Tar Heel team rebounds at an exceptional level.

The long answer breaks this down by UNC’s game-by-game record across the four factors.

Can’t win games if you don’t make shots: that’s true for any team. The ability to shoot is the always the most important factor. This is measured through effective field goal percentage (eFG%).

When UNC posts a higher eFG% than its opponent, it’s 13-0 (no surprise).

And when registering a lower eFG% than its opponent, UNC is 4-3.

It’s somewhat surprising Carolina has more wins than losses when posting a lower eFG% than its opponent. UNC has proven it can do that against less-competitive teams (Tennessee, Davidson). It also has beaten two talented ACC teams when posting a lower eFG% (Clemson, Florida State).

When UNC isn’t as effective at shooting as its opponents, Carolina relies on rebounds.

The Tar Heels rank first in the country in rebounding margin (14.4 rebounds more than their opponent). Let’s look at game-by-game offensive rebounding percentage (OR%), or the percentage of rebounds Carolina grabs on its missed shots and its opponents grab on their missed shots.

When Carolina has a higher OR% than its opponent, it’s 17-2.

UNC is 0-1 when posting a lower OR% than its opponent (103-100 loss to Kentucky).

The Tar Heels turn the ball over on 17.3 percent of their possessions against Division-I opponents this season. This metric is called turnover rate (TO%).

When UNC has a lower percentage of turnovers than its opponent, Carolina is 10-2.

When posting a higher TO%, UNC is 6-1.

The Tar Heels have posted the exact same TO% as an opponent once, in a 93-87 win over Wake Forest.

Free throw rate (FTRate) measures a team’s ability to get to the foul line. This isn’t measuring whether UNC can make free throws. We’re measuring how often they can get to the line, and when they get to the line more than their opponent, do they win?

When UNC posts a higher FTRate than its opponent, the Tar Heels are 15-1.

When Carolina turns in a lower FTRate than its opponent, UNC is 2-2.

UNC has proved it can win pretty (Oklahoma State, NC State) and ugly (Tennessee, Clemson). This team can beat you in multiple ways, which is encouraging if you like Carolina blue.

How does this UNC team stack up against previous great teams in the Roy Williams era?

First, let’s define great. It can mean different things to different people. We’ll define a great UNC team as one that finished the season in the Elite Eight or better under Roy Williams.

This leaves us with seven seasons – 2016, 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005. That’s seven out of 13 seasons, Carolina has finished the season in the Elite Eight or better. (Yes, Roy Williams can coach).

Let’s compare the four factors offensively and defensively of each team. This data set only includes games against Division-I opponents, for example, Carolina’s win over Chaminade this season isn’t included.

Offensive four factors

| Season | eFG% |  TO% |  OR% |  FTR |
|  2017  | 52.5 | 17.3 | 42.7 | 36.9 |
|  2016  | 52.6 | 15.4 | 40.7 | 32.3 |
|  2012  | 49.8 | 16.4 | 39.6 | 37.3 |
|  2011  | 49.1 | 18.3 | 36.9 | 37.9 |
|  2009  | 52.8 | 16.5 | 38.9 | 39.8 |
|  2008  | 53.0 | 18.7 | 42.4 | 38.0 |
|  2007  | 54.4 | 18.5 | 39.7 | 39.5 |
|  2005  | 56.0 | 21.0 | 39.7 | 44.2 |

The 2005 championship team was tops amongst this bunch in eFG% and FTRate. The 2016 national runner-up squad avoided turnovers at an alarmingly-impressive rate, and this season’s team rebounds a higher percentage of misses than any of the previous teams.

Defensive four factors

| Season | eFG% |  TO% |  OR% |  FTR |
|  2017  | 46.8 | 20.3 | 25.6 | 29.0 |
|  2016  | 48.1 | 18.2 | 29.9 | 30.4 |
|  2012  | 45.0 | 18.3 | 27.2 | 21.8 |
|  2011  | 46.2 | 19.7 | 29.9 | 24.8 |
|  2009  | 46.6 | 20.4 | 31.7 | 25.4 |
|  2008  | 48.2 | 20.7 | 28.7 | 25.7 |
|  2007  | 47.0 | 21.4 | 29.6 | 27.9 |
|  2005  | 46.4 | 23.1 | 31.5 | 30.3 |

There is a reason most Carolina fans feel cheated when looking back at that 2012 team that lost Kendall Marshall in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The 2012 squad—led by the imposing paint defense duo of John Henson and Tyler Zeller—registered the best defensive eFG% and kept its opponents off the foul line better than any of UNC’s other great teams.

The 2005 team—led by Raymond Felton’s ball pressure and Jackie Manuel’s wing overplays—forced turnovers on 23.1 percent of opponents’ possessions, best amongst this bunch. And this year’s squad is the best defensive rebounding team under Roy Williams, pulling down 74.4 percent of their opponents’ misses.

This is a quick and incomplete comparison, as better competition is on its way this season. While it’s never guaranteed, at this point in the season, the 2017 team is trending towards an elite finish.

This takes us to our next question.

How is UNC projected to finish this season?

Yes, predicting the future is impossible. But let’s still give it a try.

For this exercise, we’ll use two reliable resources that have been around for years: and

Ken Pomeroy projects a 26-6 overall and 14-4 ACC record for Carolina. As of January 19, this algorithm views the games at Virgina, at Duke, at Miami, and home against Virginia as UNC’s toughest remaining games.

TeamRankings projects identical records: 26-6 overall and 14-4 in the ACC. An interesting note is TeamRankings does provide more predictions than KenPom.

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For example, as of January 19th, TeamRankings gives UNC a three percent chance to win all 12 of its remaining regular season games. It views the remaining schedule similar to Pomeroy, but looks to value Duke a little more.

The toughest remaining games according to TeamRankings are at Duke, at Virginia, at Miami, and home against Duke. Not home against Virginia like Pomeroy.

TeamRankings also projects Carolina with a 77 percent chance to make the Sweet Sixteen and a 32 percent chance to reach the Final Four. As of January 19, it has UNC at a 11 percent chance to win the NCAA Tournament (only Kentucky (16.7 percent) has a higher projected chance to win it all).

While it’s mid-January and so much can happen, it will be interesting to see how the seeding for the NCAA Tournament shakes out. Yes, it’s somewhat silly to speculate now. But here’s a hot take question: is it becoming possible the ACC eats itself and gets squeezed out of a No.-1 seed?

Kentucky isn’t likely to lose many more games, and they’re already one of the nation’s top teams.

West Virginia or Kansas will likely win an ultra-competitive Big 12.

Villanova isn’t expected to lose many more games, and they’re the defending champions with a potentially more impressive regular-season resume than a year ago.

And then there is Gonzaga. The Zags have yet to lose and could finish the regular season undefeated.

Take all of these with a grain of salt. Think of it as a long-range weather forecast right now. A projection of a 26-6 record is not far from 25-7 or 27-5 record. These predictions only get more clear as we get closer to March.

Bonus: Who are the officials UNC has seen most often this season?

Each game features three different referees. Using past box scores, here are a list of the most common officials Carolina has seen this season.

|      Name     | Appearances |
| Ted Valentine |      4      |
|  Roger Ayers  |      3      |
|  Lee Cassell  |      3      |
|  Ron Groover  |      3      |
12 referees have officiated only 2 games, and 23 referees have officiated only 1 game.

Ted Valentine, AKA TV Teddy, has officiated the most games thus far in the UNC season. Valentine has been on the court for 20 percent of Carolina’s games (Chattanooga, Wisconsin, Davidson, Oklahoma State).

Roger Ayers (Kentucky, Long Beach State, Florida State), Lee Cassell (Northern Iowa, Clemson, Florida State) and Ron Groover (Syracuse, NC State, Davidson) are the next most common officials UNC has seen this season.

I’m considering a deeper analysis of this information, let me know if you want to know anything. For now, here a few things I’ve observed:

  • UNC has attempted 35 or more free throws three times this season. Roger Ayers (Florida State, Long Beach State) and Les Jones (Monmouth, Long Beach State) have officiated two of these three games.
  • The only officials UNC has seen twice in its six conference games are Ron Groover (NC State, Syracuse) and Lee Cassell (Clemson, Florida State).
  • The Tar Heels have seen Groover the most at home (three times). UNC hasn’t seen the same official twice on the road this season. Carolina has seen Valentine (twice), Chris Rastatter (twice) and Donnee Eppley (twice) the most at neutral sites.

UNC returns to action at Boston College tomorrow at noon (here’s hoping Roy Williams doesn’t collapse this time). If you enjoyed this post, please share it with someone you know. Or if you have any questions about this information, ask us a question. And if you’re not subscribed to Adrian’s newsletter, do so right away.

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.

Four Factor Friday: Board Games (Jan. 13)

Four Factor Friday: Board Games (Jan. 13)

North Carolina is 15-3 and 3-1 in ACC play as it prepares to host Florida State (16-1, 4-0 ACC) Saturday at the Dean E. Smith Center.

After 18 games, this Carolina team is excelling in one of the Four Factors more than any previous Roy Williams UNC team. We’ll cover how the Tar Heels are keeping opponents off the offensive glass in this edition of Four Factor Friday.

Rebounding Totals versus Percentages

North Carolina has grabbed 530 defensive rebounds to its opponents’ 182 offensive rebounds at this point in the season. UNC has out-rebounded its opponents in 16 of 18 games, and the Tar Heels are 16-0 when winning the battle of the boards.

Carolina posted the same amount of rebounds (37) as Indiana in the loss to the Hoosiers, and UNC was out-rebounded 39-35 in the 103-100 loss to Kentucky.

There are a variety of factors that influence rebounding totals, which is why it’s better to use percentages.

  • An opponent’s field goal percentage
  • Number of possessions in a game
  • How often a team forces or commits turnovers
  • How often a team or its opponent gets to the line

For example, Carolina recorded 18 defensive rebounds in the first half against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons missed 21 of their 33 shots (36 percent shooting). There were plenty of opportunities to get rebounds. Wake Forest shot 50 percent in the second half, and UNC grabbed 10 defensive rebounds on 16 missed shots from the Demon Deacons—fewer chances for rebounds.

UNC grabbed only 38 total rebounds in its win over Wisconsin in the Maui Invitational. This game featured about 68 possessions and the Badgers only took 55 shots, so the rebound totals were on the lower end. As a comparison, Kentucky attempted 74 shots in their win over Carolina.

Disparities in turnover or free throw margins can also skew the raw rebounding numbers.

All of these are reasons why rebound totals can be misleading. A rebounding percentage or margin are better indicators of a team’s ability to rebound.

So how does UNC stack up in rebounding margin and percentages?

Carolina leads in the nation in rebounding margin, grabbing about 14 more rebounds per game than its opponents. While most UNC teams directed by Roy Williams snag a ton of offensive rebounds, this season’s squad is proving it can do the same on the defensive end.

Defensive rebounding can prevent opponents from gaining more possessions, and keep them from scoring more points. It doesn’t matter how good a defensive possession is if you can’t close it out by securing the board. A good way to measure it is through defensive rebounding percentage. This metric answers the following question:

When an opponent misses a shot, how often does UNC get the rebound?

Through 18 games, Carolina is rebounding 73.8 percent of its opponents’ missed shots. This mark is similar in ACC play, where the Tar Heels are grabbing 73.5 percent of its league opponents’ missed shots in four games.

As of January 12, this total tops all ACC teams and ranks 51st in the country according to Ken Pomeroy.

Examples of UNC’s Defensive Rebounding

In this short video, we’ll cover three examples of Carolina’s defensive rebounding from its wins over NC State and Wake Forest.

  1. Joel Berry II grabs a defensive rebound alongside 300-pound BeeJay Anya; the defensive board leads to a Justin Jackson three-pointer
  2. After Kennedy Meeks snags a board on the defensive end, Carolina hustles up the court, leading to a beautiful five-second possession where four Tar Heels touch the ball ending in an Isaiah Hicks dunk
  3. Carolina crowds the lane while Meeks pulls down a board for a big defensive stop down the stretch against Wake Forest


How does this season’s team compare to previous ones?

We’ll measure this by UNC opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage or the percentage of rebounds Tar Heel opponents get on their missed shots (1 – DR%).

Opponents only rebound 26.2 percent of their misses shots against this season’s UNC squad. This is the best mark of any UNC team coached by Roy Williams. It’s also the best total since Carolina’s 2011-12 team only allowed its opponents to rebound 27.2 percent of their misses.

Year Opponents OR%
2017 26.2
2012 27.2
2008 28.7
2007 29.6
2016 29.9
2011 29.9
2006 30.6
2015 31.2
2014 31.3
2005 31.5
2013 31.6
2009 31.7
2010 32.1
2004 33.7

An opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage isn’t a golden metric or factor for determining an elite UNC team. Carolina allowed opponents to grab over 31 percent of their misses in both championship seasons—2005 (31.5 percent) and 2009 (31.7 percent).

While not golden, UNC’s defensive rebounding does bode well for this season. Carolina generates a lot of its transition offense from defensive boards as we’ve shown in the video above. And it has also dominated the defensive glass in some of its most impressive wins this season, like when it grabbed 31 defensive rebounds on 34 missed Wisconsin shots.

Can UNC keep it up?

Of course, the competition is going to increase as the season goes on. UNC’s defensive rebounding gets an immediate challenge with its next opponent, Florida State.

As Chris Strohsahl points out, the Seminoles average height is 6’7″. Florida State is the second-tallest team in the country according to Ken Pomeroy. The ‘Noles are incredibly long, and rebound 34.9 percent of their missed shots this season.

Junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes has scored 30 or more points in both of his career games against UNC, including a Malik Monk-ish 35 points in his lone visit to the Dean Dome. Rathan-Mayes brings sophomore Dwayne Bacon and freshman Jonathan Isaac to Chapel Hill this time.

With Tony Bradley sidelined due to a concussion and UNC’s smaller lineups coming off a lackluster defense performance, it leaves us with one question.

How will the Tar Heels handle the Seminoles length?