Confession time: I started researching/writing this piece over the weekend before Carolina’s historic 51-point drubbing of NC State. Its thesis seemed much more relevant at that time. The data’s still interesting (although it just confirms conventional wisdom, rather than debunking it), though, so let’s proceed as if the Heels are still off to a “slow” start.
Obviously Carolina’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech was less than ideal. As I wrote here, it was (at the time) the sixth-worst loss of the Roy Williams era relative to expectations. And, depending on how the Jackets’ campaign progresses, it could end up looking worse and worse by the end of the season (in fact, it’s currently moved up (down?) to No. 4 on the list of worst losses based on Georgia Tech’s tepid efforts against Duke and Louisville). But certainly a slow start to the conference season hasn’t doomed the Heels in past years.
To prove this point, let’s refer to the table below. For each of Roy Williams’s 13 (full) seasons in Chapel Hill, it lists the performance above expectation for each of six season segments: 1.) the non-conference schedule; 2.) the first three games of the ACC season; 3.) the first half of the ACC season; 4.) the second half of the ACC season; 5.) the ACC Tournament; and 6) the NCAA Tournament (or, in the case of 2010, the NIT). Performance above (below) expectation is the number of points per 100 possessions better (worse) that UNC plays relative to its baseline. The baseline (for a single game) is computed by using the difference in KenPom seasonal adjusted efficiency margins between the two teams.
Table 1: UNC’s Performance Above Expectation by Season Segment in the Roy Williams Era
So what are some key takeaways from the table? Let’s go through it season segment-by-season segment:
- The Heels have generally had above-average non-conference showings in the Williams era. Even the 2010 team boasted some impressive out-of-conference performances (notably, wins over Ohio State and Michigan State, a blowout of Hassan Whiteside-led Marshall, and a close loss at loaded Kentucky).
- Since strong showings in his first two seasons (the 2005 ACC start was especially stout: UNC beat Virginia Tech 85-51 in Blacksburg, followed by impressive home wins over Maryland (109-75) and Georgia Tech (91-69)), Carolina has really struggled in the first three games of the ACC schedule under Roy Williams. The stretch between 2009 and 2014 was especially underachieving. It included the 0-2 start in 2009 (including a home loss to a mediocre Boston College team), a bad 20-point road loss to Georgia Tech in 2011, the 33-point drubbing in Tallahassee in 2012, an 0-2 start in 2013, and an 0-3 start in 2014 (including bad losses to below-average Wake Forest and Miami teams). The conference starts over the past three seasons haven’t been as bad (relative to expectations), however. This year’s includes both a positive (NC State) and negative (Georgia Tech) outlier, as well as an as-expected performance (close win) at Clemson.
- While not as poor on average as the “first three games” subset, the performance in first half of the ACC season has not met expectations under Williams. In four separate years (2oo4, 2008, 2010, and 2016), it’s been the worst (relative to expectations) of any season segment. Only in 2007 has it been the best.
- The second half of the ACC season, on the other hand, has generally exceeded expectations. The ’06 Heels are the canonical example of a team that peaked during the ACC stretch run. The 2012 and 2014 teams were also playing their best basketball late in the conference season.
- Then comes the ACC Tournament—Ol’ Roy’s favorite cocktail party. Consistent with its coach’s famous disdain for the event, Carolina has tended to underperform in this event. It should be noted, though, that’s there’s a clear split between years 1-9 (-5.82) and years 10-13 (+4.86) with respect to ACCT performance. And, of course, some key injuries (Ty Lawson and John Henson, most memorably) must be accounted for in a sample this small.
- Finally, the NCAA Tournament: as seen in the table’s bottom line, it’s been the part of the season in which Carolina has been at its best relative to expectations. The 2005 and 2009 championship runs speak for themselves, but the 2008 (even including the Kansas debacle), 2011, and 2016 Tournament runs were also very impressive.
That UNC is playing its best hoops at the right times (end of the ACC regular season into the NCAA Tournament) is certainly a testament to Williams’s greatness and how he manages his rosters and develops his teams. He’s more interested in using early games to cultivate talent (see some of the crazy early-season rotations/lineups that fans sometimes lament), a strategy with double-pronged benefits of developing underclassmen/bench parts and keeping key starters fresh. A quintessential system coach, Williams is also more committed to establishing and perfecting Carolina’s core identity than he is to making dramatic early-season tweaks (e.g., switching ball screens, going small, playing extensive zone, etc.) to win any single (non-critical) game. It’s almost certainly true that Carolina’s early-ACC foes are doing more UNC-specific game-planning for the Heels than the Heels are doing for them. By late-ACC season (and definitely into the NCAAs), however, Williams is far more likely to tweak the system on a game-by-game basis to account for the strengths and weaknesses of opponents. And, in the meantime, UNC is using most of its practice and game time to focus on mastering its core concepts (e.g., the secondary break, the free-lance passing game, its overplaying man-to-man defense and its help-rotation principles, etc.).
So, while all of this analysis might not ease your mind after the Heels lay an(other) early-season egg, rest assured that Roy Williams’s teams will generally be peaking at the right time. Given what a complex calculus it can be to pull off that feat consistently, it’s something Carolina fans should never take for granted with its current coach.