Browsed by
Tag: UNC analysis

Carolina’s Frequent Fouler

Carolina’s Frequent Fouler

 Isaiah Hicks is one of the most puzzling UNC basketball players of all-time.

Because he can do things most collegiate players dream about, like putting opponents on a poster as seen here:

But Hicks struggles to stay on the floor because he does a lot of this:

Isaiah Hicks has committed four or more fouls in 31 of his last 70 career games. That’s 44 percent.

While UNC was en route to their run to the NCAA Championship game a year ago, Hicks registered four or more fouls in every NCAA Tournament game except one.

The 6’9″ senior forward commits 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes for his career. It’s impressive and confusing all at the same time.

Using box score data, including play-by-play and referee assignments, we’ll attempt to answer three questions.

1) How does Isaiah Hicks commit all these fouls?

2) When and where does he commit these fouls?

3) And does Isaiah Hicks have a reputation that contributes to more fouls being called against him?


How does Hicks commit fouls?

Hicks has played in 30 of 31 games during the 2016–17 season, and been whistled for 94 personal fouls.

We reviewed all 94 fouls and put them into five different categories:

  1. Shooting
  2. Off ball or away from basket
  3. Over the back (fighting for rebound)
  4. Reach-in, hand check, or block (when player is driving to basket)
  5. Offensive foul, includes illegal screens

 

This isn’t perfect by any means, and categorizing these fouls is a subjective exercise. The video above gives an example of each type of foul.

Here is a summary of how often Hicks is called for each type of foul:

|         Foul Type         | Number of fouls |
|:-------------------------:|:---------------:|
|          shooting         |        43       |  
| reach-in/hand check/block |        17       |
| off ball/away from basket |        16       |  
|       over the back       |        12       | 
|         offensive         |        6        |

 Shooting type foul

The majority (46 percent) of Hicks’ fouls are of the shooting variety. Hicks contests a shot, and the opponent is awarded one or two free throws. This percentage should maybe even be higher because Hicks is a 6’9″ forward that plays in the paint.

Opponents have attempted 110 free throws as a result of Isaiah Hicks committing a foul. This includes free throws awarded because an opponent is in the bonus, so not all of these free throws are from a Hicks’ shooting type foul.

The opponents are shooting 62 percent from the charity stripe (68–for-110) as a result of these fouls. So maybe ball don’t lie is true sometimes?


Reach in/hand check/block

Head coach Roy Williams has said, “A big guy should never make a foul below his waist and he [Hicks] does that.”

17 of Hicks’ 94 personal fouls (18 percent) have come at or below his waist from a reach in, hand check, or block. The majority of these fouls are committed when an opponent is driving to the basket, like seen here when Hicks reaches in while Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox sprints towards the basket.

Off the ball/away from basket

Hicks finds himself in some hairy situations at times. Whether it’s fighting for a loose ball or on his back or positioning for a rebound, the whistle finds Hicks. The senior forward has committed 16 of his 94 personal fouls away from the basket or off the ball, that’s good for 17 percent.

Note: Hicks committed one foul in the Georgia Tech game, where it was late-game situation with a foul to give. 

Over the back

As a forward, Hicks finds himself in the paint jostling for defensive and offensive rebounds. The senior can often grab rebounds over opponents because of his size.

However, when an opponent does a good job boxing him out, referees are quick to whistle Hicks for an over the back foul. 13 percent of Hicks’ personal fouls are of this over the back type when fighting for a rebound, like shown in the Wisconsin game and Davidson game.

Offensive

Hicks’ has been whistled for six offensive fouls, including a pair of illegal screens, and charges like this one from the Virginia game. These types of fouls account for six percent of Hicks’ 94 total personal fouls this season, and 12 percent of his 50 turnovers this year.


When and where does Hicks commit fouls?

Isaiah Hicks has committed four or more fouls in 13 of his 30 games this season. This chart shows the amount of fouls committed over the course of these 30 games.

In his last six games played, Hicks has committed at least three or more fouls in each game (23 total fouls). In January, Hicks had a six-game stretch where he only committed 14 fouls.

Five of the last six games have come after Hicks missed his first career game due to a hamstring injury. It’s possible the injury correlates to the uptick in fouls as of late.

Location

In the 2016–17 season, Hicks has committed . . .

  • 41 fouls in 352 minutes played in 15 home games
  • 40 fouls in 220 minutes played in 10 away games
  • 13 fouls in 122 minutes played in five neutral site games

The senior’s fouls per 40 minutes is much higher (7.3) in away games. Note: The Notre Dame played in Greensboro is being used as a home game in this exercise, similar to how the NCAA is categorizing it

|   Location  | Fouls per 40 min |
|:-----------:|:----------------:|
|     Away    |        7.3       |
|     Home    |        4.7       |
|   Neutral   |        4.3       |

These rates are a little closer for Hicks’ entire career (141 games). It’s 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes at home, 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes at neutral sites, and 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes on the road for his career.

Time in the game

We also reviewed the time on the clock when Hicks is whistled for his fouls. This breaks each half into five segments, similar to when TV timeouts are called after a deadball during collegiate games.

| 1st Half Time of Clock | Fouls | 2nd Half Time on clock | Fouls | 
|------------------------|-------|------------------------|-------|
| 20:00 - 16:00          |  9    | 20:00 - 16:00          | 12    | 
| 15:59 - 12:00          |  7    | 15:59 - 12:00          |  6    |      
| 11:59 - 8:00           | 14    | 11:59 - 8:00           | 10    |    
| 7:59 - 4:00            | 12    | 7:59 - 4:00            | 11    |      
| 3:59 - 0:00            |  5    | 3:59 - 0:00            |  7    |  
| Total fouls            | 47    | Total fouls            | 46    |

A summary shows 47 fouls called in the first half, and 46 in the second half. Not showing in the summary is one foul committed in overtime (Clemson).

Hicks frequently commits fouls during the middle of the first half or from the 11:59 minute mark to the 4:00 minute mark. The start of the second half is also a popular time for Hicks to pick up fouls.

Other notes:

  • fastest to first foul in game is one minute and 26 seconds (Wake Forest)
  • fastest to first foul in second half is 16 seconds (Louisville)
  • shortest time between two fouls is 17 seconds (Wake Forest)

Does Isaiah Hicks have a reputation that contributes to more fouls being called against him?

In order to answer this question, we reviewed the officials assigned to every game Isaiah Hicks has played in his career where he has committed at least three or more fouls.

It’s a strong sample size of 72 games out of a possible 142 career games, or 51 percent of Hicks’ career contests. If you want to see a list of all officials for every game in the 2016–17 season, go to: dadgumboxscores.com/officials

Here is a list of the most frequent officials on the court when Isaiah Hicks has committed three fouls or more in his career:

|     Ref Name    | Number of games |
|:---------------:|:---------------:|
|    Mike Eades   |        9        |
|   Roger Ayers   |        6        |
|    Tim Nestor   |        6        |
|   Bryan Kersey  |        5        |
|    Jeff Clark   |        5        |
| Michael Roberts |        5        |

Mike Eades and Roger Ayers, a couple of the most popular officials in collegiate basketball, top the list. Both Eades and Ayers work a lot of top-tier games and they’re located on the east coast, meaning it’s likely these two will work a lot of UNC games. For example . . .

While Eades and Ayers are some of the most respected officials in all of collegiate basketball, they’re also the most frequent officials on the court when Isaiah Hicks is whistled with fouls. This duo has been on the court together three times over these 72 games, most amongst any officials during that span.

Does this mean Hicks has a reputation that leads to more fouls?

I do believe he has a reputation and I think some officials get carried away with the things that they hear, but I don’t think an official goes into the game thinking, ‘I’m going to call a foul on Isaiah.’ He puts himself in bad spots sometimes and needs to just stay away from that junk. A big guy should never make a foul below his waist and he does that and shouldn’t get caught and tangled up with people and he does that sometimes. I think sometimes the calls are very unfortunate for him, too. 

— Roy Williams, THSN Radio Show

Head coach Roy Williams says yes, Hicks does have a reputation. If you review previous foul calls, it’s possible officials have a cognitive bias towards Hicks. Why?

Because some of the foul calls against him have been as curious as the Oxford, NC native’s mid-season hairdo.

Here are a few examples:

On his back against Kentucky

 

Hicks picked up his third foul against Kentucky about 25 seconds after his second foul call while laying on his back. This prompted Roy Williams to throw his jacket and receive a technical foul.

The official who called this foul and the technical? Roger Ayers.

Block against Syracuse in Final Four last season

Mike Eades whistled this blocking foul on Hicks with 11 seconds to go in the first half against Syracuse in the 2016 Final Four. It was a play where Hicks was clearly outside the cylinder, and still charged with his third personal foul.

Reach in against Virginia Tech

With only two seconds left in the half, Hicks is called with a reach in on a play where two other players ended up on the ground. Assistant coach Steve Robinson’s reaction says it all.

Ayers and Eades both on the court for this one, Eades is the one who blew the whistle with a questionable view of the play.

Yes, Hicks puts himself in tough situations that make it easier for fouls to go against him. Let’s acknowledge officials are human, and they do expect him to commit fouls in certain situations.


Isaiah Hicks will play his last game in the Dean E. Smith Center Saturday night against Duke. Here’s hoping the senior avoids fouls and helps UNC make another NCAA title run to close his career.

If you enjoyed this article, you might find dadgumboxscores.com useful. It’s a site where I’ve collected every UNC box score since 2003–04. 

Four Factor Friday: February Forecast

Four Factor Friday: February Forecast

North Carolina is 20-4 overall and 8-2 in conference play as it heads towards a furious February schedule. UNC has only eight regular season games remaining, four on the road and four at home.

In this edition of Four Factor Friday, we’ll take a look at how the Tar Heels perform when playing at home versus on the road or at a neutral site. And then we’ll try to explain what it means for the rest of the season. Let’s get into it.

What do we mean by home, away, and neutral games?

Before we take a look at the four factors for these type of games, let’s first define what we mean by home, away, and neutral games.

  • Home game: at the Dean E. Smith Center, 12 total games (five in ACC play)
  • Away game: at the opponent’s home gym, seven total games (five in ACC play)
  • Neutral game: at a site that isn’t the opponent’s home floor or the Dean Dome, five total games (zero in ACC play)

Neutral games include three contests at the Maui Invitational, playing Kentucky in Las Vegas, and playing Tulane at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

While Tulane is in New Orleans, the Green Wave plays its home games at the Devlin Fieldhouse. This is more of a semi-away game, think playing Kansas in Kansas City in the NCAA Tournament in 2013. So for the purpose of this exercise, the Tulane game falls under a neutral site.

Now that’s out of the way, a few more important caveats about this data and why it’s not best to rush to judgment when viewing it:

  1. Small sample size, this information is incomplete (there is still 25 percent of the regular season left)
  2. No adjustment for quality of opponent, UNC has played some easier opponents at home (sorry Radford!)
  3. All data is calculated using raw box scores, you might find differences if you’re calculating using different sources

Home games

UNC is 12-0 at the Dean E. Smith Center. And the four factors explain why. The Tar Heels are more effective shooting, better at avoiding turnovers, outrebounding, and getting to the foul line more than their opponents at home.

|  HOME  |   O   |   D   |
|:------:|:-----:|:-----:|
|  eFG%  | 53.30 | 47.28 |
|   TO%  | 15.00 | 21.40 |
|   OR%  | 44.65 | 27.52 |
| FTRate | 39.29 | 24.44 |

Record: 12-0

Away games

Carolina has turned in some of its worst performances of the season on the road. The Tar Heels do not shoot it as well, turn it over more, and get to the foul line less on the road. This is recipe for a 4-3 overall on the road (both ACC losses have come away from home).

|  AWAY  |   O   |   D   |
|:------:|:-----:|:-----:|
|  eFG%  | 48.10 | 51.30 |
|   TO%  | 19.70 | 18.04 |
|   OR%  | 38.74 | 23.81 |
| FTRate | 29.00 | 36.73 |

Record: 4-3

Neutral games

We’ve seen UNC be the most promising at times this season at a neutral site. Despite the big outlier that was Kentucky’s performance in a 103-100 game in Vegas, UNC still posts better marks across all four factors than its opponents at neutral sites. Remember the team that dominated the Maui Invitational?

| NEUTRAL |   O   |   D   |
|:-------:|:-----:|:-----:|
|   eFG%  | 59.06 | 47.13 |
|   TO%   | 16.80 | 17.04 |
|   OR%   | 39.73 | 25.39 |
|  FTRate | 40.00 | 26.28 |

Record: 4-1

Comparison notes

Again, it’s important not to draw too many conclusions or judgments off this information because it’s a small or incomplete sample size.

But here are five tidbits that might jump out to you:

  1. The three highest offensive effective field goal percentages have come at neutral sites: Oklahoma State (64.1 eFG%), Chaminade (63.3 eFG%), and Kentucky (59.9 eFG%).
  2. UNC snags about five percent more of their missed shots at home versus road or at a neutral site. UNC has been outrebounded twice all year (against Kentucky, at Miami). Never at home.
  3. At home, Carolina has made 216 free throws and their opponents have attempted 175 free throws. This is much different on the road: 99 free throw makes, 118 opponent free throw attempts.
  4. All three of Carolina’s worst offensive turnover rates have come from true road games: at Georgia Tech (25.6 TO%), Clemson (22.8 TO%), and Hawai’i (22.2 TO%).
  5. Two of the three worst defensive effective field goal percentages have come at home, too: Pittsburgh (67.6 eFG%), Kentucky (60.8 eFG%), and Virginia Tech (59.8 eFG%).

Theo Pinson has played in only 25 percent of UNC’s games this season. Carolina has won every game Pinson has played in (4-0 at home, 2-0 on the road, and 0-0 at neutral sites).

So what to expect with the remaining schedule?

First, let’s take a current look at the RPI team sheet (Feb. 1) from the NCAA.

feb-1-rpi-team-sheet

While the NCAA might be moving away from the RPI in the future, it’s still widely used for seeding purposes in March. But the RPI has its faults, mainly it doesn’t include location when measuring a team’s strength of schedule.

So what kind of schedule does UNC want down the stretch?

Jeff (@BPredict), from Basketball Predictions, shared some fantastic insight as to what kind of schedule you might want down the stretch of the season. Jeff uses ACC foe Florida State in his example, and explains why the Seminoles remaining schedule isn’t all that promising:

You want a lot of home games versus teams that would make up “quality wins”, and you want to avoid road games vs decent teams unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament.

The RPI promotes a team’s record against top-50 teams, but it doesn’t really matter where those top-50 games are played. UNC has seven top-50 wins right now, and plenty of opportunities to get more. Here is the breakdown of the remaining schedule and the opponent’s RPI as of Feb. 1st.

Four home games: Notre Dame (26), Virginia (14), Louisville (4), Duke (17).

Four away games: at Duke (17), at NC State (67), at Pittsburgh (56), at Virginia (14).

This means UNC has six more chances to get a top-50 win, whether it’s at home or the road. The road games at potential bubble teams Pittsburgh and NC State are somewhat risky if UNC plays like it did in Atlanta or Coral Gables. There is significant upside with hosting four top opponents at home where UNC hasn’t lost all year.

This puts North Carolina in a solid position to make a case for either a 1 or 2 seed come tournament time without factoring in any games in the ACC Tournament.

Can UNC avoid poor performances on the road? Or will the team at Georgia Tech and at Miami show up again?

Will the Tar Heels stay undefeated at home against four of the ACC’s top teams?

How will UNC fare when it comes time to play at neutral sites in the postseason?

We’re going to find out soon as UNC hosts Notre Dame at 6 pm EST Saturday. Carolina is 5-3 against the Fighting Irish under Roy Williams, including two postseason wins en route to its run to the National Championship game a year ago.

Moses Malone-ing It

Moses Malone-ing It

Note: this post originally appeared at Carolina Data Desk, a data journalism initiative in the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

In a recent interview, North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams remarked that this year’s team is “Moses Malone-ing it” on the offensive glass, suggesting that maybe the team’s offensive rebounding statistics are somewhat inflated by offensive rebounds coming off of missed easy layups. From my own experience watching games this season, this seems like a plausible phenomenon, with Kennedy Meeks the most obviously guilty party. While there is anecdotal evidence supporting this theory, what do the numbers show?1

North Carolina currently leads the nation with a rebound margin of 14.5 (which is over two rebounds per game higher than the next largest margin) and offensive rebounds per game. It also leads the nation in offensive rebounding percent, rebounding 43 percent of its missed shots, according to Inside Carolina. However, it is difficult to discern how much this is due to superior rebounding ability and how much it is due to poor finishing at the rim. In a recent News & Observer article, Williams addressed this trend:

“We’d lay it up and get it and lay it up and get it and lay it up and get, lay it up and get it – ‘Well, God, they’re a great rebounding team.’ Well, dang, we’re 1-for-4. So it’s a little bit inflated by that.”

Just over 13 percent of Carolina’s offense rebounds this year are coming from players rebounding their own missed shots (we’ll refer to this stat as OwnOR%). Compared to the rest of the ACC, this is actually quite low, ranking second to last in the league. Virginia Tech has the highest rate in the conference, with nearly 30 percent of its offensive rebounds coming from players rebounding their own missed shots. Since the 2005-06 season, only two other Carolina teams have had a lower rate of offensive rebounds coming from a player’s own missed shots.

This trend holds if we narrow our results to the percent of offensive rebounds coming from a player’s own missed layups (we’ll call this OwnLayupOR%). In this metric, Carolina ranks 12th in the ACC at about 7 percent.

Compared to past Carolina teams, this year’s team has a relatively high percent of its rebounds coming from a player’s own missed layups. Only three other years have had higher rates.

 

Another possible play outcome that could artificially inflate team offensive rebounding numbers is missed layups being rebounded by players other than the shooter. Calculating the portion of offensive rebounds coming off of any player’s missed layup (we’ll call this LayupOR%), Carolina falls right in the middle of the pack in the ACC. Virginia Tech also leads the league in LayupOR% (at almost 40 percent) and OwnLayupOR% (at nearly 16 percent).2

 

While as a team Carolina does not appear to be “Moses Malone-ing it,” what about individually? If you are a Carolina fan, you have probably yelled “Just dunk it!” at some point this season following a missed Kennedy Meeks layup. Unsurprisingly for those familiar with this year’s team, Meeks has a higher OwnOR% than his teammates, at least among those who have a significant number of offensive rebounds. (Half of Joel Berry’s offensive rebounds are off his own missed shots, but he only has six offense rebounds on the year).

The following chart provides a breakdown of Carolina’s offensive rebounds by shooter. For clarity, it is limited to only players with at least 20 offensive rebounds on the season. (After the six players with over 20 offensive rebounds this season, Brandon Robinson and Theo Pinson are next with nine). From this chart, we can see that Meeks and Tony Bradley have a comparatively large number of their offensive rebounds coming from their own missed shots, and the other top offensive rebounders have comparatively fewer. Intuitively, this makes sense, since Meeks and Bradley take more of their shots in the paint, where it is more likely that they will be able to clean up their misses.

 

Meeks leads the conference in offensive rebounds per game with 3.9. Of all ACC players with at least 20 offensive rebounds on the season, he ranks ninth in both OwnOR% and OwnLayupOR%. Most notable of those with a higher OwnOR% than Meeks is Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, who ranks third in the conference with 3.4 offensive rebounds per game and has an OwnOR% of just over 27 percent, compared to Meeks’s 22 percent.

Even when examining offensive rebounds coming only off of other players missed shots, Meeks is still a force on the offensive boards. Adjusting for number of games played, Meeks is second in the ACC behind only Clemson’s Sidy Djitte in offensive rebounds following teammates’ missed shots.

 

How does Meeks stack up historically among recent Carolina teams? Over the last 12 seasons (including this one), there have been 85 players who have collected at least 20 rebounds in a season. Of these, Meeks this season ranks 14th in terms of his OwnOR%, which is currently 22%.

Tyler Hansbrough has the highest rate among post players, posting an OwnOR% above 30 percent in both the 2007 and 2009 seasons.

On the flip side, Brice Johnson last season finished with an OwnOR% of just 12 percent. Given Johnson’s stellar 61 percent field goal shooting, it is hardly surprising that a smaller portion of his total offensive rebounds came off his own shots. Meeks, currently shooting 52 percent on the season, has more opportunities to rebound his own misses than Johnson did.

As a team, North Carolina’s offensive rebounding stats do not appear to be inflated due simply to missing layups and rebounding them. Virginia Tech actually leads the league in “Moses Malone-ing it.”

Although Kennedy Meeks does appear to be “Moses Malone-ing it” to some degree with a comparatively lower field goal shooting percentage and higher percentage of total offensive rebounds coming from his own missed shots, his stats are not out of line with those of other current ACC and past UNC players. Even if his offensive rebounding stats are slightly inflated, he is still having an outstanding year on the offensive glass. Ol’ Roy’s complaints are warranted, but he may be exaggerating somewhat in an attempt to motivate his players.


1. [All data used in this post was web scraped from play-by-plays on ESPN and GoHeels.com. For the current season, this includes only games played before January 24th. The data is available in Carolina Data Desk’s Google Drive here.]
2. [Although typical OR% stats refer to number of offensive rebounds out of total missed shots, our metrics of OwnOR%, OwnLayupOR%, and LayupOR% refer to the number of offensive rebounds of that particular type out of all offensive rebounds.]

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?

Four Factor Friday: Conference Concerns (Jan. 6)

Four Factor Friday: Conference Concerns (Jan. 6)

This edition of Four Factor Friday highlights some concerns after the first couple conference games. Carolina is 1-1 in the ACC and plays host to NC State Saturday night.

In what might end up being the worst ACC loss under Roy Williams, UNC turned in a turd and Georgia Tech beat the Tar Heels by 12 in the league opener. Carolina followed that up with a fever-dream performance, escaping Clemson with an impressive 89-86 overtime win on the road.

So what’s there to be concerned about?

Turnovers

This is the easiest concern to observe as of late. Carolina is turning it over much more than it has in the past. In the last 3 games, the Heels have 55 turnovers.

In non-conference play, the Tar Heels posted a turnover rate of 17 percent. Carolina is turning it over on about 24 percent of its possessions in the first couple league games.

Not surprisingly, UNC’s highest turnover rates of the season were against Georgia Tech (~26 percent) and Clemson (~23 percent). Joel Berry II has 11 turnovers and only four assists in the past two games.

On his weekly radio show, Roy Williams quoted John Wooden, “Turnovers don’t bother me. It means we’re trying to do something.” Williams added that a lot of turnovers do bother him. Carolina was careless with the ball and made some poor decisions.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the turnovers in the Clemson game. This video breaks down the following plays:

  • Missed 3 by Berry, offensive rebound by Justin Jackson while falling to the ground, and not able to get the ball to a teammate
  • Jackson attempts to drive towards the lane, gets stripped, and leads to a Clemson fast break
  • Berry is a little lazy bringing the ball up the court, pass gets deflected and another fast break
  • Critical possession out of a timeout, Berry drives in the lane and has nowhere to go, throwing the ball to Clemson
  • Another important possession where Berry tries to complete a long entry pass to Meeks that gets deflected and puts Clemson on the line with a chance to take the lead (they squandered that chance)

 

Carolina gave up 18 points off turnovers against Clemson. A few of these were trying to do something (Jackson corralling the offensive board from the ground), but many others were simply poor decisions. It was alarming to see Berry turn it over down the stretch. Luckily, Clemson had its own issues with turnovers, and UNC somehow got it to overtime.


Shot Selection

The Tar Heels have attempted 50(!) 3-point shots in two conference games, making only 15 of them (30.0%). The 50 3-point attempts account for 16 percent of their total (308) this season (in only 13 percent of the minutes).

Carolina’s offensive effective field goal percentage is just 44 percent over these two games. For a Roy Williams offense, 25 3-pointers per game is simply too many (especially when you’re not making many of them!).

Against Georgia Tech, the trio of Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, and Kenny Williams went a combined 2-for-20 from behind the arc. In a two-minute stretch to start the second half against the Yellow Jackets, Carolina didn’t take a single shot from the paint.

Here is replay of those 4 shots:

  • Berry misses mid-range jumper from the corner when the Heels try to break down the zone
  • Long three-point shot from top of the key doesn’t fall for Berry
  • Jackson takes a quick 3 from the corner and misses
  • Williams can’t get a 3 from the corner to go

 

The zone clearly bothered UNC against Georgia Tech. Carolina only scored 14 points in the paint against the Yellow Jackets. While the Tar Heels saw less zone against Clemson, Carolina still attempted 24 3-point shots.

Berry and Jackson took 33 of the 50 3-pointers over these last 2 games. This trend might not be the healthiest for UNC; it’s not sustainable to rely on these two players to take that many shots from the outside.

Sherrell D. McMillan points out that Berry and Jackson are taking too many shots, and he’s right.

Carolina hasn’t found a legit scoring option from another player yet. Perhaps the return of Theo Pinson will help here?

You would like to see the big men step up. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley combined for 15 shots against Georgia Tech. Bradley has only played 20 minutes over the last two games, so he hasn’t had of ton of chances to contribute.

Meeks took 14 shots on his own against Clemson, only converting five of them. He did tally 14 points, while snagging 16 rebounds; obviously could have scored many more if he would have finished better in the paint.

Meeks is an easy target for criticism, but his minutes down the stretch helped UNC win the game as Adrian detailed. Former Tar Heel Dewey Burke summed up Meeks the best on the Inside Carolina podcast:

He is who he is. He’s a below-the-rim player, but he’s got great hands, great feel. Pretty long arms, and he can pass the basketball. He can finish around the rim when it’s not up and over someone bigger than him.

Meeks has been a really important piece to this team, and will continue to be moving forward. He might not need to score in double-figures every night, but he’ll need some support from teammate Isaiah Hicks.

Hicks took only 13 shots combined against Georgia Tech and Clemson. Carolina has got to get him involved because he’s proven to be an effective and efficient scorer (posting an offensive effective field goal percentage of 58.6).

The senior has taken seven or fewer shots in six games this season. UNC is 4-2 in those games. The 4 wins? At Clemson in overtime, an easy win over Radford, and ugly (and Berry-less) victories over Davidson and Tennessee.


Getting to the foul line

This might be the biggest concern of all so far in conference play. Carolina has attempted 26 free throws in 2 games, exactly half as few as its opponents 52.

26 free throws. 50 3-pointers. That is not a recipe for success for Carolina moving forward. The Tar Heels need to get to the foul line more.

Prior to conference play, the Tar Heels had made 270 free throws and its opponents had attempted 233 free throws. That’s a plus 37 margin. This comparison is something we’ve monitored all season because UNC hasn’t made more free throws than their opponents attempted since 2012.

In league play, Carolina has made 19 free throws and its opponents have attempted 52—a minus 33 margin. Yes, small sample size, but UNC went from +37 to -33 in 2 games. UNC is now +4 on made free throws versus opponents’ attempted free throws for the season.

The Heels needs to find some aggressiveness moving forward to get to the line more. That aggressiveness needs to come from every single player.

Berry and Jackson combined for 69 shots against Clemson and Georgia Tech. Jackson attempted six free throws in those games, while Berry attempted zero. Zero free throws from a player that shoots 93 percent from the line.

Jackson’s only free throw attempt against Clemson came with under a minute to play in regulation (when the Tigers were fouling deliberately). He missed the front-end of a 1-and-1, leading to a Clemson 3 to tie the game.

Hicks has only taken five free throws in ACC play. What’s frustrating about Hicks’s lack of getting to the line is he actually makes a high percentage of those foul shots, too (77% on the season).

It’s an enigma as to how Hicks can’t get to the line more. Tony Bradley has played 124 fewer minutes than Isaiah Hicks and has attempted 17 more free throws. After posting FTA Rates of 47.8 as a sophomore and 57.2 as a junior, Hicks has dropped to 36.4 in his senior campaign. He’s perhaps almost too aggressive on defense and not aggressive enough on offense.

By the way, if you had illegal screen on your bingo sheet for ways Hicks can foul out against Clemson, you get a gold star.

Hicks-illegal-screen
Isaiah Hicks fouled out in overtime against Clemson on an illegal screen.

The concerns over his foul trouble have made him a non-factor as of late. And that is going to need to change if UNC wants to successfully navigate ACC play.


Now what?

In short, Carolina is turning the ball over too much, not getting to the foul line enough, and relying on Berry and Jackson to shoot a ton of 3-pointers thus far in league play.

It’s going to be tough sledding if UNC continues on this path. League play is not going to get easier—especially the second half of the conference slate.

It starts Saturday when NC State makes the short trip from Raleigh. The Wolfpack have a dynamite freshman making his debut against UNC. Dennis Smith Jr. is coming off a triple-double performance (27 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists) in a 104-78 rout of Virginia Tech.

While Smith Jr. is making his debut, State has plenty of familiar faces. The frontcourt of Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya both played roles in NC State’s lone win in Chapel Hill against Roy Williams’s Tar Heels, a 58-46 victory on Feb. 24, 2015.

Carolina is 12-1 against NC State at home under Roy Williams. You can find past matchups against the Wolfpack here.

Do you see these trends continuing throughout ACC play? If the Heels are going to get back on track with respect to avoiding turnovers and winning the free throw battle, Saturday night would be a great time to start!

Four Factor Friday: Non-Conference Recap (Dec. 30)

Four Factor Friday: Non-Conference Recap (Dec. 30)

It’s Four Factor Friday and as the Tar Heels head into ACC play, we’ll take a look back at the 14 non-conference games.

What went well?

Carolina is 12-2 overall. The Tar Heels are one of five teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive (118.6) and defensive (90.5) efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy.

The reason why is UNC’s performance across the four factors—the building blocks of efficiency. Here is how the Tar Heels shape up in those metrics through 14 games:

|        | Offense | Defense |
|:------:|:-------:|:-------:|
|   eFG  |   53.2  |   45.5  |
|   TO   |   17.0  |   20.6  |
|   OR   |   42.0  |   26.2  |
| FTRate |   40.8  |   27.1  |

If you’re curious of a game-by-game breakdown and points-per-possession data, find a table you can sort here.

On offense, Carolina posts its highest effective field goal percentage and offensive rebounding percentage since the 2007-2008 season. That’s encouraging because the 2007-2008 season ended at the Final Four (40-12 never happened, not sure what you’re talking about).

A major reason why Carolina is posting a higher effective field goal percentage is improved three-point shooting. UNC shot 32.7 percent a year ago, the record for the lowest percentage in school history. The Tar Heels are shooting 37.6 percent from behind the three-point line this season.

Justin Jackson is shooting 40.7 percent from three, and already has knocked down 33 three-point shots this season. Jackson has made quite the leap his junior year. He made 28 threes as a freshman, and 35 threes all of last season for some evidence of that leap.

Justin-Jackson-3
Justin Jackson has lots of confidence, knocking down 40.7 percent of his three-point shots.

Offensive rebounding is always a strong suit of Roy Williams’s teams, and this Carolina team is no exception, pulling down 42 percent of its missed shots. UNC has recorded a higher offensive rebounding percentage in every game this season but Kentucky, when the Wildcats out-rebounded the Heels 39-35.

What might come as a surprise is Carolina is doing a much better job overall on the defensive boards this season. This was an area that needed to be addressed because Brice Johnson graduated and he pulled down 28 percent of UNC’s defensive rebounds last season.

The Tar Heels only allow their opponents to rebound 26.2 percent of their shots. This is the best mark under Roy Williams at UNC. The next lowest was 27.2 percent in the 2011-12 season.

Credit the upperclassmen—Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, and Isaiah Hicks. This trio each has 50 or more defensive rebounds thus far. Meeks is Carolina’s top rebounder, and has 10 or more rebounds in three out of 14 games this season. The senior only had double-digit rebounds in four games all of the 2015-16 season.

Meeks-Strong-Man
Kennedy Meeks is coming into his own in his senior season.

What can improve?

One concern for the Tar Heels is avoiding turnovers. UNC turns it over on about 17 percent of their offensive possessions this season. Carolina has 10 or more turnovers in 12 out of 14 games, and the Heels are coming off a season-worst 17 turnovers against Monmouth.

If you want to spin it the other way, UNC does have a lot of the same personnel as it did from a season ago when they only turned it over on 15.4 percent of their possessions, the best mark for any Carolina team directed by Roy Williams. We’ve all seen Joel Berry take care of the ball in big games.

Perhaps the biggest concern is playing smarter because the competition is about to crank up in conference play. Smarter means avoiding empty possessions—low-percentage mid-range shots, foul trouble, and turnovers.

In each of UNC’s losses, Carolina trailed for the majority of the game. The Tar Heels took some poor shots against Indiana and found themselves down 17 points in the first half. Against Kentucky, seniors Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks only played a combined 35 minutes due to foul trouble.

Britt-bad-shot
Carolina needs to avoid long two-point shots like this one from Nate Britt.

Non-Conference Strength of Schedule

Although there’s an element of randomness involved (pre-season tournaments draws, ACC-Big Ten match-ups, etc.),  teams do primarily control their non-conference schedules (including whether to play at opponents’ home gyms and/or in a neutral-site pre-season tournament).

If we stick with Pomeroy’s ratings, UNC had the strongest strength of schedule in the non-conference amongst ACC teams, ranking 34th in the nation.

Here’s a full breakdown from KenPom as of December 29:

|        Team        | Non-Conference SOS |
|:------------------:|:------------------:|
|   North Carolina   |         34         |
|     Louisville     |         55         |
|     Wake Forest    |         71         |
|       Clemson      |         88         |
|        Duke        |         137        |
|     Pittsburgh     |         140        |
|      Virginia      |         148        |
|      Syracuse      |         234        |
|     Florida St.    |         258        |
|      Miami FL      |         276        |
| North Carolina St. |         285        |
|     Notre Dame     |         288        |
|    Georgia Tech    |         324        |
|   Boston College   |         333        |
|   Virginia Tech    |         341        |

Carolina played a balanced non-conference slate. It offered some good opportunities to play against different styles of teams.

In the Maui Invitational, UNC throttled Oklahoma State by 32 points in a game that featured about 79 possessions. And the next day, the Tar Heels handled Wisconsin by 15 points in game with 68 possessions.

This Carolina team can run with anyone as seen against Kentucky (81 possessions) and Monmouth (89 possessions). And it can win slow, too, dominating a Northern Iowa team in a 65-possession grinder.

The Tar Heels have won a couple games where they shot worse than their opponents. Without Joel Berry, Carolina shot a lower percentage than both Davidson and Tennessee, and still picked up a couple victories by controlling other Four Factors categories (rebounding and free throws vs. Davidson, and rebounding and turnovers against Tennessee). UNC also played a couple of true road games at Hawaii and Indiana.

All this being said, Carolina is going to be tested more in ACC play—a whole lot more. UNC last eight games of the season feature Duke (twice), Virginia (twice), Louisville, NC State, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame.

Remember the Tar Heels being one of five teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency? Three of the five are ACC teams (UNC, Duke, Virginia).

It’s possible the ACC regular-season champion might be 13-5 or 14-4. The league is that competitive.

So is the ACC the nation’s best conference?

Short answer. Yes, yes it is.

Long answer is that many believe the ACC to be the nation’s best conference with the potential of over half the conference making the NCAA Tournament. Some publications and people that cover college hoops, including Pomeroy, put the ACC slightly behind the Big 12 at this point in the year.

As of December 29, Pomeroy’s rankings have 11 ACC teams and eight Big 12 teams in the top 50. The ACC has four top 10 teams, while the Big 12 has three in the top 10.

How does the rest of each league rank?

This is where it gets confusing, because the Big 12 only has 10 teams. It has Texas (75th) as its lowest-ranked member in Pomeroy’s rankings. The ACC has 13 of its 15 teams ranked in the top 59, while Georgia Tech (152) and Boston College (196) are the ACC’s lowest-ranked teams.

So, yes, the Big 12 might be stronger top-to-bottom in than the ACC due to having fewer teams. But it’s not all that important or worth the energy to debate which conference is superior. Both conferences are strong, and the Tar Heels will play a tough ACC slate.

It starts with three games over the next eight days—at Georgia Tech (Dec. 31), at Clemson (Jan.3), and home against NC State (Jan. 7).

Can this team keep up its shooting from the outside? Can it avoid turnovers and foul trouble? Will Theo Pinson’s return make everything better?

We’re going to find out.

UNC +/- Stats through 13 Games

UNC +/- Stats through 13 Games

With Carolina’s non-conference schedule almost completed (the Heels play Monmouth on Wednesday in Chapel Hill before traveling to Atlanta to tip off the ACC season against Georgia Tech), let’s take a look at the season-to-date +/- numbers.

The usual +/- caveats apply here: 1.) this metric is very noisy, especially with a sample as size as 13 games (and certainly for any subsets of that sample); 2.) even the best/most impactful player only controls a small fraction of what occurs on the court during his minutes; it can be dangerous to extrapolate individual metrics from a team stat (like points for-points against); 3.) these are more descriptive (what’s happened through 13 games) than predictive (what will happen the rest of the season).

Caveats aside, there are some insights contained in these numbers, in my opinion. At the very least, they can be useful to describe Roy Williams’s rotations and highlight the combinations he’s used most frequently so far.

A quick glossary of the columns in the tables below.

  • Offensive Efficiency: points scored by UNC per 100 possessions with a certain player (or combination/lineup) on the floor
  • Defensive Efficiency: points allowed by UNC per 100 possessions with a certain player (or combination/lineup) on the floor
  • Efficiency Margin: offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency
  • Offensive On-Court/Off-Court: the difference in UNC’s offensive efficiency with a player on the court and its offensive efficiency with that player on the bench; for example, with Joel Berry on the court, UNC’s offensive efficiency is 127.0—with him on the bench it’s 110.0, so (127.0 – 110.0) equals an offensive on-court/off-court of +17.0
  • Defensive On-Court/Off-Court: the difference in UNC’s defensive efficiency with a player on the court and its defensive efficiency with that player on the bench, reported such that positive values mean the team is better with that player (i.e., its defensive efficiency is lower); for example, with Kenny Williams on the court, UNC’s defensive efficiency is 89.7—with him on the bench it’s 92.5, so (89.7 – 92.5) equals an defensive on-court/off-court of +2.8 (after applying the “lower is better’ adjustment to frame better than the team average as a positive number)
  • Total On-Court/Off-Court: offensive on-court/off-court + defensive on-court/off-court

2016-17 UNC +/- Table (click title for a larger table)

  • These are sorted by Total On-Court/Off-Court.
  • By a significant margin, UNC’s most important offensive players have been Berry and Justin Jackson.
  • Jackson’s huge offensive on-court/off-court component is diminished by his team-worst defensive on-court/off-court number. While there’s probably some noise there, and Jackson’s defensive numbers are negatively impacted by him playing about 20% of his minutes at the 4, his poor defensive +/- numbers are consistent with his defensive charting/Stop% numbers. Jackson has a team-low Stop% of 53.9, while his primary replacement at the 3, Brandon Robinson, has a team-high mark of 70.3. All that said, Jackson’s defense against Northern Iowa’s star, Jeremy Morgan, was nothing short of brilliant the last time out. Jackson also played solid positional wing defense last season (he’s not a defensive disruptor, though), and I expect his numbers on that end (both defensive +/- and defensive charting) to steadily improve as the ACC season progresses.
  • Robinson, Tony Bradley, and Luke Maye have the best defensive on-court/off-court numbers on the team. Seventh Woods also has a strong number off the bench. Part of this is due to those bench guys playing 1.) a disproportionate percentage of their minutes against weaker teams/cupcakes, and 2.) a disproportionate percentage of their minutes against opposing bench units. While this is another weakness of an unadjusted +/- metric (better versions of +/- can adjust for this type of thing, although they’re still incredibly noisy over small samples), it is still evidence that UNC’s bench is getting the job done defensively (this is supported by the defensive charting data).
  • Nate Britt easily has the worst +/- on the team. His on-court impact has been equally negative on both ends of the court, although it’s been dependent on position. During his minutes as a PG, the team has primarily suffered on the offensive end. With Britt at SG, the effect has been largely a defensive one.

  • The gap between the Berry-Williams and Berry-Britt backcourts is huge. When controlling for small forward (i.e., adding Jackson to the mix), the gap becomes even more enormous.
  • With Jackson as a 4, UNC is much better offensively and much worse defensively in terms of +/-. This is similar to virtually every (part-time) small-ball lineup that RoyW has employed while at Carolina.
  • The Hicks-Bradley and Bradley-Meeks frontcourts, while used relatively sparingly (especially in the case of Bradley-Meeks), have been very successful. If the staff decides it wants to move closer to a 3-man post rotation later in the season, there’s early evidence to support that idea (although the lineups with Maye—and Maye’s individual play—have also supported his case for staying in the rotation).
  • Of the 107 unique 5-man lineups that UNC has used this season, only four (listed in the table above) have played 20 or more minutes. A couple of those have been wildly (even historically by RoyW UNC standards) successful so far. The other two have been very poor from a +/- perspective.
  • Six other 5-man lineups have played at least 10 minutes together this year; 14 additional ones have played 5 or more minutes. 34 of the 107 lineups have played between 2 and 5 minutes as combinations, while the remaining 49 have played 2 minutes or fewer as a unit.
  • If you want all the nitty, gritty details on UNC’s +/- and lineup combos (including offensive/defensive 4 Factors for each), check out this spreadsheet and please sign up for The Secondary Break’s newsletter to receive this type of data/analysis weekly to your inbox.

 

Big-to-Big Passing

Big-to-Big Passing

After having just 11 big-to-big assists in the season’s first 12 games, Carolina connected on five such plays against Northern Iowa—most notably, the Meeks-to-Hicks pass for Isaiah’s thunderous dunk (Hicks also assisted Meeks twice, and one each from Maye-to-Jackson (as a small-ball 4 in the post) and Maye-to-Bradley).

In UNC’s system, most big-to-big passes occur in one of two situations: 1.) high/low passes against the zone (see Syracuse) or 2.) big-to-big passes after a post entry (usually after the opponent sends a big to double—see Virginia). There are some high/low opportunities within UNC’s secondary break (e.g., after the trailing big catches the reversal pass at the top of the key), plus some options built in to the freelance passing game and the various box sets. But, in general, the high/low, big-to-big pass isn’t a staple of Carolina’s system (in contrast to, say, feeding the post with its guards/wings).

On the season, the various frontcourt combinations have connected on the following big-to-big assists:

  • Bradley-Meeks: 3.34 big-to-big assists / 40 (1 Bradley-to-Meeks, 1 Meeks-to-Bradley)
  • Maye-Bradley: 2.37 / 40 (3 Bradley-to-Maye, 1 Maye-to-Bradley)
  • Hicks-Bradley: 1.49 / 40 (3 Hicks-to-Bradley)
  • Hicks-Meeks: 1.13 / 40 (3 Hicks-to-Meeks, 3 Meeks-to-Hicks)

The sample size on Bradley-Meeks is tiny (they’ve played less than 25 minutes together this season, virtually all in Maui), but they showed some big-to-big potential. And Maye is clearly the UNC big who’s shown the most aptitude/willingness to throw high/low passes (generally in the secondary break). Here are UNC’s post players’ entry passing stats on the season:

  • Maye: 3.56 entry passes / 40; 1.50 Success:Failure
  • Hicks: 0.79 entry passes / 40; 1.50 Success:Failure
  • Bradley: 0.56 entry passes / 40; 2.00 Success:Failure
  • Meeks: 0.54 entry passes / 40: 0.33 Success:Failure

As seen, Maye throws significantly more entries (per-minute) than the other three Carolina bigs combined. Individually, Hicks leads the way with 0.79 big-to-big assists / 40, followed by Bradley (0.74), Meeks (0.54), and Maye (0.36). But Maye has also thrown three entries to Bradley  that have resulted in FT assists. So if we’d include those in the analysis, he’s skyrocket to the top (I’m only including traditional box score assists).

Anecdotally, it seemed like last year’s Heels (specifically Brice Johnson) were a much better/more prolific big-to-big passing team. Notably, the game at Syracuse (where Johnson carved up the Orange zone with passes from the high post—including for numerous Hicks dunks) and the regular-season matchup against Virginia (where the Heels chased UVa out of its preferred post doubling scheme by carving it up early with big-to-big passes) stand out in my mind. And, indeed, UNC had seven and five big-to-big assists in those respective games. On the season, however, the Heels had only 44 big-to-big assists in 40 games—nearly an identical rate to 2016-17’s to date.

Here are the frontcourt combos’ big-to-big assist stats from 2015-16:

  • Hicks-Johnson: 1.51 big-to-big assists / 40 (11 from Johnson-to-Hicks, 3 from Hicks-to-Johnson)
  • Johnson-Meeks: 1.37 / 40 (12 from Johnson-to-Meeks, 5 from Meeks-to-Johnson)
  • Hicks-Meeks: 1.29 / 40 (2 from Hicks-to-Meeks, 2 from Meeks-to-Hicks)

So, while last year’s team wasn’t any more prolific at the team level, the above data gives a clue that Johnson was doing an inordinate amount of the assisting. Indeed, he led the way with 0.96 big-to-big assists / 40 last season, significantly higher than any of the Heels’ posts so far this season. It was also nearly double the rate of any other UNC post in 2015-16: Hicks had 0.49 / 40, Meeks had 0.41 / 40, and Joel James failed to record a single big-to-big assist last season.

So, the next time an opponent zones the Heels or sends a weakside big to double in the post, watch to see how effectively the Carolina bigs can locate each other for easy scores at the rim.

Transition Defense and Late-Game Execution

Transition Defense and Late-Game Execution

Welcome back for the third (and final) part of the Carolina vs. Kentucky series. Part I (Defending Malik Monk) and Part II (Jackson, Berry, and Guarding Ball Screens) are linked here in case you missed them. This one will focus primarily on UNC’s transition defense (and how UK’s transition opportunities were created) and Carolina’s late-game execution.

Let’s start with a summary of UNC’s transition defense. Kentucky is one of the most dangerous fast-break teams in the nation. I posted this Synergy Sports graphic in Part I, but will show it again here since it so clearly illustrates how deep and prolific UK’s backcourt has been in the open floor.

Though this data was prior to the Carolina game, Wildcat guards held down the top three positions on the national leaderboard for transition points per game. Stopping their early offense was a clear priority for the Heels. So how did they do? Let’s examine.

UNC’s Transition Defense vs. Kentucky

The Heels allowed 21 points on 14 transition possessions. Kentucky was only credited with eight fast-break points in the official box score (to Carolina’s six), but my interpretation of “transition” is (apparently) more liberal than the official scorer’s. Eight points certainly doesn’t seem bad; 21’s a little worse. Let’s break it down (chronologically) possession-by-possession to see how UK created its transition opportunities.

  1. After Jackson missed a primary-break 3, the ‘Cats pushed it right back the other way. Williams stopped the ball well in transition, forcing a contested miss by Fox. (0 points)
  2. Trying to give UNC a taste of its own medicine, UK ran immediately following a made Meeks tip-in. Williams again stopped the ball in transition, allowing Berry to strip Monk for a steal. (0 points)
  3. After blocking a Berry 3, Briscoe leaked out for an easy lay-up on the other end. This was poor shot selection by Berry (or, more accurately, an underestimate of Briscoe’s length/ability to close). (2 points)
  4. Following a missed floater by Jackson, Kentucky ran a dribble hand-off in transition. Britt stumbled badly fighting through the exchange, allowing Monk to get into the paint for an assist. This was also an “and-1” opportunity, but Kentucky missed the free throw. (2 points)
  5. Bradley missed a running hook shot with Jackson getting tied up in a battle for the offensive board. Jackson’s subsequent late recovery allowed Fox to get to the rim for a 3-point play. (3 points)
  6. Berry’s penetration led to poor floor balance after a missed Meeks lay-up, resulting in an easy alley-oop slam for Fox after he outraced Jackson down the court. (2 points)
  7. Kentucky pushed the ball after a missed Jackson 3 on the secondary break. This time, the Heels had much better defensive balance and forced Fox to miss a pull-up in transition. (0 points)
  8. Another missed Jackson 3 led to the next UK break opportunity. Monk was forced into a tough reverse layup by Williams’s strong transition defense. (0 points)
  9. After Hicks missed a face-up jumper in the secondary break and Williams was caught battling in the paint for the offensive board, the Heels were beaten down the court by Monk for a 3-point play (missed the free throw; Hicks’s fourth foul when he should have probably just conceded the lay-up). This was partially caused by a cross-match (Monk was defending Jackson on one end, but being defended by Williams on the other), as well as poor recognition by Berry as a safety. (2 points)
  10. UK again ran after a made UNC basket (a Meeks lay-up), and again took advantage of some cross-match-related confusion. Jackson was late to identify Briscoe in transition, allowing him to create a drive-and-kick 3 for Monk. (3 points)
  11. Following an early missed 3 by Britt (who then reached in for a low-probability loose-ball rebound instead of sprinting back), Berry was crossed over by Monk in the open court for an easy lay-up. Berry, playing with three fouls, made a pretty casual attempt at stopping the ball here but, even with max effort, it would have been hard to stop this Monk move without fouling. (2 points)
  12. A Bradley missed dunk on one end resulted in Maye trying to stop the ball against Fox on the other end. He predictably got to the rim easily for a lay-up, with the four-point swing pushing UK’s lead to 84-74 with 7:45 left. (2 points)
  13. Maye missed a 3-pointer following a Berry drive-and-kick; the Berry penetration led to poor floor balance, and the Heels were bailed out when UK muffed an easy 2-on-1 (Monk threw a lob that Gabriel mishandled). With under two minutes left in a 95-95 game, this seemed like a huge break at the time. (0 points)
  14. We all remember this one: Berry’s contested penetration opportunity (in which he ended up several feet out of bounds) led to a scramble situation on the other end. Williams was left with the unenviable task of stopping Fox’s dribble (probably preventing a lay-up) or covering the kick-out pass to Monk. In retrospect, he probably should have cut off the kick-out (with Jackson recovering to the paint to contest Fox’s drive). Monk, of course, knocked down the game-winning 3 over a recovering Hicks (who hustled to locate Monk after Williams stopped the ball with Berry out of the play). (3 points)

So of UK’s 14 transition opportunities, not a single one resulted via a Carolina live-ball turnover. This is a rather remarkable statistic, as live-ball TOs generally breed the juiciest fast-break opportunities of them all. Only two of UNC’s nine TOs were of the live-ball variety (both by Woods), and neither was in the open court. One, in fact, was stolen right back by Jackson for an easy Tar Heel transition hoop.

Instead, Kentucky mainly ran off of missed field goals– oftentimes missed 3s. Of UK’s 14 transition opportunities, six resulted from missed 3s, six from missed 2s, and two from made shots. A few were caused by Berry penetration– something that wings will need to be more alert for in future games against elite transition opponents. A couple were caused from UNC’s wings crashing for offensive boards, too, but that’s just the cost of doing business in Roy’s system (and why UNC currently ranks second in the nation in OR%). Although, on at least one occasion, Britt made a poor “crash vs. retreat in defensive transition” decision that led to an easy UK hoop. Cross-matches (especially with the wings) were a bit of an issue in this game, too, so UNC will need to do a better job of awareness and communication in transition.

Late-Game Execution

Though there were many important plays that preceded that point, let’s start this examination with 1:46 left in the game (right after UK botched its 2-on-1 transition lob).

  • UNC ran one of its favorite sets plays from its box formation– the “elevator doors” option for Jackson. The Heels executed it flawlessly, leading to a clean top-of-the-key 3 that Jackson knocked down to give UNC a 98-95 lead.
  • UK answered right back by running its staggered screen to create a wing iso for Monk. Williams defended it really, really well, but Monk hit an NBA-caliber shot. No execution issues here.
  • On UNC’s next trip, Berry and Hicks ran a pick-and-roll to create a UK switch (Humphries on Berry). Berry perhaps settled for a long 2-pointer over the 7-footer (although he’s great from mid-range off the dribble), but Hicks was able to easily grab the offensive rebound after the switch left a smaller defender on him. Rather than throwing up a rushed second-chance shot from the mid-paint, Hicks wisely kicked it back out for an offensive reset. Roy called for another box set from the sidelines, leading to a post entry to Hicks (following a solid Williams backscreen) and a subsequent cut by Jacks0n for the “and-1” lay-up. He missed the free throw, but a Maye back-tap gave UNC the ball with a 100-98 lead and a 13-second differential on the game and shot clocks.
  • The Heels again ran pick-and-roll action between Berry and Hicks (with about 15 on the shot clock). This time, Berry turned down the ball screen, crossing over and beating Fox. Great help by the hedging Humphries prevented Berry from reaching the rim, forcing him into a contested, wrong-foot prayer. While this may have seemed like a bad decision (and was undoubtedly a tough shot), I liked the option of running a 2-man game with Berry and Hicks. And. following the switch, Berry on Humphries seemed like an exploitable matchup for the Heels. Humphries moved his feet well and played a really good defensive possession. Sometimes you just need to tip your cap to the other guy, in my opinion. Even though Jackson had a huge game, I’ll take my chances with the ball in Berry’s hand in that situation (it should be noted that Jackson was strategically positioned in the strong-side corner for a kick-out pass, but Briscoe did a good job of not overhelping on the drive).
  • See above for how Berry’s miss turned into a scramble-situation 3 for Monk to give UK a 101-100 lead.
  • With about nine seconds left, Berry entered the ball to Hicks on the right block. This was the fifth time in the final 6:24 (when Hicks returned to the game with four fouls) that Hicks got a touch on the right block. The first four all resulted in UNC scores: 1.) pindown screen for Jackson, both UK defenders ran at the shooter resulting in an easy entry to Hicks for a drop-step layup; 2.) a secondary break entry from Berry (not dissimilar to the final possession—although deeper post position) which resulted in a Hicks leaner after he spun over his right shoulder to the middle of the paint; nice move; 3.) following a UNC side-out, the Heels ran Hicks off of a Williams backscreen to create a post touch for him (Jackson threw the entry); this one was pushed out a bit further by UK, forcing Hicks to hit a contested turnaround jumper from about 12 feet; Fox doubled off of Williams to help out here; 4.) from the box set, Hicks used the Williams backscreen to receive a Berry entry feed, then hit the slashing Jackson
    • All of that detail is to say: Carolina was having pretty good success feeding Hicks on the right block down the stretch. This time, he was again pushed further off the block by Humphries. Hicks decided to face up the taller, slower defender (probably a good choice), before quickly spinning into a contested turnaround jumper. Fox helped late (after Hicks had already begun his spin), timing it such that a kick-out pass to Berry would have been very hard to execute (since Hicks had his back to the oncoming help and was in mid-move). It ended up being a tough, well-defended shot by Humphries (whose defense was excellent in the final minute—he was probably UK’s unsung hero), but I wouldn’t classify it as a bad/low-probability opportunity.
  • To TO or not to TO? In general, I’m a fan of letting the offense attack an unset defense in situations like this. Kentucky’s defense wasn’t exactly scrambling, but would have been even more set following a timeout. It’s interesting to consider, though, what UNC might have called following a TO. Possibly something with Jackson curling off a screen at the elbow (with a second option of pick-and-roll with Berry/Hicks if the curl to Jackson was tightly defended)? Yes, I would have preferred having Jackson or Berry making the ultimate shot/pass decision. But, no, I’m not going to strongly second-guess the post entry to Hicks and the resulting opportunity it created to potentially win the game.
  • I did think the set-out set necessitating the perfect execution of the cross-court pass by Maye was a curious one. Against a defense as quick and athletic as UK’s, that’s almost impossible to pull off successfully. UNC’s run that set a handful of time in those situations (including similar ends of halves) without ever pulling it off. Though at that point, we’re probably just debating a, say 5% probability of winning vs. a <1% one.

Final Random Thoughts

  • While Isaiah Hicks’s third foul (committed while laying on the floor) was certainly questionable, and the Roy Williams technical that it prompted justifiable, the whole sequence began when Hicks left his feet unnecessarily as a help defender. Bradley had established a textbook wall on Humphries to force a really tough shot. Rather than going for a low-probability block, Hicks should have immediately located Gabriel to box him out. Brice Johnson, even as an all-American senior, had a penchant for gambling on these unlikely blocks (and sacrificing defensive rebounding position in the process). I do agree with Coach Williams that Hicks is unfairly targeted by refs at times. But he also needs to do a much better job of not putting himself into bad situations on the floor.
  • Berry’s fourth foul resulted following a BLOB in which Bradley was switched onto Fox with Berry on Adebayo (he picked up the foul trying to keep Bam off of the offensive glass). Earlier in the game, another BLOB set resulted in an identical Bradley-on-Fox mismatch, which Fox easily exploited for a crossover lay-up. The reason for all these BLOB mismatches is due to how Carolina defends baseline underneath action: putting its longest defender (or, these days, sometimes just its 4-man) on the ball then playing a matchup zone behind it (and quickly scrambling to the nearest man once the ball is entered). Teams who have done their homework have been exploiting these BLOB mismatches for years now (Virginia Tech with Malcolm Delaney was excellent at doing so). The upside is that UNC will force on occasional turnover by tipping the entry with its length. But that advantage is somewhat negated when it’s Luke Maye on the ball (as in the case when Berry picked up his fourth) rather than, say, John Henson.
  • I was watching Tony Bradley closely during his extended stints, and he did seem to clearly tire towards the end of them (RoyW mentioned that Bradley’s conditioning was still a work-in-progress). At the end of one stint, he drifted out of position (near the top of the key) and the team allowed two offensive rebounds with its center out of the paint (and not working hard to get back in it). He followed that up by immediately missing a lay-up on the other end. His missed dunk also came near the end of a nearly 5-minute stint. As good as Bradley is already, there’s certainly room for improvement as he gets in better shape/can play longer, harder stints.