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Wrapping Up the Duke Win

Wrapping Up the Duke Win

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

Efficiency by Possession Length

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

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

 

Pinson as a Passer

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

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

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

 

Carolina’s Defense / Guarding the 3

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

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

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

 

 

OK, on to Brooklyn!

Closing Out a Championship

Closing Out a Championship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pack-Line Problems

Pack-Line Problems

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

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

Shot Distribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNC vs. the Big-to-Big Double

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

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

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

Attacking the Hard Hedge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Jackson Makes His Case

Jackson Makes His Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pinson’s Passing

Pinson’s Passing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNC’s Early Offense

UNC’s Early Offense

Yesterday, we looked at Carolina’s efficiency in the early offense (first 10 seconds of the shot clock) versus the half-court (seconds 11-30 of the clock). Against Virginia, true transition (i.e, primary break) opportunities are always at a premium, but that doesn’t mean that a team can’t create plenty of “early offense” chances against Tony Bennett’s team (through things like the secondary break, put-backs, and BLOBs/special situations). And, as seen in the piece from yesterday, the Heels have been more dominant in the half-court this season than in their (generally) preferred early offense.

A big storyline going into yesterday’s game was: who would win the battle of tempo? Since it’s much easier to slow down a game than speed it up, a better way to phrase the question might be: which team would win the early-offense battle, and which would win the half-court battle? Of course, if the same team won both of these facets, that team would obviously win the game (and possibly even dominate it). Yesterday, that team was North Carolina.

Let’s start by breaking down each team’s offensive efficiency by shot-clock segment:

Not surprisingly, Carolina had the clear advantage in early-offense opportunities. The Heels used 44% of their possessions within the first 10 seconds, nearly double the rate of Virginia (23%). In conjunction with UNC’s efficiency advantage in the half-court (a +29.7 margin in seconds 1-10), that gave the Heels a huge +18 (30-12) advantage in early-offense points. Despite having significantly fewer half-court opportunities than the Cavaliers, Carolina compensated by being dramatically more efficient with those chances (a half-court efficiency margin of +43.1). That resulted in a +6 in half-court scoring for North Carolina on Saturday night (35-29). When combining those two UNC advantages, it’s no surprise that the game was a blowout.

The one shot-clock segment that Virginia did control on both ends was late-clock situations. Carolina has held scoreless in its seven possessions in the final six seconds of the clock (0-4, with misses by Berry, Jackson, Britt, and Meeks with 3 TOs (by Berry, Jackson, and Woods (although it was erroneously charged to Britt in the box-score)). Seconds 25-30 of the clock was actually UVa’s most efficient segment, as it scored seven points in eight such possessions. Carolina, as it’s been all season, was especially lethal in seconds 18-24 of the shot clock. That’s generally a sweet spot that occurs after the offense has made the defense shift/probed for openings, but before it’s constrained by an expiring shot clock. In ACC games, the Heels have posted an offensive efficiency of 131.8 in that segment (in 132 possessions). Against the ‘Hoos, it was an even more impressive 177.8. This has also been UNC’s ACC opponents’ most-efficient half-court segment (as it generally is, perhaps for the “sweet spot” hypothesis I postulated above), but the Heels held UVa. to just 0.69 points per possession in seconds 18-24 (on a healthy 16 possessions).

Let’s quickly recap how the Heels created their 26 early-offense opportunities against Virginia, leading to 30 points. As mentioned earlier, the Cavs rarely give up true fast-break points since they generally concede crashing the offensive glass in favor of floor balance/getting back in transition defense. But that’s part of the beauty of Roy Williams’ secondary break system. These are listed chronologically:

  1. Out of one of Carolina’s signature secondary-break actions, Pinson threw a lob for a Hicks dunk. Hicks received a Berry back screen after setting a ball screen for Pinson. Pinson continues to set up UNC’s big for easy hoops: his three assists against Virginia were all to post players (two to Meeks, and this one to Hicks) for a dunk, a layup, and a short hook shot.
  2. Using a secondary-break ball screen from Meeks, Pinson drove the lane but was called for a push-off/offensive foul. His five turnovers this season are three bad passes and two offensive fouls (to go along with 30 assists, plus seven FT assists).
  3. After Berry picked up a backcourt steal, he missed a floater in the lane following the live-ball turnover.
  4. This one was created by another live-ball turnover—this time it was Britt stripping a driving Perrantes with Jackson picking up the loose ball. Jackson pushed it coast-to-coast to draw a foul in a rare primary break opportunity against UVa. He split the free throws.
  5. Jackson hit a secondary break 3 after coming off a Maye screen to receive a dribble hand-off from Britt near the top of the key (shading towards Jackson’s preferred left wing). This transition opportunity was preceded by a long 3-point miss from UVa with a second left on the clock, leading to a long rebound by Bradley.
  6. Bradley tipped around an offensive rebound several times before it was eventually secured by Maye. Maye immediately shoveled it back to Bradley for a FT assist at the rim. Bradley split a pair of free throws, and this was more evidence of the chemistry that’s developed between Carolina’s back-up frontcourt duo.
  7. Berry carelessly lost his dribble out of bounds when attempting to start Carolina’s secondary break from the right wing. It was Berry’s team-high 10th ball-handling turnover of the season (although Woods’ per-40 rate of ball-handling TOs is nearly three times as high as Berry’s).
  8. In a seldom-used baseline out of bounds (BLOB) set, Roy Williams called a play to create a look for the red-hot Jackson. He curled off a staggered double screen from Hicks and Robinson to receive a Woods pass from his left-wing hot spot (Jackson’s made 34-of-65 3s (52.3%) from the left wing, including 2-of-4 vs. Virginia). Although he missed this one, I thought it was a great call by Williams to get his leading scorer a shot.
  9. Woods waved the trailing Hicks out of his usual secondary spot at the top of the key in order to set up a quick hitter out of UNC’s 1-4 alignment. Jackson curled off of a Hicks screen to receive a pass from Woods and hit a floater in the paint while drawing an “and-1.” He’s convert the old-fashioned 3-point play to give UNC a 25-12 lead.
  10. In another secondary break staple, Hicks slipped a screen to receive a pass from Jackson for a dunk. I’m sure the staff worked on this one in practice, as Virginia’s ball screen defense makes it susceptible for the secondary slip. Jackson had a downright Pinsonian game passing the basketball. His six assists resulted in two dunks (to Hicks), three layups (two to Meeks, including an “and-1” and one to Berry), and Pinson corner 3.
  11. After a Pinson steal, he pushed the ball in the primary break to Jackson on the left wing. As Jackson looked to pull the ball back rather than attack the hoop, he was called for a travel.
  12. Bradley blocked a driving layup by Darius Thompson to launch a primary break opportunity. Jackson corralled the defensive board and immediately pushed it himself, hitting Berry for an easy layup as he filled the right wing in transition.
  13. Jackson fed Bradley with a secondary break post entry pass to the left block. Bradley, who had established deep position, wasn’t doubled by Virginia, and missed a good look at a short jump hook over his left shoulder (his go-to post move/location).
  14. After a Meeks block, Pinson grabbed the defensive board and went coast to coast for a primary-break “and-1.” Another example of great Carolina defense fueling its transition game (like the Bradley block above).
  15. Once again a Meeks blocked shot got the Heels out in transition. This time, Berry missed a layup from the right side after making a nifty behind-the-back, hesitation-dribble drive (the quintessential “everything but the finish” play).
  16. Meeks controlled another second-half defensive rebound, throwing an outlet to Jackson who missed a transition 3-pointer. This was a tough, contested 3 off the dribble, and immediately led to a Virginia run-out/open Shayok layup. Jackson didn’t do much wrong on Saturday night, but this shot selection qualifies as one of his poor decisions.
  17. In another secondary break action, Pinson curled off a Meeks screen, then hit the rolling big for a lefty layup. A great pass by Pinson, and another example of the secondary break creating a quick score (although not one that’s considered “fast break” points in the box score).
  18. Woods threw a secondary-break entry to Meeks on the left block, and the ‘Hoos immediately sent their big-to-big post double. Hicks, the trailing big in secondary, cut hard from his top-of-the-key position to receive a Meeks pass for an open dunk. Hockey assist to Woods, and a great job of attacking Virginia’s post-trapping scheme with a well-timed dive to to rim.
  19. After Britt missed a secondary-break corner 3 that was created by a Berry-Bradley pick-and-roll, Jackson crashed the glass to tip in the miss for his only second-half hoop.
  20. Maye picked up a 3-second violation while trying to establish deep post position against an undersized Devon Hall (playing the 4 in UVa’s small-ball formation). This is, of course, rarely called, and is the cost of doing business in the secondary break/Roy Williams system.
  21. Following a Perrantes drive and miss, Virginia’s floor balance was uncharacteristically out of sync (this too-frequently happens to UNC, too, following Berry’s drives). This enabled Jackson to push it himself following a defensive rebound and hit Hicks for a primary-break dunk. Hicks flew down the floor on this play, simply out-running the Virginia bigs. The ability of Carolina’s starting wings (Pinson/Jackson) to defensive board and push the pace themselves is turning into a huge weapon for the Heels.
  22. Running the same 1-4 quick-hitter set that resulted in his earlier “and’1,” Jackson curled off another Hicks screen, but this time missed the floater in the paint. Using this set more has been a nice adjustment that takes advantage of Jackson’s skill-set/ability as a curler.
  23. In another secondary set, Hicks, rather than receiving the reversal pass from Berry, set a screen for Pinson to curl off of. This allowed Pinson to get into the paint off the dribble and finish a contested scoop shot at the rim. Pinson’s ability to penetrate and finish at the rim has obviously given the Heels’ offense a whole new dimension lately.
  24. After throwing a secondary-break pass to Jackson from the top of the key, Meeks followed his pass to set a ball screen on the left wing. Jackson tried to split the Virginia hard hedge, resulting in a ball-handling turnover. Again, no huge issues here—just the cost of doing business in the secondary break.
  25. Pinson hit Maye on the right block with a secondary-break entry pass, then the Cavs came immediately with their big-to-big double. Maye quickly found an alertly-cutting Jackson, who missed a layup that he’ll generally finish. Meeks, however, was in perfect position for a tip-dunk—more evidence of how good offensive ball/player movement sets up Carolina’s elite offensive rebounding game.
  26. On another right-block entry from the right wing, Pinson got the ball to Meeks in deep post position (too deep to double). Meeks turned immediately and banked in a short jump hook to cap off his 13-point second-half performance.

As seen in the recap above, Carolina used a variety of secondary break sets to create early offense against Virginia. It also mixed in a couple of opportunistic primary breaks off of live-ball turnovers or defensive boards by its wings/blocked shots by its bigs. While this game was undisputedly played at Virginia’s pace (59.5 possessions—only the seventh game of the 14-year Williams era played below 60 possessions; UNC’s won all seven), the Heels were still able to create their share of early offense. In an average game, UNC uses about 55% of its possessions in the first 10 seconds (down from a Williams-era average of about 60%). That dropped to 44% on Saturday night. But, as discussed, Carolina’s impressive half-court efficiency this season (particularly in the possession-length sweet spot of 18-24 seconds) has enabled it to win both fast and slow. That combination of early-offense and half-court efficiency figures to make this Tar Heel team an especially tough out in March.

 

 

 

 

Starting Fresh

Starting Fresh

With the announcement of the sad news that Kenny Williams is likely done for the season following knee surgery, Carolina debuted its new starting 5 on Wednesday night in Raleigh. While this group hadn’t started a game together all season (and, in fact, had only logged 7:16 as a quintet), the idea of a Berry-Pinson-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks unit certainly wasn’t a novel one to Tar Heel fans. That lineup—the expected starting group going into the season—almost certainly gives UNC its best combination of talent and experience at all five spots. If Carolina is planning to make a deep run this March in a post-Williams world, it will be leaning heavily on its new starting 5.

Let’s break down how the new starting lineup performed together to begin the game. Its minutes were limited last night due to Isaiah Hicks’ rapid rate of racking up fouls. Still, the new quintet highlighted some things it does well (and also a couple areas it will need to work on).

UNC1 (2-0): In a coaching wrinkle, NC State started out small with Torin Dorn at the 4. Running its freelance motion, Carolina capitalized on this strategy right away, posting Hicks up against Maverick Rowan (who switched with Dorn on a perimeter exchange earlier in the possession). Hicks, who received the ball away from the block on the right extended mid-paint on an entry pass from Justin Jackson, took one big back-down dribble, then simply exploded over Rowan for a layup to start the scoring.

NCSU1 (2-0): With their 4-out, 1-in lineup, the ‘Pack made it clear right away what they intended to do on the offensive end. Abdul-Malik Abu set a ball screen for explosive point guard Dennis Smith, Jr., forcing a flat hedge by Meeks as Berry fought over the top. Smith’s pure speed allowed him to easily get into the middle of the paint, drawing help from Pinson. Smith kicked out to the left corner, where Rowan missed a clean 3-point look with Pinson scrambling to recover late. This was a great look for one of NC State’s best shooters, and the type of opportunity that ACC teams have been creating all season against the Heels. Luckily, Rowan missed, with Meeks corralling the defensive board.

UNC2 (2-0): Carolina ran its secondary break, flowing right into the freelance passing game. It again looked to feed the post, this time with Jackson entering the ball to Meeks on the left block. Abu did a good job of bodying up against Meeks’ two back-down dribbles, forcing a contested turnaround jumper from the left baseline. Meeks missed, and is now shooting just 23.5% (4-17) on turnaround jumpers this season. It couldn’t be said often last night, but this was a good individual defensive effort by NC State.

NCSU2 (2-2): State went right back to another Smith/Abu ball screen, allowing Smith to crossover a flat-hedging Meeks to get to the rim. Meeks played it properly, but Smith is just an elite athlete. Hicks’ help rotation/contest at the rim was also solid—Smith just made a big-time finish.

UNC3 (5-2): Out of the secondary break, Hicks set a screen for Jackson who received a pass from Berry for a top-of-the-key 3. The shot missed, but Hicks was able to out-battle the smaller Dorn to force the rebound out of bounds against State. On the ensuing BLOB, the ball went around the horn to Berry (after he inbounded and cut to the opposite wing). He then received a ball screen from Hicks, rising up for a left-wing 3 off the dribble after an NC State miscommunication on the switch.

NCSU3 (5-2): This time, Smith turned down an Abu high screen to drive the right-side of the lane against Berry. Berry did a serviceable job of staying connected to Smith on the drive, but a Pinson over-help forced a help-the-helper rotation by Jackson on Rowan in the paint. Rowan promptly kicked out to Henderson (Jackson’s man) on the left wing, who missed a clean look over a late-recovering Jackson. For the second time in three possessions, Smith penetration led to a clean kick-out 3 for one of the ‘Pack’s best shooters. They missed both shots, however. There will probably be a learning curve for the new starting 5 with Pinson, as the team learns how to best compensate for his proclivity for gambling/over-helping.

UNC4 (7-2): Secondary again flowed seamlessly into freelance motion, with Pinson crossing over to get to the left elbow. From there, he threw a David Noel-style jump shot-turned-pass to Meeks under the hoop for the layup. Pinson (easily) leads the Heels in potential close assists, and all four of his assists against NC State were for layups. He also had two FT assists that led to shooting fouls at the rim. His four assists (and two FT assists) were all to Carolina’s bigs, too. On the season, 16 of his 27 assists (plus all seven of his FT assists) are to the UNC post quartet of Meeks/Hicks/Bradley/Maye. If you’re a Tar Heel big, you’re probably quite excited to have Pinson back in the lineup.

NCSU4 (7-4): State pushed the ball in transition, and Pinson did a fantastic job of stopping Terry Henderson’s penetration in the open court. Henderson, however, did hit a tough, step-back jumper over Pinson after having his drive denied. The ‘Pack had zero offensive rebounding support on this attempt, and a long 2-pointer a few seconds into the shot clock probably didn’t qualify as great shot selection.

UNC5 (9-4): After Pinson (on the right wing) passed up a post entry to Meeks on the right block, he rotated the ball to Jackson on the left wing. Jackson swung the ball to Berry in the left corner, allowing Meeks to cut block-to-block to receive a bounce-pass entry there. Abu gambled for a steal, leaving Meeks open to finish a reverse layup against half-hearted help-side defense. This wasn’t a great entry by Berry, and it probably would have been stolen by a better/quicker post defender (Amile Jefferson, for example). It was a good job by the Heels to reverse the ball, however, and Meeks worked hard to create post position on each block.

NCSU5 (9-5): Smith again turned down an Abu ball screen (the fourth time in State’s first five possessions that Abu was used as a high screener for Smith), blowing past Berry on the bounce. This time, Pinson did not help, electing to stick close to Henderson in the right corner (as Smith drove the right-side of the paint again). Hicks, then, was forced to help late at the rim, fouling Smith to prevent a thunderous dunk. He split a pair of free throws.

UNC6 (12-5): After Berry drew a secondary break (non-shooting) foul on Smith with a drive, his ensuing BLOB entry was nearly stolen by Rowan. Carolina was able to recover the loose ball, with the chaos creating a drive-and-kick opportunity for Hicks. He found Jackson open on his preferred left wing location, but the shot was missed. Hicks, however, crashed to grab another offensive rebound against the overmatched Dorn, drop-stepping to the rim to draw an “and-1” opportunity on the put-back. It was Hicks’ 10th “and-1” of the season (second only to Meeks’ 11) and, upon making the free throw, he’s completed eight of them.

NCSU6 (12-5): Another ‘Pack possession, another Abu ball screen for Smith. He again turned this one down, driving on Berry to force a Pinson help rotation. Smith kicked to the right corner to Henderson, but Pinson’s well-timed recovery ran him off the 3-point line. Pinson took a great close-out angle to force Henderson’s drive to the baseline, allowing Berry to help out and strip the ball (which he saved to an alert Meeks). This was a great help-and-recovery by Pinson, and a good job of Berry helping on the baseline drive (after the dribble was correctly fanned in that direction by Pinson). Really good defensive possession; UNC will need more like this against the steady diet of drive-and-kick/ball-screen offense that it figures to see the rest of the way.

UNC7 (12-5): Pushing the ball after the live-ball turnover, Berry hit it ahead to Jackson on the right wing, who immediately found Hicks filling the middle of the lane. Henderson basically shoved Hicks coming through the paint (uncalled), knocking him off balance to force a missed transition layup. Even with the contact, this is the type of play that Hicks (an elite close finisher) generally completes.

NCSU7 (12-7): State pushed it right back following the Hicks miss in transition, with Smith attempting a right-wing 3. Pinson did an excellent job of locating the ball and closing out on the shooter in the open court, helping to force the Smith miss. Abu out-battled Meeks for the long rebound, then kicked it out for an offensive reset. Smith, after using s0me slick shake-and-bake dribbling at the top of the key to freeze Berry, was able to blow by to draw a helping Meeks. Smith dished to Abu, who was able to pick up the second foul on Hicks who had rotated to help the helper. Abu made both free throws. Both of Hicks’ early fouls were as a result of Smith blow-bys on Berry (not involving ball screens). He needs to do a better job of contesting without fouling (walling without dropping his arms), but Carolina also needs to contain penetration better (easier said than done against the lightning-quick Smith). Maye would check in for Hicks at the 16:01 mark.

Following the 12-7 start documented above, the Heels would force turnovers on NC State’s next three possessions, and the Berry-Britt-Jackson-Maye-Bradley combo would go on an 11-3 run to push the lead out to 23-10. That lineup also had a 10-3 second-half run, and led 23-8 in its 6:53 of action as Maye-Bradley (possibly next year’s starting frontcourt) continues to impress from a +/- perspective.

As for the starting 5, it led 14-9 in its 6:12 of court time (Hicks would pick up his fourth foul 2:13 into the second half and not return). On the season, that group is now +15 (34-19) in 13.5 minutes, dominating on both ends so far in its small sample of shared court time (offensive efficiency of 138.8; defensive efficiency of 77.6).

I’m still working to finish charting this game, but will be back soon with a breakdown of Maye’s game against NC State and his development over the course of the season.

The Emergence of Seventh Woods

The Emergence of Seventh Woods

One clear bright spot in Thursday night’s loss to Duke was the play of Seventh Woods. In an extended (6:33) first-half stint, he made a profound impact on the game. After a wild start to the season (which included pops of brilliance splattered on a canvas of recklessness), Woods has demonstrated much better decision-making since ACC play has begun.

If step one on his journey was to stop making so many bad decisions, step two will be to mix in more positive plays (while maintaining that lower rate of errors). If the Duke game was any indication, Woods is well on his way to taking that evolutionary leap. Let’s take a look at Woods’ offensive possessions against the Blue Devils:

1st Half

  1. Following a Woods pass to the left wing, Justin Jackson knocked down a 3-pointer after using a jab step to create space. This one wasn’t credited as an assist since Jackson used some isolation moves/footwork to set up the shot. Still, it was a good example of Woods making the simple play to get the Heels’ top scorer the ball in a preferred location (Jackson’s lethal from the left wing).
  2. Jackson missed a contested floater in transition; no Woods touch on this possession.
  3. Woods missed a floater in the secondary break after running a pick-and-pop with Jackson (at the 4 in this lineup). This was a strong attack off the dribble, and the shot was just short (and almost got a soft roll).
  4. Woods delivered a simple entry pass to Jackson on the left block. As Jackson tried to back down the shorter Matt Jones, he was stripped of the ball for a turnover. Despite the turnover, this was another good example of Woods making a simple play to get the ball to a good spot.
  5. Following a Brandon Robinson post entry pass to Kennedy Meeks on the left block, Woods made a great cut to the front of the rim (as Jones was caught ball-watching). Meeks fed Woods for an easy left-handed finish at the rim. Constant movement is a must in UNC’s freelance passing game, and cuts like this (an area in which Jackson also excels) show why it’s so effective.
  6. Woods collected the loose-ball defensive rebound after a Meeks block, then immediately pushed the ball the other way. After a behind-the-back dribble, he made an accurate left-handed pass to Jackson for a lefty layup in the primary break. Woods’ ability to use his off-hand as a ball-handler, passer, and finisher is already miles ahead of Joel Berry, and is definitely a strength for him. If anything, he needs to work on using his dominant hand more/attacking to the right.
  7. After a Tony Bradley block-to-block cross-screen for Jackson, both defenders followed Jackson (as Duke miscommunicated on the switch). This left Bradley open at the rim, and Woods fired a flashy no-look pass for a dunk. Woods was heading back downcourt before the pass had even arrived, demonstrating a little of that Ed Cota swagger after a slick pass. This play also demonstrates how a top scorer like Jackson can help the offense in subtle ways (by drawing the attention of multiple defenders, in this case).
  8. Woods received a secondary break dribble hand-off from Bradley, then made a simple perimeter pass to Luke Maye (who made a freelance cut to fill an open part of the floor). Maye knocked down a long 2 (foot on the line) from the left wing, giving Woods his third assist on as many possessions. The Heels had now scored on four consecutive possessions: a Woods hoop, followed by those three straight assists.
  9. Maye, after receiving a pass in the right corner, had his shot blocked as he attempted a spinning floater in the paint. Woods didn’t touch the ball on this trip.
  10. Using a high ball screen from Maye in secondary, Woods was able to get to his preferred left side to complete the play with an off-hand finger roll. This was a tremendously skilled finish, showcasing his great body control. Woods has been a poor finisher this year (42.3% (11-26) on close attempts, including 5-of-14 (35.7%) from the left-side of the rim and 9-of-19 (47.4%) off the dribble), but will take his scoring to a more dangerous level once he starts to make shots like this on a more consistent basis.
  11. Woods, again getting a secondary break ball screen (this time from Bradley), was able to split the double team (hedger and recovering on-ball defender) and get in the paint. After forcing a help defender to step up in the paint, Woods delivered a drive, draw, and dish to Maye on the right block. Maye had his layup attempt engulfed by Marques Bolden, but it was still a great job of creating a close opportunity by Woods. Had this pass been made to, say, Isaiah Hicks, it almost certainly would have been another assist. As it is, it’ll go down as a “potential close assist” in the charting stats. Woods’ handle was a little bit shaky when splitting the ball screen defense, but he was able to get through unscathed. Improving his ball-handling will be another way that Woods takes his game to the next level (allowing him to use his great quickness to make more plays like this one more easily).

2nd Half

  1. Nate Britt turned the ball over on an attempted primary break lob to Theo Pinson. No Woods touch on this possession.
  2. Another Woods mid-range assist on a routine freelance passing game feed to Maye. Maye again found a free spot to re-locate to, allowing Woods to hit him for a 16-footer from the left mid-paint extended. Nothing fancy here, but an example of making the simple play in the halfcourt offense.
  3. After a Woods station-to-station perimeter pass to Britt was deflected out of bounds by an overplaying Luke Kennard, Roy Williams opted to bring Berry back in the game to close out the last 6:57 of a 70-70 game. This was Woods’ only questionable decision of the night, as it could have easily led to a live-ball turnover and Duke run-out in the other direction.

I didn’t talk much about Woods’ defense against Duke, but he was very quiet (in a good way) on that end. Defending Jones and then Frank Jackson, Woods’ only defensive box score contributions were a deflection and a defensive board. He picked up the the deflection by stripping Jackson in the paint after a good Bradley help rotation allowed Woods to recover and get his hands on the ball (it would go out of bounds to Duke). In general, Woods’ defense has been solid all year. He’s certainly made some freshman mistakes (ball-watching, gambling for steals, etc.), but his defense has been an overall positive this season. He’s on track to develop into an above-average on-ball defender, probably as early as his sophomore season.

After his 4 assists/0 turnovers line against Duke, Woods’ A:TO in ACC play improved to 22:8 (after being 18:25 in non-conference competition). On a per-40 basis:

  • Non-conference: 4.8 assists / 40, 6.6 turnovers / 40
  • Conference: 11.7 assists / 40, 4.3 turnovers / 40

The 4.3 turnovers / 40 is still a bit high (though moving rapidly in the right direction), but the 11.7 assists / 40 (22 assists in 75 ACC minutes) is off-the-charts good. Adjusted for pace, that number is 11.2 assists / 40. Over the course of an entire season, only Kendall Marshall’s 11.4 / 40 in 2012 would top it (Marshall had 9.7 / 40 as a freshman in ’11; Ed Cota’s FR-SR numbers were 9.8, 9.3, 8.6, 9.0). Obviously Woods’ current ACC assist rate in not sustainable. Nobody is mistaking him for Marshall or Cota (or even Raymond Felton) as an all-time Carolina passer. But the truth is most certainly somewhere in the middle between his 4.8 / 40 non-conference rate and his gaudy 11.7 / 40 ACC one.

Let’s take a look at some season-to-date UNC passing leaderboards to see where Woods ranks (as seen by his non-conference/ACC splits, he’s been moving way up on these lists lately):

Assists / 40 (including FT Assists)

  1. Pinson: 9.72
  2. Woods: 8.19
  3. Berry: 6.20
  4. Britt: 5.88
  5. Robinson: 5.56

Potential Assists / 40

  1. Pinson: 16.66
  2. Woods: 16.55
  3. Berry: 14.61
  4. Britt: 12.52
  5. Robinson: 10.94

Potential Close Assists / 40

  1. Pinson: 7.64
  2. Woods: 5.16
  3. Robinson: 4.51
  4. Britt: 4.41
  5. Berry: 4.34

%Open Shots (Open Potential Assists / Potential Assists)

  1. Pinson: 34.2%
  2. Meeks: 22.5%
  3. Woods: 20.9%
  4. Hicks: 17.5%
  5. Britt: 17.3%

The bad news, of course, has been the rate of passing turnovers for Woods—nearly twice as high as the next-highest Heel (although, again, trending in the right direction) :

Passing TO / 40

  1. Woods: 3.55
  2. Berry: 1.86
  3. Maye: 1.42
  4. Britt: 1.24
  5. Williams: 1.03

Passing TO% (Passing TO / Potential Assists)

  1. Woods: 21.5%
  2. Meeks: 16.9%
  3. Maye: 15.4%
  4. Hicks: 15.4%
  5. Berry: 12.7%

Woods’ scoring (and scoring efficiency) has also been way done in ACC games. After scoring 11.4 points / 40 in non-conference play on a TS% of 48.5, those numbers have dropped to 5.3 and 24.7% in the ACC. Woods is also drawing significantly fewer fouls in league games (FTA Rate of 56.3 vs. 90.3 in the non-conference). That’s to be expected with Woods’ evolutionary journey of first eliminating the bad plays (which has made him less aggressive/more focused on making the simple play). Some of the good (attacking the rim to draw fouls/score) has been temporarily shelved since it didn’t outweigh the bad. But, as the Duke game may have portended, Woods may soon be to the next step in his journey as a Carolina point guard: a stage in which the good/aggressive plays are more prevalent, but not interspersed with so many bad ones (i.e., knowing when to attack and when to make the smart/simple/safe play). Learning the UNC system isn’t easy for any freshman point guard. But if the recent signs are to be believed, Seventh Woods is close to having a breakthrough.

 

Defending Duke’s Threes

Defending Duke’s Threes

Here’s a quick breakdown of how Duke created its 13 made 3-pointers on Thursday night. I only focused on the made 3s, but (generally) the missed 3s were created in the same manner—a combination of high-screen/iso drive-and-kicks and dribble hand-offs. Most of the misses were charted as “lightly contested” t00.

For the game, I categorized Duke’s 3s into the following levels of contestedness:

  • Open: 1-2
  • Lightly contested: 12-22
  • Contested: 0-3
  • Heavily contested: 0-0

Open can be interpreted as “wide open” (i.e., no one closing out at all). Lightly contested is what we’re more familiar with as Carolina fans: a defender closing out late following a help-and-recovery (or giving too much space on the perimeter/having his hand down, etc.). These 3s will be listed chronologically:

  1. Allen, lightly contested, right corner, drive-and-kick: Duke created this 3 in its secondary break. Tatum, after receiving a top of the key pass from Allen, immediately attacked Maye off the dribble. Allen smartly relocated to the corner, freeing himself for a kick-out after Berry reached in to slow Tatum’s penetration. Berry was in a tough spot here. Had he not reached in, Tatum would have (probably) finished over Maye at the rim or created a drive-and-dish to Jefferson for a rim attempt. Due to the Tatum-Maye mismatch, I would consider this an appropriate help rotation by Berry (whose recovery was slowed by Allen’s movement off the ball).
  2. Allen, lightly contested, left wing, high screen: This was another secondary break 3, as Jefferson set an early ball screen for Allen before the Devils got into any offensive set. Meeks flat-hedged the screen adequately, but Jackson made the cardinal sin of going under the ball screen versus a shooter. Capitalizing on this mistake, Allen quickly launched a deep 24-footer. I should note that not all “lightly contested” 3s are “easy” 3s. Allen had space here, but his quick release and ability to pull up off the dribble still made this a tough shot for the average college shooter. In general, though, there’s a high correlation between how contested a 3 is and how difficult it is.
  3. Jackson, lightly contested, left corner, high screen: Duke ran a 4/5 ball screen with Bolden setting one for Tatum. Maye and Meeks correctly switched this exchange, and Meeks did a nice job with his footwork and positioning to control Tatum’s drive. In this case (unlike 1.), Berry’s help was unwarranted and opened up a kick-out to Jackson in the left corner. This was a classic example of a Carolina overhelp against non-threatening penetration (Berry, Britt, and Pinson are the most frequent offenders here). Granted, in real-time, it’s not always easy to discern a “non-threatening” drive from a “threatening” one (and Carolina’s default is almost always to err on the side of helping early—although they will occasionally gameplan to stick to/not help off of certain shooters).
  4. Allen, open, right wing, transition: Allen got a wide-open 3-pointer in transition after Berry had his floater blocked before falling to the floor. The bad shot selection here essentially turned it into a live-ball turnover, exacerbated by the fact that Berry ended up on the ground/out of the play. In general, UNC’s struggled with floor balance following Berry drives (which usually falls on the other wings to be aware of their transition responsibilities/not crash for offensive boards).
  5. Jones, lightly contested, right corner, floppy set: Duke ran a floppy set for Jones, who, instead of curling around the screen like Kennard did all night, flared out to the corner. He read the defense well (which is why this set can be so effective), as Kenny Williams tried to take a shortcut around the screen. This resulted in a bad closeout angle for Williams, who got caught up in the Jefferson screen when trying to recover to Jones in the corner. Good offense here, but also a poor job of screen navigation by Williams.
  6. Allen, lightly contested, left wing, BLOB: In this half-ending play, Carolina got into its typical mismatch situations following opponents’ baseline out of bounds plays. Since the Heels were going small, the Pinson-on-Allen matchup wasn’t a terrible one. Even so, Duke isolated Allen and he was able to cross over Pinson (with some help from an extended off arm, perhaps) to create plenty of room for a 3 off the dribble. This is another one in the category of “lightly contested, but not easy” 3-pointers.
  7. Kennard, lightly contested, left corner, drive-and-kick: After Allen, driving from the right wing, beat Jackson off the dribble without the help of a screen, he kicked out to the left corner for a clean Kennard 3. This was a classic case of overhelping by Williams. Both Meeks and Maye were already in the paint as help defenders, and Williams became the fourth Heel in the paint when he needlessly rotated down from the corner.
  8. Kennard, lightly contested, right wing, transition: After a Jackson live-ball turnover (trying to save an offensive rebound while falling out of bounds), Duke pushed it the other way. After a failed Allen-to-Tatum lob, the ball was kicked out to Kennard. Berry was actually in pretty decent position, but was just a half-step slow to locate and recover to the shooter in transition.
  9. Allen, lightly contested, right wing, off the dribble: Duke didn’t run any type of set here at all. Allen simply recognized that Jackson was giving him too much cushion, and pulled up for a quick, deep 3 off the bounce. While Jackson does need to stick to shooters tighter, this was a big-time shot by Allen.
  10. Tatum, lightly contested, left corner, high screen: This was the first of three consecutive possessions that Duke ran a ball screen with Kennard and Giles (defended by Williams and Meeks). Williams fought over the top (each time) with Meeks flat-hedging it. On this one, Williams has late to the recover to the driving Kennard, forcing Meeks to recover late to the rolling Giles. Those late recoveries meant that Pinson needed to maintain his help position in the middle of the paint to prevent a dunk/lob for the rolling Giles. Kennard, who expertly uses change of pace when attacking off of ball screens, was able to kick out to the free Tatum in the left corner as Pinson’s closeout was way late (through no fault of his own). On the very next possession, a tentative Pinson (after just getting burned for a corner 3) did not get nearly as deep in the paint to help against the roller. Williams and Meeks were again slow to their respective recoveries, this time resulting in a Kennard-to-Giles pass for an open dunk. While Carolina fans often bemoan the Heels’ penchant for overhelping, these two consecutive (identical) plays show the risks associated with both overhelping (clean 3) and underhelping (open dunk) on a well-executed pick-and-roll. It’s often a lose-lose situation, especially when complicated by roster/personnel issues (i.e., Meeks’ lack of foot speed on recoveries).
  11. Allen, lightly contested, right wing, drive-and-kick: This one started with a great defensive sequence by Berry to force a deep Allen catch, then cut off his dribble penetration to force a kick-out. In another BLOB-generated mismatch, Tatum immediately drove on a much-smaller Britt. This forced Berry to make an early help/not-help decision. He actually did a good job with his help-and-recovery (after cheating off Allen a bit to slow Tatum’s penetration; probably the right call given the Britt size disadvantage), but Allen had his hands ready to shoot and received a perfect pass from Tatum. This all led to a super-quick release, enabling Allen to get off the shot before Berry could recover to adequately contest it. Good fundamentals (hands/feet in shooting position, accurate pass) and a talented shooter trumped a solid defensive play by Berry here. There’s a reason why Duke’s always such a good perimeter-shooting team (good sets, good fundamentals, good players/shooters).
  12. Tatum, lightly contested, right corner, drive-and-kick: Kennard received a pin-down screen from Jefferson to get the ball isolated on Williams on the right wing. He attacked off the dribble, but was pretty well-contained by Williams. Kennard used his exaggerated ball fake in the lane to draw an overhelping Pinson, setting up a kick-out to Tatum. This was a case where Pinson’s penchant for defensive disruption was probably counterproductive. By gambling for a steal/block, he left a shooter (albeit not a great one in Tatum) open. While Kennard’s more than capable of finishing in the paint, the best bet here is probably to make him do it over Williams rather than freeing up a kick-out opportunity.
  13. Allen, lightly contested, left wing, high screen: This action was similar to 2., but this time Jackson correctly fought over the top of the Jefferson screen. Meeks again flat-hedged it. Unlike the hard hedge/show, the flat hedge is intended to control the dribbler’s penetration and force him into a mid-range jumper or offensive reset/kick-out. By fighting over the screen, the on-ball defender can run the shooter off the 3-point line, where he’s then fenced in by the flat hedger until the on-ball defender can recover. In general, this concept has been working better for Carolina than its old hard hedge of the past (which resulted in fouls on UNC’s bigs, driving/splitting opportunities, etc.). This is a more conservative/less aggressive approach, but it’s been more effective with this group of Carolina bigs, in my opinion. Anyhow, Jackson, despite fighting over the top, was unable to run Allen off the line here. His quick release enabled him to pull the trigger on a 3 before Jackson could fully free himself from the pick. This was a huge 3 by Allen to extend Duke’s lead to 80-75. It wasn’t poorly defended by Carolina, but it did take advantage of how the Heels (generally) guard ball screens and Jackson’s (relative) lack of physicality when getting through solid screens. Oh, yeah, Allen’s release is really quick, too. To paraphrase “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski: “That creep can shoot, man.”

From a defensive charting perspective, I assigned responsibility for the Duke 3s to the following UNC defenders:

  • Jackson: 3-6
  • Berry: 3-5
  • Williams: 2-3
  • Pinson: 2-2
  • Meeks: 1-3
  • Maye: 0.5-2.5
  • Britt: 0.5-1.5
  • Bradley: 0-1
  • Robinson: 0-1
  • Team: 1-2 (the make was Allen’s transition 3 after Berry’s missed floater)

From a general defensive charting perspective, the Heels were pretty balanced in terms of who allowed the points. Six UNC defenders allowed double-digit points:

  • Maye: 14.5
  • Jackson: 14
  • Britt: 13.5
  • Williams: 11
  • Berry: 11
  • Pinson: 10

Maye’s 14.5 were allowed on 5-8 shooting (and 4-4 from the line) in 20 minutes—not a great defensive box score line for him (although not too dissimilar from Hicks’ typical ACC one). Carolina, who was -18 with Maye on the floor, also allowed 1.41 PPP with him in the lineup versus “only” 1.12 with him on the bench. Of those six above, only Pinson (barely) held opponents to a sub-50% shooting percentage (3-6.5). Duke only shot 25% (1.5-6) on shots that Meeks was responsible for defending.

In general, UNC continues to be very unlucky when it comes to opposing 3-point shooting. Duke made 13-24 open/lightly contested 3s (54.2%), bringing UNC’s ACC-only average on those types of 3 to 46.9% (122-260). In non-conference play, the Heels’ opponents made just 34.0% (80-235) of open/lightly contested 3s. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle: historically, UNC opponents shot between 37-40% on open/lightly contested 3-pointers. This isn’t to excuse Carolina’s 3-point defense; it’s been very poor lately. But there are two factors at play here: 1.) preventing as many clean 3-pointers (either by contesting more, or just outright denying them) in the first place, and 2.) having better/more typical “luck” on the clean 3s that are attempted. I’m confident that the second will “improve” (i.e., regress to the historical mean). The extent to which the first does could determine how much noise the Heels make in March.

 

UNC-Duke: Crunch-Time Execution

UNC-Duke: Crunch-Time Execution

As it’s somehow cathartic, I’ll probably write a few postmortems following Thursday night’s Carolina loss to Duke. I’ll definitely do one that breaks down the Devils’ 13 made 3s by how they were created and which Carolina defenders were responsible. I’m planning to highlight Seventh Woods’ high-quality first-half minutes, too, in more detail. To start, however, I’ll simply focus on late-game execution—a common theme here at The Secondary Break after a close game. Even in its close wins, UNC’s crunch-time execution (on both ends) has often left plenty to be desired. That was the case again on Thursday.

Let’s recap it possession-by-possession, starting right after Nate Britt split a pair of free throws to give the Heels a 71-70 lead with 6:50 remaining in the game.

Carolina’s lineup was Berry-Britt-Jackson-Maye-Meeks.

DUKE1 (71-72): With Grayson Allen on the bench with four fouls, Duke ran a floppy set for Luke Kennard to isolate him against Britt on the right wing. He used his five-inch, 27-pound size advantage to drive against a well-positioned Britt and simply shoot over him. Kennedy Meeks was a step late on his help-side rotation, and lacked the vertical lift to challenge Kennard’s release once it was in the air. It banked in to give the Devils a lead—the 17th and final lead change of the contest, as it turned out.

UNC1 (71-72): Carolina ran its freelance passing game after just a cursory attempt to execute its secondary break. Meeks, fronted by a hard-working Amile Jefferson, was unable to receive a post entry pass, so Britt called for “Fist” (the Heels’ high screen set) with about 15 seconds left on the shot clock. Maye came up set a screen for Britt, then popped to the left wing. Britt, isolated on Jayson Tatum after Duke switched the screen, settled for an elbow jumper off the dribble with five seconds on the clock. He missed, and is now shooting 17.4% (4-23) on mid-range pull-ups, 13.3% (2-15) in the last six seconds of the clock, and 19.4% (7-36, including 2-21—9.5%—on 2-pointers) in the last 12 seconds of the shot clock. I’d question whether a two-man game with Britt and Maye was Carolina’s best option in a possession this big.

DUKE2 (71-72): Duke came right back to its floppy set, again choosing the option of Kennard coming off a right-block Jefferson screen to get its top scorer a touch. This time, Meeks and Britt switched the screen with Meeks forcing a tough off-hand miss in the paint for Kennard. With the smaller Britt switched on to him, Jefferson was easily able to grab the offensive board but, luckily for the Heels, missed an open tip-in.

UNC2 (71-72): Meeks grabbed the defensive board and quickly threw an outlet to Berry to start Carolina’s break. Although Berry didn’t have numbers (it was a 2-on-2 that quickly crowded into a 3-on-3), he attacked the front of the rim and had his shot blocked by Frank Jackson. Though this wasn’t a prime transition opportunity, I don’t mind Berry attacking here and trying to finish/draw a foul.

DUKE3 (71-72): This time, Duke ran another NBA staple: the horns set. It iso’ed Tatum on the right elbow after making the horns entry to him. Using a slick spin move, Tatum was able to create space against Justin Jackson for a step-back jumper. He missed a clean look, with Berry grabbing the defensive board.

UNC3 (71-72): With the Heels again running their freelance motion, Berry waved Maye off the right block and called Meeks over to that spot. With Jefferson again fronting to deny the post entry (and effectively sealed off), Berry was able to drive baseline on Kennard and draw the fourth foul on a helping Duke big man. This was good, smart basketball by Berry, and an aggressive drive to create contact. The only bad news: he missed the front-end of the 1-and-1. With his 3-of-5 showing from the line on Thursday, Berry actually dropped from first (85.0%) to sixth (84.4%—fractions below Marcus Paige) on Carolina’s career free throw percentage leaderboard (among Heels with 50+ made FTs in their careers).

At the 4:49 mark, Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams checked in for Maye and Britt, as the Heels went small with Pinson at the 4. Allen also checked in Duke, returning with four fouls.

DUKE4 (71-75): Duke used a simple pin-down screen from Jefferson to isolate Kennard against Williams on the right wing. Kennard attacked off the dribble, but was pretty well-contained by Williams. He used his signature shot fake/spin in the paint, drawing the attention of an over-helping Pinson and allowing a kick-out to an open Tatum in the right corner. Although Tatum is not a great 3-point shooter (just 31.6% with 18 made 3s on the season), it was probably a poor decision by Pinson to commit to this level of help defense in the paint (since Kennard was contained). This 3 to make it a two-possession game was an absolute dagger.

UNC4 (71-75): Another freelance possession for the Heels: this time, Berry had Allen (and his four fouls) isolated on the right wing. Instead of choosing to attack, Berry opted to hit a curling Williams who was coming around a Jackson screen at the top of the key. Williams used that screen to create a drive-and-kick opportunity, hitting Berry on the right wing for a deep 3 attempt. Although Berry can hit big, deep 3s (and, in fact, is especially dangerous from the right wing), he missed this one. Hindsight being 20-20, one could argue that Berry should have taken the foul-plagued Allen off the dribble. Had Berry hit one of his patented big 3s, though, there wouldn’t be much grumbling about this possession.

DUKE5 (71-77): After a non-shooting foul was called on Berry (on what was nearly a clean help-side steal, in my opinion) led to the under-4 timeout, Duke entered the ball from its own baseline. Carolina played its typical BLOB defense (“size”—in this case Pinson— on the ball with a tight diamond zone behind it, then scrambling to match up after the ball’s entered), leading to its typical mismatches (Williams (and ultimately Jackson) on Jefferson, Meeks on Tatum, Pinson on Allen). Duke went into its horns action again, this time with Allen feeding Jefferson at the right elbow. Allen immediately followed his pass to receive a hand-off from Jefferson, who stood Pinson up with a solid screen. Jackson, defending Jefferson after the BLOB chaos, didn’t hedge or switch the exchange, giving Allen a free lane to the rim for an uncontested dunk (Williams was a half-step late on his help rotation, but would have allowed a kick-out left-corner 3 to Kennard even if it was on time; Jackson’s inability to slow down Allen at all doomed this one from the start).

UNC5 (74-77): For the first time in this sequence, Carolina ran a set play—not surprisingly, something from its box series. There was poor timing on the screens and cuts here, and nothing useful materialized from the set (after which, the Heels were basically running freelance again). Jackson drew a help defender following a left-wing drive, kicking out to Williams who filled in at the left wing. He turned down a look at a catch-and-shoot 3, instead opting for a mid-range jumper off the dribble (after potentially pushing off on Matt Jones). Tatum came over to block Williams’ jumper, with the resulting loose ball fortuitously ending up in Jackson’s hands on the left wing. Jackson immediately knocked down a deep, 24-foot 3 from his preferred location. A big shot, for sure: but more a function of good luck than good execution. After being extremely tentative all game on the offensive end, this was a strange time for Williams to decide to create his own shot.

After cutting the lead back to one possession, Roy Williams called a timeout with 2:57 left and re-inserted Britt for Williams.

DUKE6 (74-77): The Devils went right back to its horns action, and again used the hand-off action between Allen and Jefferson on the right elbow. This time, Meeks (a much more experienced defender at the 5) immediately switched the exchange to cut off Allen’s straight-line drive. Meeks did a nice job of defending in space, forcing Allen to attempt a tough step-back 3 from the right corner. Although Allen can (and did) hit some tough 3s, this one was well short. The long rebound bounced just past the reach of a crashing Pinson, allowing Jones to beat Britt to the loose ball to give Duke a second chance. After the offensive reset, Duke ran its floppy set to get Kennard another right-wing touch on Britt. It was defended well (with help from Pinson), forcing Kennard to quickly swing the ball to Allen at the top of the key. Allen drove a recovering Pinson, but Berry reached in as a help defender to get the strip/force the turnover. This was a really good defensive possession by the Heels—strong help-and-recovery by Pinson, and quick hands by Berry to get the steal.

UNC6 (75-77): After creating the live-ball turnover, Berry led a 3-on-1 primary break opportunity in the other direction. He was (wisely) fouled by Kennard prior to the shot, going to the line for two with UNC in the double bonus. Berry missed the first, but hit the second to cut the Duke lead to two points.

DUKE7 (75-77): Duke ran a set to isolate Tatum on the right block against Pinson. The Devils again got exactly what they wanted on the offensive end (although I don’t think the Tatum-Pinson matchup was as much as a post mismatch as they thought). Pinson defended Tatum’s post move well (with some help from Meeks), forcing him to throw the ball wildly off the glass. That acted as a pass to himself, allowing him to grab the offensive board. After getting Meeks up in the air with a pump fake, Tatum luckily blew the put-back dunk and was called for a violation for basket interference while on the rim.

UNC7 (75-77): Down two with a chance to tie or take the lead, Carolina again called for a box set. This time, it used a Britt backscreen to run Meeks from the left elbow to the right block. No one seemed especially surprised by this action, and Jefferson was able to again deny the post entry from Berry by fighting to front the post (despite Meeks working hard and creating a pretty good seal with a wide base; this was probably open briefly if Berry was a better/more confident entry passer). After turning down the entry, Berry hit Pinson on the right wing. Isolated on Tatum, Pinson immediately attacked off the bounce, missing a contested, off-balance layup after a slight bump. This was very similar to the “and-1” Pinson had earlier in the half—certainly the type of drive that he’s able to finish. Even so, I’m not sure that Pinson (especially in his rusty, still-recovering form) is who should be taking key shots for the Heels in the final two minutes of a one-possession game.

DUKE8 (75-80): Using a ball screen by Jefferson on the left wing, Allen hit a huge 3 off the dribble to extend Duke’s lead to five points with 80 seconds left. Meeks flat-hedged this screen to prevent Allen getting into the paint. Jackson correctly fought over the top of the ball screen, with the intent to run Allen off of the 3-point line (and, in conjunction with Meeks’ soft hedge, force either a mid-range jumper or offensive reset). Without being in the huddle, it appeared as if Carolina played this ball screen correctly (i.e., how it’s been defending them most of the season). Jackson certainly made a concerted effort to get over the top of a solid Jefferson screen. Allen has a really quick release, and this one’s probably just in the category of “good offense beats good defense” (although one could argue that the Heels should have blitzed/trapped the screen to force it out of Allen’s hands).

UNC8 (77-80): Looking to attack quickly in secondary/freelance, Berry took Allen off the dribble and fouled him out with a strong drive. Berry knocked in both free throws to again cut the deficit down to a single possession.

DUKE9 (77-81): After a Carolina halfcourt trap that was easily broken by Duke, the Devils again got into their horns set. This time, UNC trapped Jefferson following the right-elbow entry. He was forced to make a deep (beyond the 3-point arc) hand-off to Kennard, who was also trapped by the Heels. All that scrambling led to a wide-open Tatum near the top of the key. Luckily (or not; he is just a 32% 3-point shooter), he missed the open 3 which resulted in another long rebound. This time, Matt Jones simply beat Berry for a true 50-50 ball, giving Duke the ball back with just a two-second differential between game and shot clocks. After letting a few seconds tick away, Meeks fouled Frank Jackson to set up a 1-and-1 opportunity for the freshman. He made the first, but missed the second.

UNC9 (77-81): Berry used a really clever hesitation dribble (faking a step-back 3) to explode to the rim. However, Jefferson’s timely help rotation forced him to settle for a contested reverse lay-up. Given that Jefferson was playing with four fouls, going directly into his body would have probably been the right play here. Either way, Jefferson’s help defense made this a tough finish for Berry (who’s really struggled in ACC play to finish at the rim against length). This missed lay-up (and subsequent Tatum defensive rebound) effectively ended the game, as Tatum was fouled immediately and made both shots to extend Duke’s lead to six with 16 seconds left.

A couple of concluding thoughts:

  • Duke’s really good. Just like in 2010, it has three high-usage scorers (Allen, Kennard, Tatum) that it runs almost the entire offense through. It also has two elite role players (Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek in 2010; Jones and Jefferson this year) who don’t care at all about getting shots, but are willing to do all the dirty work (screens, loose balls, outstanding defense) for the Devils. Obviously Allen/Kennard/Tatum got most of the glory and headlines (and certainly points) last night. But I was really impressed by all the little things that Jones and Jefferson did to secure this victory for Duke. Those guys are consummate senior leaders. I feel gross now after writing this; back soon after a quick shower.
  • Say what you will about Coach K’s NBA connections, but his NBA-heavy sets are way more effective than Carolina’s stale box formations, in my opinion. As detailed above, Duke ran a steady diet of “floppy” and “horns” down the stretch to consistently create advantageous opportunities for its best scorers. The Heels’ box sets didn’t create anything useful, and the freelance motion was still riddled with questionable shot selection and decision-making (most notably, the late-clock jumper by Britt and Williams’ mid-range jumper). I’m not wild about micro-managing games down the stretch (like K was doing last night), but you can’t argue with the looks that Duke was creating. Even when they missed, it was a good opportunity for one of its go-to options.
  • Carolina will need to outscore Duke in Chapel Hill. I can’t see either team getting consistent stops (especially with Hicks back on the court), so it might once again come down to late-game execution. UNC’s freelance stuff can work (especially if the Heels can get back to owning the offensive glass), but I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more sets designed to get Jackson the ball in space or on the move (e.g., curling off an elbow screen).

More on Carolina-Duke over the next couple of days…