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History of the NCAA Titles Leaderboard

History of the NCAA Titles Leaderboard

Carolina is three wins from NCAA title #6, which would break the current tie with Indiana and a certain other Triangle school who does blue all wrong and put UNC alone in third place all-time behind UCLA and UK. The count through 2016:

11 UCLA (1964, 1965, 1967-1973, 1975, 1995)
8 UK (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998, 2012)
5 UNC (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009), Indiana (1940, 1953, 1976, 1981, 1987), Duke (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015)
4 UConn (1999, 2004, 2011, 2014)
3 Kansas (1952, 1988, 2008), Louisville (1980, 1986, 2013)
2 Oklahoma State (1945, 1946), San Francisco (1955, 1956), Cincinnati (1961, 1962), NC State (no, seriously, 1974 and 1983), Michigan State (1979, 2000), Villanova (1985, 2016), Florida (2006, 2007)
1 20 schools: Oregon (1939), Wisconsin (1941), Stanford (1942), Wyoming (1943), Utah (1944), Holy Cross (1947), CCNY (1950), La Salle (1954), Cal (1959), Ohio State (1960), Loyola (IL) (1963), UTEP (1966), Marquette (1977), Georgetown (1984), Michigan (1989), UNLV (1990), Arkansas (1994), Arizona (1997), Maryland (2002), Syracuse (2003)
Total 78 titles among 35 schools

Notable points in the history of this leaderboard are:
1946: OK State (then A&M) becomes the first multi-time (and first back-to-back) champ, taking the lead over the six schools who won the first six years
1949: UK joins OK State as two-time and back-to-back titlists; Holy Cross is the seventh school with a single win
1951: UK 3, OK St 2, CCNY the eighth one-time winner
1953: Indiana gets its second; KU is one-timer #9
1956: Russell and San Fran join the back-to-back club (Carolina really needs to get this accomplished sometime soon; there but for the grace of Donald’s shoulder…); ten including La Salle have 1
1957: Make it 11, as UNC finally gets on the board
1958: UK to 4
1962: Cincy goes back-to-back (come on, Roy, it’s clearly child’s play!), making it a 4-way tie for second
1964: Wooden joins the fray, tying 14 others with his first title; clearly he didn’t like the company in this room of the party, because…
1975: UCLA, having tied UK in ’68, has now rocketed to #1 with 10 titles in 12 years; UTEP and NCSU have in the meantime become the latest two of now 16 debutantes
1976: Indiana siezes third place with its 3rd
1978: UK stiff-arms IU with a 5th; Marquette has made it 17 one-timers
1981: The Hoosiers reach 4 after Louisville scratches
1982: Dean, James, and company make some noise and tie OK St, San Fran, and Cincy for 4th
1983: In some world, Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler are no match for Thurl Bailey and Sidney Lowe–and holy crap, it’s the actual world! Now five teams are in 4th.
1986: Louisville’s 2nd
1987: Indiana’s 5th
1992: dook’s back-to-back; with Kansas having notched #2 in ’88, 4th place is getting crowded with seedy-looking characters, so…
1993: Carolina finally assumes a really noticeable position on the list, knocking the two-timers down to 5th
1995: The Bruins forget it isn’t the 70’s anymore and tally #11 (I still say “Tyus Edney” sounds like a skin disease)
1998: More of the rich getting richer, as UK’s 6th and 7th have come in three seasons to put them back alone in 2nd place
2000: Michigan State joins the rings, plural, club
2001: The basketball Sith tie Carolina
2004: A Connecticut team just gushing pro-caliber talent makes the population of Two Title Town 6
2005: UNC steps back up into sole 4th place
2007: A seventh freaking school pulls off two in two years (Worthy, May, or Lawson couldn’t come back? Really?)
2008-2011: Kansas, Carolina, dook, and UConn jockey like horses coming down the stretch, as KU ties the Devils, UNC puts a cushion between themselves and those two and ties Indy for 3rd, dook climbs into 4th, and the Huskies catch the ‘Hawks
2012: Calipari mints his first (of what will surely become many, right? Right?) group of one-year, one-title wonders
2013-2015: More musical chairs: the ‘ville ties KU and UConn, but CT breaks that tie and ties dook, but the Leader breaks that tie and ties Carolina
2016: Speaking of tying Carolina, if there were any justice in the world…

So in 8 days we’ll hopefully be vying for our best rank ever on this list. And hey, history says that once you get #6, #7 follows in no time, so for so many reasons GO TAR HEELS!

Greatest Williams-Era Performances vs. Duke

Greatest Williams-Era Performances vs. Duke

Let’s count down the 10 greatest Williams-era individual performances against Duke. This obviously throws out a big chunk of pre-2003 Carolina history, so apologies for the recency bias.

Apologies also to, among countless others, Phil Ford (34 on Senior Night in 1978), Larry Miller (32 on 13-of-14 shooting in the ’67 ACCT title game), Charles Scott (40 points on 17-of-23 shooting to fuel UNC’s come-from-behind ’69 ACCT title-clinching comeback win), Joe Forte (24/16/7 in 2001), and Antawn Jamison (35 points in 53 seconds with the ball in 1998).

Honorable Mention:

  • Rashad McCants (2/5/2004): Put up 27 efficient points (10-16 from the field, 2-4 on 3s, 5-7 from the line) along with nine rebounds (five on the offensive end) and three steals in an overtime home loss to Duke
  • Sean May (2/9/2005): 23 points (8-14 from the field, perfect 7-7 from the line) and 18 rebounds in a tough 71-70 loss in Durham; drops to honorable mention due to five turnovers
  • Marcus Ginyard (3/4/2006): Scored 12 points (4-8 FGs, 4-6 FTs) with four rebounds and two assists, but, more importantly, spearheaded the defensive effort on J.J. Redick that held Duke’s All-American to a 5-of-21 shooting night (including 2-1o behind the arc)
  • Tyler Hansbrough (2/6/2008): With Ty Lawson out, Hansbrough recorded a massive 28-point, 18-rebound double-double during his ’08 Player of the Year campaign; the Heels lost in Chapel Hill by 11, and his 0:3 A:TO and uncharacteristic 4-of-9 from the foul line kept this “Psycho T” performance out of the top 10
  • Tyler Zeller (2/9/2011): An efficient 20-10 (24 points on 10-of-14 shooting, 13 rebounds) by Zeller wasn’t enough to overcome the Heels’ 2-of-14 3-point shooting in a six-point loss in Durham
  • Leslie McDonald (2/20/2014): McDonald’s finest moment as a Tar Heel, he scored 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting while only turning the ball over once in 32 minutes as Carolina knocked off Duke 74-66 at home
  • Brice Johnson (3/5/2016): In the most recent edition of the rivalry, a 76-72 Carolina win in Cameron, Johnson scored 18 points with 21 rebounds. Twelve of his rebounds were on the offensive end, as the Heels completely dominated the Devils 64-29 on the backboards to compensate for losing the 3-point battle 13-to-4 (a 27-point Duke advantage from behind the arc).

Top Ten:

10. Marcus Paige (3/7/2015): Although Carolina lost this one 84-77 to the eventual national champs, Paige poured in 23 points on just 10 FGAs (6-10, 5-9 on 3s, 6-6 FTs), adding five assists and three steals.

9. Tyler Hansbrough (3/4/2007): Before having his nose broken by a Gerald Henderson elbow in the classic “Bloody Hansbrough” game, he scored 26 points with 17 rebounds in just 30 minutes to carry the Heels to an 86-72 victory.

8. J.P. Tokoto (2/18/2015): One of the most-balanced statlines of the Williams era, Tokoto scored 15 points, adding eight rebounds and seven assists. He also chipped in three steals and two blocked shots while not committing a single turnover, leading Carolina to a near-upset of Duke in Cameron (a 92-90 overtime loss).

7. Kendall Marshall (3/5/2011): With the ACC regular season title on the line (as both teams entered with matching 13-2 conference records), Marshall orchestrated a masterful win with a 15-point, 11-assist double-double. He only turned the ball over twice, while scoring his points on an efficient eight FGAs.

6. Brice Johnson (2/17/2016): Johnson shot 13-of-17 from the field to score 29 points, adding 19 rebounds as part of a near-20-20 performance. This one would definitely rank higher on the list had Carolina not let a seven-point second-half lead slip away, during which Johnson had just two points and two rebounds over the final 13 minutes.

5. Kendall Marshall (3/3/2012): In another master class on offensive point guard play, Marshall scored 20 points while adding 10 assists to lead Carolina to a huge 88-70 win over Duke on the road. With Butter spreading the ball around, all five Tar Heel starters scored in double digits, as Carolina clinched another regular season title with the win (again, both teams entered the game with matching 13-2 conference marks).

4. Ty Lawson (2/11/2009):  After trailing by eight entering the locker room (with Bobby Frasor’s 3-of-3 3-point shooting keeping the Heels within striking distance), Lawson exploded for 21 second-half points to fuel a 57-point Carolina outburst in the second stanza. UNC won that half by 22, pulling away for a comfortable 101-87 win in Cameron Indoor. For the game, Lawson scored 25 on 8-of-11 from the field and a perfect 9-of-9 from the line. He only shot once from behind the arc (a miss), instead opting to relentlessly attack off the dribble and get to the rim. Lawson added five assists, four rebounds, and a pair of steals (and an uncharacteristic five turnovers).

3. Tyler Hansbrough (3/4/2006): In his first time playing in Cameron, a freshman Hansbrough came away with his first of four straight victories there. Outperforming senior All-American Shelden Williams, Hansbrough had 27 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, and a steal. Most memorably, he knocked down a late-game, late-clock 3 to seal the Heels’ 83-76 win. Most typically, he got to the free throw line nine times and converted eight of them.

2. Danny Green (3/8/2008): Coming off the bench, Green stuffed the stat-sheet with 18 points, eight rebounds, two steals, and a career-high seven blocked shots in just 25 minutes . As a team, Carolina blocked 15 Duke shots with Deon Thompson also adding a handful of rejections. Green made 8-of-14 field goals including a pair of 3s (on four attempts), but it was his defense that really shined in this one, helping the Heels to hold Duke’s top-15 offense to a mere 0.92 PPP in Durham. Oh, yeah: Green had a pretty memorable dunk in this one, too.

1. Sean May (3/6/2005): While this memorable matchup in Chapel Hill is best known for the Marvin Williams “and-1” put-back that nearly blew the top off of the Dean Dome, Sean May was the true star of the game. The Heels needed every one of his 26 points and 24 rebounds to complete their late-game comeback. He also added three assists (versus only a single turnover) and two steals to his massive 20-20 performance. In the two Duke games in 2005, May combined to score 49 points and corral 42 rebounds. Johnson likewise averaged a 20-20 against the Blue Devils in 2016, racking up 47 points and 40 boards in the two matchups. Despite getting outscored by 30 from behind the arc in this game (33-3), Carolina won on the strength of a 48-30 rebounding advantage (with May collecting exactly half of those 48 boards—a dozen on each end). If the Heels emerge victorious on Thursday, they’ll probably follow the same successful formula of dominating the paint and glass.


Ellington ’09 vs. Jackson ’17

Ellington ’09 vs. Jackson ’17

Last week, I ran a piece conducting a statistical comparison between Ty Lawson in 2009 and Joel Berry in 2017. This time around, let’s compare an ’09 wing to a ’17 one: Wayne Ellington and Justin Jackson. Although one (Ellington) was primarily a SG and the other (Jackson) mainly a SF, there’s not much difference in those wing roles offensively in Roy Williams’ system (other than the side they generally start on in the secondary break or box sets).

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

I. Shooting/Scoring Comparison

  • The most obvious difference is that Jackson’s scoring a few more points per 40 minutes while using a higher fraction of the team’s shots when on the floor. The 2017 Heels, not as deep in offensive options as the 2009 edition, need Jackson to be more of an alpha scorer than Ellington was. Ellington (as measured by True Shooting %) was a slightly more efficient shooter than Jackson, although, considering their roles, there is probably some usage-efficiency trade-off going on (i.e., Ellington’s TS% would have dropped a bit that he needed to assume a larger offensive role; guess we could have tested this hypothesis if he would have returned in 2010).
  • The clear difference between how the two players score occurs in the mid-range. The two have nearly identical FTA Rates (and FT%), and similar profiles from at the rim and behind the arc (Ellington was slightly more efficient from both spots, while Jackson was a little more prolific). But their 5-10′ and 10-20′ profiles are essentially flipped. Ellington, who preferred the mid-range jumper off the dribble, shot 4.18 times / 40 from between 5-20′, with 74% of those occurring from outside of 10 feet. Jackson, on the other hand, attempted 72% of his 4.45 / 40 5-to-20-footers from inside of 10 feet (using his preferred floater).
    • Jackson made 41.1% of his floaters, while Ellington made only 31.0% of his.
    • Conversely, Ellington made 41.8% of his mid-range jumpers off the dribble, while Jackson has yet to make one this season (he’s 0-13 on the year). Jackson’s only made 5% (1-20) of his total attempts from between 10-20 feet. Ellington was a more complete four-level (at the rim, 5-10′, 10-20′, 3-pointers) scorer than Jackson, but each was essentially just a three-level scorer.
  • Ellington was a 3-point assassin from both wings (50.8% from the right, 46.2% from the left), whereas Jackson’s had a clear preference from the left wing (53.2% vs. 30.0% from the right).Ellington shot more frequently and efficiently from the deep corners.
  • Likewise, Ellington was a deadly 3-point shooter in transition (45.6% vs. 38.6% in the half-court), while Jackson has clearly been more effective as a half-court 3-point shooter (45.9% vs. 32.1% in transition—which includes secondary break attempts).

II. Passing/Turnover Comparison

  • The two wings had strikingly similar passing and turnover statistics. Jackson’s created more potential close assists / 40 than Ellington did, with most of them coming on entry passes or secondary break sets (slipped screens, lobs following backscreens, etc.). He’s a better, more prolific entry passer than Ellington was (making 7.5 entries / 40 with a Success:Failure of 1.30 vs. Ellington’s respective marks of 6.1 and 1.01).
  • Ellington also had over double the rate of ball-handling turnovers as Jackson. Jackson had slightly more traveling violations, offensive fouls, and passing turnovers. Overall, his turnover rate and A:TO were slightly better than Ellington’s (although both were excellent in these categories).

III. Defensive Comparison

  • Both would be considered “positional wing defenders,” as they had an emphasis on limiting opponents’ shot opportunities rather than causing defensive disruption. This is seen by the relatively low FGA / 40 and defensive usage (%DefPoss) numbers, as well as the low forced turnover/deflection ones.
  • Jackson’s been a slightly better defensive rebounder than Ellington, although, when looking at only Jackson’s wing minutes, that gap is shrunk. He has a DR% of 11.9 as a 3, and 16.3% as a 4.
  • Perhaps most interestingly, the team was significantly better on the defensive end with both players on the bench. In Ellington’s case, that generally meant Bobby Frasor at the 2. In Jackson’s case, it’s been a combination of Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams, and Theo Pinson at the 3. The usual caveats related to +/- apply here (very noisy, dependent on a bunch of other uncontrolled factors, etc.). It should be noted that each player’s Stop% was the lowest among rotation players on their respective rosters.
  • From an eye-test perspective, both players were fundamentally sound and didn’t make many glaring mistakes. They used sound defensive positioning (both on the ball and when navigating screens/chasing shooters) to generally discourage shot attempts against them. But they weren’t very disruptive (especially in Jackson’s case), and didn’t force many turnovers or much chaos/offensive discomfort. I’m still re-examining how to evaluate positional wing defenders like this. Clearly it’s important to minimize mistakes and prevent opposing FGAs. But is it more important to create defensive disruption (even if the trade-off is more open shots/clean looks for the opponent)?

IV. Plus/Minus/On-Court Impact Comparison

  • As mentioned above, each player had a below-average on-court/off-court defensive component (i.e., UNC posted a better defensive efficiency with them on the bench than on the floor). Jackson’s has been especially bad so far this season (the Heels have a defensive efficiency of 97.3 with him on the court, improving to 79.1 when he’s off the court).
  • On the offensive end, however, each player has been critically important to his team’s success. Ellington’s offensive on-court/off-court was especially pronounced: Carolina had an offensive efficiency of 124.6 with him on the floor in 2009, which dropped to 101.5 when he rested. The Heels also score dramatically better in 2017 with Jackson (121.0) than without him (109.1).
  • In Ellington’s case, the team’s vastly better offense outweighed its worse defense. In Jackson’s case, that hasn’t been true. Nobody’s calling for Jackson to play fewer minutes, of course—I can’t stress the caveats/limitations of +/- data enough. One might question, however, if Jackson should be on the floor if UNC needed one big stop to secure a victory.
Theo Pinson: All-Time Stat-Sheet Stuffer?

Theo Pinson: All-Time Stat-Sheet Stuffer?

Granted, he’s only played five games (and less than 100 minutes) in his junior campaign so far. But Theo Pinson is threatening to have the greatest stat-stuffing season in Carolina history (at least since 1979-80 when pace-adjusted data is available). In terms of pace-adjusted, per-40-minute stats, he’s currently averaging 13.1 points, 11.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, and 2.5 steals. Only three other Tar Heels (including Derrick Phelps twice) have posted even 10-5-5-2 pace-adjusted, per-40 marks in those four categories (or substituting blocks for steals).

If you throw out the two steals (or blocks) criterion, an additional four Tar Heels (and five player-seasons) join the group: Matt Doherty in 1984, Steve Bucknall in 1988 and 1989, Brian Reese in 1994, and Dante Calabria in 1996. None of the 10-5-5 seasons has even reached the 10-6-6 club (with Phelps’ 10.8-5.8-7.3 in ’93 getting the closest), much less the 10-7-7 that Pinson is currently posting. Again, Pinson’s sample size is quite small (certainly many Heels have posted 10-7-7’s across a handful of games). He’ll be hard-pressed to match his numbers so far—especially in rebounds / 40 (and possibly assists / 40).  Putting up solid numbers across the board is nothing new to Pinson, however: as a freshman, his pace-adjusted, per-40 splits were 9.1-9.7-5.0-1.9; as a sophomore, they were 9.6-6.7-6.1-1.3.

It’s nice to see a couple of championship point guards (Phelps ’93 and Felton ’05) among the very exclusive list of 10-5-5-2 Heels. If Pinson continues to make this kind of across-the-board impact, it’s possible that the 2017 Carolina squad can also cut down the nets (albeit not with Pinson as a true point guard; it should be noted that Joel Berry’s per-40 statline of 20.0-4.3-5.1-1.9 is also on the list of “near-misses” at this point in the season).

Although steals weren’t officially tracked until the 1975-76 season (and minutes weren’t officially recorded either), Walter Davis’ sophomore season in 1974-75 warrants mentioning. His per-game (not per-40) averages were 16.1-6.3-4.4 that season. And, in each of the next two seasons, he’d average 2.4 steals (so it’s a safe bet that he would have exceeded 2.0 in 1975, too, had they been an acknowledged stat then). From the pre-steals/pre-minutes era, Charles Scott (22.3-7.1-3.4 in 1969) and Bobby Jones (15.0-10.5-3.9 in 1973) also deserve some love for their stuffed statlines. Danny Green’s 2008 campaign also warrants a special mention, as he had pace-adjusted, per-40 numbers of 19.0-8.2-3.3-2.0. While he lacked the assist numbers to qualify for the list, he did add 2.0 blocks / 40—making him pehaps the premiere 5-category stat-sheet filler in Tar Heel history.

While this isn’t a list of Carolina’s best seasons (although a few of the top ones can be found on it), it does do a good job of highlighting some of the most versatile Heels in the history of the program. By the time Pinson’s done in Chapel Hill, he might be fondly remembered as one of the best do-it-all Heels to ever play for UNC.

Stat-Sheet Stuffers: Carolina 10-5-5-2 Seasons Since 1979-80
Player Season MPG Pts/40 Reb/40 Asst/40 St/40
Theo Pinson 2017 18.1 13.1 11.5 7.4 2.5
Derrick Phelps 1993 28.1 10.8 5.8 7.3 3.0
Derrick Phelps 1994 27.5 12.5 5.2 7.2 2.5
Raymond Felton 2005 31.7 14.8 5.0 8.0 2.3
J.P. Tokoto 2015 29.1 11.5 7.8 5.9 2.0
Near Misses
Mike O’Koren 1980 34.7 17.6 9.0 4.3 1.8
Matt Doherty 1984 31.9 12.2 5.0 5.0 1.2
Steve Hale 1985 35.2 12.6 4.4 6.1 2.1
Steve Hale 1986 29.0 14.4 4.2 6.3 2.3
Steve Bucknall 1988 29.1 12.5 5.5 5.0 1.3
Steve Bucknall 1989 28.7 16.0 5.0 6.5 1.3
Rick Fox 1991 28.5 21.2 8.3 4.7 2.5
Derrick Phelps 1992 31.1 11.1 4.2 7.6 2.9
George Lynch 1992 29.2 17.9 11.4 3.4 2.6
Jerry Stackhouse 1994 21.0 21.7 8.9 3.5 2.1
Brian Reese 1994 21.1 13.8 6.9 5.0 1.1
Dante Calabria 1994 20.4 14.7 5.4 4.4 1.9
Jeff McInnis 1995 34.3 14.2 4.7 6.1 1.5
Dante Calabria 1996 35.1 15.0 5.1 5.0 1.2
Vince Carter 1997 27.6 18.9 6.5 3.5 2.1
Ed Cota 1998 33.0 10.0 4.5 9.2 2.0
Ed Cota 1999 36.3 12.1 4.9 8.5 1.3
Ed Cota 2000 36.5 11.1 4.8 8.9 1.3
Joe Forte 2001 34.7 22.6 6.6 3.8 2.2
Raymond Felton 2003 35.4 14.3 4.6 7.5 1.8
Raymond Felton 2004 34.6 12.5 4.3 7.7 2.3
David Noel 2006 33.7 14.8 7.8 4.0 1.3
Ty Lawson 2007 25.7 15.0 4.3 8.2 2.2
Ty Lawson 2008 25.3 18.5 4.0 7.5 2.3
Danny Green 2009 27.4 17.6 6.3 3.7 2.4
Reggie Bullock 2013 31.4 18.7 8.6 3.9 1.7
J.P. Tokoto 2014 28.7 12.9 8.1 4.2 2.3
Marcus Paige 2015 33.2 17.0 3.5 5.4 2.1
Joel Berry 2016 30.7 16.6 4.3 4.9 1.9
Joel Berry 2017 28.8 20.0 4.3 5.1 1.9
All per-40 stats are pace-adjusted
Best-Passing Teams in Carolina History

Best-Passing Teams in Carolina History

A couple caveats here regarding my potentially misleading title:

  • By “Carolina history,” I mean “Carolina history since the 1979-80 season”—the first year for which I have pace adjustments in my ACC dataset (I’m sure some earlier teams, notably the 1976-77 runners-up with Ford, Kuester, Davis, O’Koren, et al. would stake a claim to “best-passing team)
  • When measuring “best-passing team,” I’m actually measuring “passing depth”

Through 21 games, this year’s Carolina team has seven rotation players (defined as those playing at least 8 minutes/game) averaging at least 3 pace-adjusted assists per 40 minutes:

  1. Pinson: 7.36
  2. Woods: 5.59
  3. Berry: 5.09
  4. Britt: 4.92
  5. Robinson: 3.60
  6. Williams: 3.55
  7. Jackson: 3.26

An eighth, Luke Maye, is averaging 2.98 / 40. Now it’s certainly debatable whether this group can maintain that terrific assist distribution. Pinson, UNC’s leading per-minute assister, has only been back five games, so will continue to poach some assists from others. Correspondingly, Robinson (and possibly Woods) may be cut out of the rotation/fail to meet the threshold of 8 MPG by season’s end.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all seven (excluding Maye) end of the season above 3 pace-adjusted assists per 40 minutes. How would that stack up against historical Tar Heel teams? As seen in the table below, it would actually be the first time that UNC has had that much passing depth on a single (post-1979) roster.

Is it the greatest passing team in Carolina history? No, probably not. But it is one of the deepest in terms of willing and able distributors.

Some notes related to the table/data:

  • Not surprisingly, the Carolina teams with the least amount of passing depth are those led by a transcendent passing talent (Kendall Marshall, Ed Cota, or Raymond Felton). When one guy’s gobbling up a bunch of them, there simply aren’t that many to go around. The beauty of the Carolina offensive system (both the free-lance passing game and the secondary break) is that it can operate at peak efficiency with a single great distributor dominating the assists, or a bunch of above-average ones sharing them.
    • Once Strickland went down after 19 games, the 2012 Heels only had one passer with 3+ assists / 40 (Marshall). Stilman White recorded 6.22 assists / 40 in limited minutes (and filled in, of course, after Marshall’s wrist injury in the NCAA Tournament). That team was especially dependent on a single play-maker.
  • The percentage of total field goals that were assisted on (the final column in the table) is just about the same for the top-nine (61.2%) and bottom-four (61.0%) teams. Again, this gets back to the UNC system (under Coaches Smith and Williams), which will always rank well in this category by prioritizing ball movement over isolation offense (for better or worse). This year’s Heels are assisting on 57.4% of their made shots—a little lower than the historical average due to this team’s penchant for put-backs/dominance of the offensive glass.
  • While UNC’s generally in a pretty tight (and higher-than-average) range for assisted field goal percentage (between about 55 and 65%), higher does not necessarily mean better in this metric. This is best exemplified by the 8-20 Heels of 2001-02, who posted the highest mark in the 1979-current timeframe at 67.5%.  That, of course, wasn’t an otherworldly passing team (with a Adam Boone and a freshman Melvin Scott platooning at the point). But since it had such a hard time scoring off of the dribble/creating offense or getting second-chance opportunities, most of the buckets that season were aided by an assist. There was simply no Ty Lawson (or Joel Berry) on that roster who was getting 60-70% of his hoops off the bounce.
  • As seen, the 2015 and 2016 Carolina teams are also on the list of teams with the most passing depth (with Britt and the junior-class trio of Pinson/Berry/Jackson showing up in all three seasons). This has been a good, unselfish core of Tar Heels (along with the departed Marcus Paige, of course).
  • This current team could also be the rare Carolina (and ACC) team with four players averaging at least 5 pace-adjusted assists per 40. Pinson, Woods, and Berry and currently, and Britt’s at 4.92 (although Berry’s been trending in the wrong direction since Theo’s return). It would join only the 1986 Heels (K. Smith (7.05), Hale (6.29), Lebo (5.71), Hunter (5.08)) on that list, although a couple other UNC teams were close:
    • 1984: Hale (7.05), K. Smith (6.78), Peterson (6.37), Doherty (4.97)
    • 1991: Rice (7.56), Phelps (7.11), Rodl (5.17), Fox (4.71)
    • 2015: Tokoto (5.93), Paige (5.42), Pinson (4.96), Berry (4.66)
  • Of the teams with six 3+ A/40 players, the 2007 Heels came the closest to adding a seventh, as Reyshawn Terry registered 2.91 / 40.

If I had to choose a single squad for the title of best-passing Carolina team (since 1979-80), I’d probably go with the 1986 roster. In addition to the six players shown in the table, it also had a senior Brad Daugherty (2.09 assists / 40) who would go on to become one of the best-passing centers in NBA history (but was too busy scoring 20.2 PPG on 64.8% shooting to rack up a ton of assists in ’86). Steve Bucknall and Ranzino Smith were also capable passing options off the bench in their limited roles as underclassmen.


Lawson ’09 vs. Berry ’17

Lawson ’09 vs. Berry ’17

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

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

I. Shooting/Scoring Comparison

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

II. Passing/Turnover Comparison

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

III. Defensive Comparison

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

IV. Plus/Minus/On-Court Impact Comparison

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

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

Jackson & Berry: Best-Shooting UNC Duo Ever?

Jackson & Berry: Best-Shooting UNC Duo Ever?

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

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

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

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

The Best (and Worst) UNC Performances vs. Wake Forest

The Best (and Worst) UNC Performances vs. Wake Forest

Similar to this piece on NC State, let’s take a look back at the Carolina-Wake rivalry since Roy Williams has been back in town. While the Heels have certainly gotten the better of the Deacs during the Williams era, it hasn’t been nearly as one-sided as the series with the Wolfpack. UNC is 12-5 against Wake Forest under Williams, and they’ve exceeded their expectations (based on the difference in seasonal KenPom efficiency margins between the teams) in eight of those contests. On average, the games have gone just as predicted, with the Heels outperforming their baseline by just a half-point per game (unlike the nearly 4-point per game difference versus NC State).

3 Best Williams-Era Performances vs. Wake Forest

1. @UNC 105, Wake Forest 72: February 22, 2014

  • Adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference between teams: +13.5
  • Adjusted game efficiency margin: +40.07
  • Overperformance Score: +26.57
  • Six Heels scored in double-digits, as UNC posted a sweet 57.4/73.3/82.2 shooting split (FG%/3Pt%/FT%). Leslie McDonald hit 5-of-6 3s, while Marcus Paige connected on 3-of-5. In the paint, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks combined to make 13 of 16 field goals.

2. @UNC 104, Wake Forest 67: February 10, 2007

  • Adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference between teams: +24.5
  • Adjusted game efficiency margin: +41.05
  • Overperformance Score: +16.57
  • Games 2 and 3 on this list were from within a 2.5-week stretch during the 2007 season, when UNC beat an overmatched Wake team by a combined 65 points (192-127). In this one, the second game of the season series, Reyshawn Terry scored 23 points with a virtually flawless shooting line (7-8 from the field, 3-3 on 3s, 6-6 from the line). The Heels’ starting frontcourt of Terry/Brandan Wright/Tyler Hansbrough made 18 of its 21 shots from the field. No Carolina player logged more than 22 minutes and 14 Heels scored, as the bench was used early and often in this easy win.

3. UNC 88, @Wake Forest 60: January 24, 2007

  • Adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference between teams: +24.5
  • Adjusted game efficiency margin: +40.71
  • Overperformance Score: +16.21
  • Once making the adjustments for pace and game location, the 2007 games against Wake Forest were almost identical in terms of performance above expectation. While UNC’s frontline dominated the Deacs in Chapel Hill, it was the freshman backcourt that starred in Winston-Salem. Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington combined for 33 points on efficient 13-of-20 shooting (including 4-9 on 3s). The Heels’ stingy defense held WFU to 32.2% shooting from the field, while forcing 19 turnovers. For Wake, only Kyle Visser (16 points, 5 rebounds) reached double-digits.

3 Worst Williams-Era Performances vs. Wake Forest

1. Wake Forest 82, @UNC 69: January 20, 2010

  • Adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference between teams: -0.8
  • Adjusted game efficiency margin: -24.28
  • Underperformance Score: -23.48
  • While Wake Forest had a slightly better KenPom ranking then the Heels in 2010 (No. 58 vs. No. 61), the metrics certainly didn’t predict a 13-point road victory for the Demon Deacons. UNC’s backcourt was badly outplayed in this one: Drew/Ginyard/Strickland/McDonald combined for just 20 points on 7-30 shooting (4-16 on 3s), while Ish Smith and C.J. Harris had 40 points on 15-of-28 shooting. As a team, UNC made just 6 of its 26 3-point attempts.

2. @Wake Forest 95, UNC 82: January 15, 2005

  • Adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference between teams: +7.9
  • Adjusted game efficiency margin: -11.71
  • Underperformance Score: -19.61
  • A couple of 14-1 (3-0 ACC) teams squared off in this high-profile showdown in Winston-Salem. In a battle of star point guards, Chris Paul (26 points on 18 FGAs, 8:1 A:TO, 5 steals) outplayed Raymond Felton (16 points on 18 FGAs, 5:2 A:TO, 3 steals). With Paul orchestrating Skip Prosser’s pick-and-roll heavy offense like a maestro, the Deacs posted an offensive efficiency of 123.4 They also knocked down all 32 of their free throws, which never hurts.

3. @Wake Forest 73, UNC 67: January 5, 2014

  • Adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference between teams: +13.5
  • Adjusted game efficiency margin: -3.04
  • Underperformance Score: -16.54
  • Even on the road, the Heels were a substantial favorite over Jeff Bzdelik’s Demon Deacons, who would finish 17-16 (6-12 ACC) with a KenPom of 118. Once again in a loss to WFU, UNC’s guards let it down, as Paige and McDonald combined to make just 6 of 25 shots (including 2 of 15 3s). They also committed seven turnovers with only seven assists. The Heels lost despite an overwhelming 53-34 rebounding advantage in which UNC controlled both the offensive (OR%: 48.0) and defensive (DR%: 78.4) backboards.

Perhaps the most memorable Carolina-Wake game of the Roy era didn’t crack either of these lists. It was the triple-OT classic in 2004—Williams’s first season back—that the Demon Deacons won 119-114. Jawad Williams and Felton logged 50 and 48 minutes, respectively, but their double-doubles (17 points/12 rebounds for Williams; 22 points/11 assists for Felton) weren’t enough to secure the win. Wake had seven players in double-digits, including four with at least 18 points. The Deacs were led by 24 from Eric Williams and 20 from Justin Gray.

UNC vs. Expectations against Wake Forest

On average, Carolina’s been expected to win by 14.3 points / 100 in its 17 Williams-era games against Wake Forest. The Heels have actually won by an average of 14.8 points / 100 in those contests, an overperformance score of +0.50. UNC has exceeded its baseline expectations in 8 of those 17 games. Let’s break down those numbers a little further, splitting them out by venue and WFU coach:

  • In Chapel Hill:
    • Record: 6-2
    • Underperfomance Score: -0.90
    • Exceeded expectations: 3 times in 8 games (37.5%)
  • In Winston-Salem:
    • Record: 6-3
    • Overperformance Score: +1.75
    • Exceeded expectations: 5 times in 9 games (55.6%)
  • Against Skip Prosser:
    • Record: 4-2
    • Average adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference: +12.0
    • Average adjusted game efficiency margin: +16.29
    • Overperformance Score: +4.31
    • Exceeded expectations: 4 times in 6 games (66.7%)
  • Against Dino Gaudio:
    • Record: 2-2
    • Average adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference: +7.4
    • Average adjusted game efficiency margin: +2.26
    • Underperformance Score: -5.09
    • Exceeded expectations: 1 time in 4 games (25.0%)
  • Against Jeff Bzdelik:
    • Record: 4-1
    • Average adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference: +20.2
    • Average adjusted game efficiency margin: +21.38
    • Overperformance Score: +1.22
    • Exceeded expectations: 2 times in 5 games (40.0%)
  • Against Danny Manning:
    • Record: 2-0
    • Average adjusted seasonal efficiency margin difference: +22.1
    • Average adjusted game efficiency margin: +20.55
    • Underperformance Score: -1.55
    • Exceeded expectations: 1 time in 2 games (50.0%)
Justin Jackson’s Development as a Shooter

Justin Jackson’s Development as a Shooter

After making just 1.17 3-pointers / 40 minutes at a rate of 29.7% through his first two collegiate campaigns, Justin Jackson has improved those numbers to 3.17 and 38.7% after 17 games of his junior season. Both his 3-point volume (per-40) and efficiency have significantly increased season-over-season—a testament to the feedback he received from NBA scouts, and the hard work he put in all summer. But just how rare is it for a Tar Heel to make the type of perimeter improvement that Jackson has this year? Let’s dig deeper into the data to answer that question.

For the sake of this analysis, we’ll look at two primary numbers: 1.) 3-point percentage (efficiency) and 2.) pace-adjusted 3-point attempts per 40 minutes (usage/volume). In Jackson’s case, his season-by-season marks in these metrics are:

Using these two concepts of 3-point proficiency, we can create a metric called Points Above Replacement Shooter per 1,000 Minutes—or PARS/1000. Since 2002, the national average has hovered between 33.9% and 35.1%. The average for those seasons in 34.5%. For the sake of this analysis, we’ll consider a “replacement-level” shooter to be one who connects on 30% of his 3s. While that number is somewhat arbitrary, it doesn’t make a difference for the sake of the rankings/ordering. Alternatively, we could use the concept of an average shooter here rather than a replacement-level one, too. 1,000 minutes is used because a.) it’s a round number, and b.) it’s about the number of minutes an average collegiate starter will play in a season (35 games at 26.6 MPG).

Jackson’s PARS/1000 this season can be computed as follows:

  • 7.62 3-pointers per 40 minutes –> 190.5 3-pointers per 1,000 minutes
  • a replacement-level shooter would score 171.5 points on those attempts (190.5 * 0.300 * 3)
  • Jackson would score 221.2 points on those attempts (190.5 * 0.387 * 3)
  • thus, Jackson has a PARS/1000 of 49.7 (221.2 – 171.5)

As a sophomore, Jackson’s PARS/1000 was actually negative (since he fell slightly below the 30% mark) at -2.5. Thus, his season-over-season change in this metric was (49.7 – (-2.5)) = +52.2. So how does that mark compare historically to other UNC shooters? Let’s take a look at the table below:

The major assumption used here is that a player must log at least 10 minutes/game in each of the seasons for which the PARS/1000 change is being measured. This will ensure that we’re only including players who were in the rotation in both years of the comparison. It excludes the freshman-to-sophomore leaps of some memorable UNC shooters like Hubert Davis, Donald Williams, Shammond Williams (and Kenny Williams this season), as well as Wes Miller’s sophomore-to-junior jump and Pearce Landry’s junior-to-senior one. If we were to raise the minutes/game threshold to 15, Jackson would actually climb to No. 2 on the list behind Okulaja (Hairston and Curry played 13.0 MPG as freshmen, McDonald played 10.3, and Graves (prior to his suspension) played 11.2 as a sophomore).

The players on this list can be split into three primary buckets:

  1. Those who improved both their 3-point volume and efficiency significantly. This includes (at least to date) Jackson and Berry this season. It also includes Britt’s jump between his freshman and sophomore seasons (a time period in which—stop me if you’ve heard this one—he actually changed shooting hands!). Others on this list include McDonald, Okulaja, Graves, Stackhouse, Cota, Paige, and Jawad Williams.
  2. Those who improve their 3-point efficiency significantly. This group includes Hairston, Curry, Felton, Calabria, Bullock (twice!), Davis, Boone, Green, Lawson, and Donald Williams. For some on this list (notably, Curry, Calabria, and FR-to-SO Bullock), 3-point volume actually went down (as part of a volume-efficiency trade-off). For some (Felton, Boone, Green, D. Williams) it went up slightly. For some (Hairston, SO-to-JR Bullock, Davis, Lawson), it stayed nearly the same. In all cases, it was the increase in 3Pt% rather than an increase in the volume that was driving the improvement.
  3. Those who increase their 3-point volume significantly while maintaining a high percentage. This is the rarest type on the list, including just Fox, Bucknall, Scott, and Noel. Scott moved from point guard as a freshman to off the ball (alongside Felton) as a sophomore. Noel’s volume increased to help compensate for the losses of Felton, McCants, Scott, and Jawad/Marvin Williams from the ’05 champs. Fox and Bucknall likewise stepped up as upperclassmen to help fill perimeter voids (the loss of Ranzino Smith in Bucknall’s case, and the losses of Lebo/Bucknall in Fox’s).

In the offseason, I’ll play around a little more with this data (career PARS/1000 leaders, categorizing UNC’s historical 3-point shooters into buckets by career shooting progression, etc.). For the remainder of this season, the ability of Jackson and Berry to maintain their places on this list will help to determine just how special Carolina’s season ends up being. The Heels will need both to continue being high-volume, high-efficiency options from behind the arc.

An interesting aside about Jackson’s 3-point shooting in 2017: he continues to be significantly more effective from the left side of the floor than the right side from the perimeter (and as a penetrator too, actually; his floater percentage from the left paint is much better than from the right paint). Here are his 3-point splits by shot location:

  • right corner: 25.0% (2-8)
  • right wing: 20.0% (6-30)
  • top of the key: 44.4% (8-18)
  • left wing: 51.3% (20-39)
  • left corner: 45.5% (5-11)

Or, summing those up: 21.1% from the right side (on 38 attempts) and 50.0% from the left side (on 50 attempts). The top of the key was right about in the middle percentage-wise (and, you know, shooting-wise) until Jackson hit 2-of-2 there against NC State to bump that percentage until the mid-40s. Just something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.


Slow ACC Start? Nobody Panic!

Slow ACC Start? Nobody Panic!

Confession time: I started researching/writing this piece over the weekend before Carolina’s historic 51-point drubbing of NC State. Its thesis seemed much more relevant at that time. The data’s still interesting (although it just confirms conventional wisdom, rather than debunking it), though, so let’s proceed as if the Heels are still off to a “slow” start.

Obviously Carolina’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech was less than ideal. As I wrote here, it was (at the time) the sixth-worst loss of the Roy Williams era relative to expectations. And, depending on how the Jackets’ campaign progresses, it could end up looking worse and worse by the end of the season (in fact, it’s currently moved up (down?) to No. 4 on the list of worst losses based on Georgia Tech’s tepid efforts against Duke and Louisville). But certainly a slow start to the conference season hasn’t doomed the Heels in past years.

To prove this point, let’s refer to the table below. For each of Roy Williams’s 13 (full) seasons in Chapel Hill, it lists the performance above expectation for each of six season segments: 1.) the non-conference schedule; 2.) the first three games of the ACC season; 3.) the first half of the ACC season; 4.) the second half of the ACC season; 5.) the ACC Tournament; and 6) the NCAA Tournament (or, in the case of 2010, the NIT). Performance above (below) expectation is the number of points per 100 possessions better (worse) that UNC plays relative to its baseline. The baseline (for a single game) is computed by using the difference in KenPom seasonal adjusted efficiency margins between the two teams.

Table 1: UNC’s Performance Above Expectation by Season Segment in the Roy Williams Era

So what are some key takeaways from the table? Let’s go through it season segment-by-season segment:

  • The Heels have generally had above-average non-conference showings in the Williams era. Even the 2010 team boasted some impressive out-of-conference performances (notably, wins over Ohio State and Michigan State, a blowout of Hassan Whiteside-led Marshall, and a close loss at loaded Kentucky).
  • Since strong showings in his first two seasons (the 2005 ACC start was especially stout: UNC beat Virginia Tech 85-51 in Blacksburg, followed by impressive home wins over Maryland (109-75) and Georgia Tech (91-69)), Carolina has really struggled in the first three games of the ACC schedule under Roy Williams. The stretch between 2009 and 2014 was especially underachieving. It included the 0-2 start in 2009 (including a home loss to a mediocre Boston College team), a bad 20-point road loss to Georgia Tech in 2011, the 33-point drubbing in Tallahassee in 2012, an 0-2 start in 2013, and an 0-3 start in 2014 (including bad losses to below-average Wake Forest and Miami teams). The conference starts over the past three seasons haven’t been as bad (relative to expectations), however. This year’s includes both a positive (NC State) and negative (Georgia Tech) outlier, as well as an as-expected performance (close win) at Clemson.
  • While not as poor on average as the “first three games” subset, the performance in first half of the ACC season has not met expectations under Williams. In four separate years (2oo4, 2008, 2010, and 2016), it’s been the worst (relative to expectations) of any season segment. Only in 2007 has it been the best.
  • The second half of the ACC season, on the other hand, has generally exceeded expectations. The ’06 Heels are the canonical example of a team that peaked during the ACC stretch run. The 2012 and 2014 teams were also playing their best basketball late in the conference season.
  • Then comes the ACC Tournament—Ol’ Roy’s favorite cocktail party. Consistent with its coach’s famous disdain for the event, Carolina has tended to underperform in this event. It should be noted, though, that’s there’s a clear split between years 1-9 (-5.82) and years 10-13 (+4.86) with respect to ACCT performance. And, of course, some key injuries (Ty Lawson and John Henson, most memorably) must be accounted for in a sample this small.
  • Finally, the NCAA Tournament: as seen in the table’s bottom line, it’s been the part of the season in which Carolina has been at its best relative to expectations. The 2005 and 2009 championship runs speak for themselves, but the 2008 (even including the Kansas debacle), 2011, and 2016 Tournament runs were also very impressive.

That UNC is playing its best hoops at the right times (end of the ACC regular season into the NCAA Tournament) is certainly a testament to Williams’s greatness and how he manages his rosters and develops his teams. He’s more interested in using early games to cultivate talent (see some of the crazy early-season rotations/lineups that fans sometimes lament), a strategy with double-pronged benefits of developing underclassmen/bench parts and keeping key starters fresh. A quintessential system coach, Williams is also more committed to establishing and perfecting Carolina’s core identity than he is to making dramatic early-season tweaks (e.g., switching ball screens, going small, playing extensive zone, etc.) to win any single (non-critical) game. It’s almost certainly true that Carolina’s early-ACC foes are doing more UNC-specific game-planning for the Heels than the Heels are doing for them. By late-ACC season (and definitely into the NCAAs), however, Williams is far more likely to tweak the system on a game-by-game basis to account for the strengths and weaknesses of opponents. And, in the meantime, UNC is using most of its practice and game time to focus on mastering its core concepts (e.g., the secondary break, the free-lance passing game, its overplaying man-to-man defense and its help-rotation principles, etc.).

So, while all of this analysis might not ease your mind after the Heels lay an(other) early-season egg, rest assured that Roy Williams’s teams will generally be peaking at the right time. Given what a complex calculus it can be to pull off that feat consistently, it’s something Carolina fans should never take for granted with its current coach.