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Luke Maye Busts Out

Luke Maye Busts Out

Luke Maye set a career-high against NC State with 13 points, the continuation of a positive trend in scoring volume and efficiency. The table below shows his season splits divided into three segments: 1.) non-conference games ((Maye played in nine of the 14); 2.) the first seven ACC games; and 3.) the last six ACC games.

As seen in the table, Maye’s per-40 scoring rate, as well as his True Shooting%, have skyrocketed over the past few games. That’s been driven by a huge spike in his 2-point FG% (both at the rim and from mid-range). He’s also committed just a single turnover over  his last six games (77 minutes), while maintaining (actually slightly improving) his solid per-minute assist rate. The only bad news in Maye’s play has been a precipitous decline in rebounding rate (especially on the defensive boards), although he did grab seven against NC State (including three on the defensive end). In the early part of the ACC season, Maye was absolutely dominant on both backboards (highlighted by his 15-rebound performance vs. Florida State). Both his 3-point rate (steadily) and his free throw rate (sharply) have declined segment-to-segment. While the 3-pointer is still part of his offensive arsenal (especially of the pick-and-pop and trailing-big-in-secondary varieties), Maye—always confident—is showing more discretion from behind the arc. Against NC State, he turned down a couple of clean perimeter looks (including the one that he turned into a driving dunk after pump-faking Omer Yurtseven).

Next, let’s break down Maye’s shot attempts by type and length. These are split into non-conference and ACC buckets. As implied by the data above, Maye’s shooting percentages have been improving across the board as the conference season progresses. This is especially true of his close FG%. Maye made 5-of-7 close attempts against the Wolfpack after starting the ACC campaign just 9-of-24 (37.5%) at the rim. Although his close FG% is way down in ACC play, he’s getting dramatically more attempts at the rim (in part due to his improved offensive rebounding; Theo Pinson’s presence is also helping here, as it has with getting all UNC’s bigs easier looks).

After missing all four of his mid-range catch-and-shoot jumpers in non-conference play, Maye has converted 6-of-1o in the ACC (including three against Duke alone). From 10-20′ overall, he’s shooting 64.7% in league play, while nearly doubling his non-conference attempts from that distance. During ACC games, Maye has clearly been Carolina’s most prolific and efficient mid-range option. He’s been particularly adept at finding openings in opposing defenses within the freelance passing game. His smart cuts/relocations have resulted in several clean mid-range looks recently.

Finally, let’s break down Maye’s 11 field goal attempts in the NC State game. He knocked down five of his first six shots before slumping a bit down the stretch.

  1. Wide-open tip in after a missed Britt 3 from the corner (created by a Jackson drive-and-kick); Dorn closed out on Britt after Jackson’s drive scrambled the State defense, but Smith never switched on to/boxed out Maye
  2. After a secondary break post entry from Britt to Bradley (who beat Anya down the court) on the left block, Bradley immediately hit a cutting Maye (the trailing big in secondary) for a layup; great cut by Maye, and a beautifully-executed transition possession by the Heels
  3. Missed a pick-and-pop 3 from the left wing after setting a ball screen for Pinson
  4. Another open tip in, this one was created by running right past Kapita after setting a screen to free Berry for a (missed) 3 on a baseline out of bounds (BLOB) set; Maye’s energy/effort/activity level was just consistently higher than the Pack’s bigs all night
  5. The famous Maye dunk following his shot fake to get Yurtseven in the air (terrible close-out), then a disinterested help rotation by Smith; this was the first close shot that Maye has created off the dribble all season (in only three attempts), and only his second dunk of his career; it was a terrific move, but NC State’s defense/effort was just abysmal on this play (bad enough to get a coach fired, even)
  6. Another beautiful secondary break set resulted in a Pinson lob to Maye after he received a back screen from Jackson; this is a quintessential secondary option for the Heels, and a great delivery by Pinson to create another open, close opportunity for a UNC big
  7. After out-fighting Kapita for another offensive rebound, Maye’s stick-back attempt was blocked from behind by Henderson as Anya also heavily contested the shot; finishing in the paint over size/through contact is an area where Maye continues to struggle as an undersized post player lacking elite ACC athleticism
  8. Maye knocked down a left-wing 3 after a BLOB dribble hand-off to Berry flowed directly into a Berry/Maye pick-and-pop
  9. On another BLOB set, Maye this time faked the dribble hand-off to Berry and attacked off the dribble; he missed a little leaning hook shot (the release was somewhat Hansbroughian) after using a pump fake to get Smith in the air (and probably draw an (uncalled) foul)
  10. He got his own rebound after the above miss, failing to convert a put-back opportunity that he should have finished.
  11. Maye missed a left-wing 3 (all three of his 3s vs. NC State were from the left wing) as the trailing big in the secondary break; Pinson got the potential assist for this one; Maye’s now just 2-8 (25.0%) on left-wing 3s, and 3-13 (23.1%) on 3s from either wing; he’s 4-7 (57.1%) on top-of-key 3s, and has also made his only corner attempt from behind the arc.

Maye probably won’t continue to score nearly 22 points / 40 like he was over his past six games. But his mix of 4-level scoring (at the rim, post moves (generally either a jump hook or turnaround jumper), mid-range jumpers, and 3s) is versatile enough to make him a constant threat. Working hard/high motor is a skill, and one that Maye possesses in abundance. That will always lead to a few “garbage” opportunities for him in transition, the offensive glass, or on loose ball/scrambles situations. Those aren’t just lucky bounces/breaks, though—they’re a function of Maye playing hard and smart (timely cuts, good anticipation of missed shots, etc.). His physical limitations will always limit his upside as a go-to post scorer in the ACC (simply since he’ll (probably) never finish at the rim efficiently enough). But his overall offensive game makes him a great complementary big to pair with a back-to-the-basket scorer like Meeks or Bradley.

Speaking of Maye-Bradley combos, the +/- numbers have been very favorable to that frontcourt duo in ACC play. Though it’s no guarantee that those two will pair in the post as starters next season, Carolina fans should feel more and more comfortable if that’s what ultimately happens.

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.

Throwing a Knockout Punch

Throwing a Knockout Punch

107-56. That was fun. It’s hard to remember a more thorough and convincing beatdown of an ACC opponent during the Williams era. The 51-point margin of victory is the highest against a conference team since Roy’s returned to Chapel Hill. And, according to my “performance above expectation” metric (see here and here for more on it), this was Carolina’s second-best ACC showing of Williams’s tenure. The Heels were nearly 42 points / 100 possessions better than the teams’ season-to-date Pomeroy rankings would predict. It’s just the seventh time under Williams that UNC’s been at least 30 points / 100 better than expected versus an ACC foe:

  1. @UNC 99, Virginia 54 in 2006: +45.60
  2. @UNC 107, NC State 56 in 2017: +41.88
  3. UNC 95, @NC State 71 in 2006: +37.26
  4. UNC 106, @Boston College 74 in 2011: +36.54
  5. UNC 81, @Georgia Tech 49 in 2015: +35.51
  6. UNC 78, Notre Dame 47 in 2016 (ACC Tournament): +31.73
  7. @UNC 92, Virginia Tech 53 in 2008: +30.92

And, although UNC’s 20-0 run to push the lead to 26-4 wasn’t actually the Heels’ largest (they had a 22-0 run in the second half to extend the advantage from 77-48 to 99-48; any historians know if  Carolina has ever had multiple 20-0 spurts in a single game?), it was clearly the knockout blow from which the ‘Pack would not recover. It happened pretty quickly—21 possessions (11 by UNC, 10 by NC State) over about 5:20 of game time (from 16:55 to 11:35 in the first half)—and, before NC State knew what hit it, the Heels had a 22-point lead and were cruising to a historic rout. Let’s break down those 21 decisive possessions one-by-one:

  • UNC1 (8-4): After an Abdul-Malik Abu tip-in over Isaiah Hicks (who he bullied under the rim with sheer strength) cut UNC’s lead to 6-4, Joel Berry (who had already gone coast-to-coast for an earlier transition lay-up) would get to work again. He turned down a Hicks ball screen in the secondary break, opting instead to drive left (from the left wing) on Dennis Smith. Smith, anticipating the screen, was beaten off the bounce by Berry and forced to foul. The nearly-automatic Berry (he has a current streak of 15 straight made FTs, following a streak of 26 earlier in the season) converted both free throws to push the lead to 8-4.
  • NCSU1 (8-4): After pounding the ball himself for 12 seconds, Smith missed a contested mid-range jumper off the dribble. Berry’s challenge forced Smith to fade away on the shot and, while he can make this shot, it was undoubtedly a bad NC State possession (no one but Smith touched the ball). Justin Jackson grabbed the rebound to finish the defensive possession for the Heels.
  • UNC2 (11-4): Following Berry drawing another (non-shooting) foul with secondary break penetration, the Heels would inbound the ball from the baseline. UNC ran its freelance motion BLOB, and Berry entered the ball to Kennedy Meeks in the right short corner (an unusual spot for a BLOB entry due to how compressed/shaded to the ball-side State’s defense was). Meeks immediately kicked it to a wide-open Kenny Williams on the right wing for a made 3-pointer—another high-basketball IQ play by Meeks, who didn’t hesitate on this delivery at all.
  • NCSU2 (11-4): Smith again over-dribbled at the top of the key before, a full 10 seconds into the possession, finally deciding to give the ball up. He made a lazy high-post entry pass to Omer Yurtseven, enabling Meeks (nimble feet for a big man!) to sneak around for the deflection and steal.
  • UNC3 (14-4): Meeks immediately turned this live-ball turnover into a primary-break bucket. He deftly went coast-to-coast for a lay-up, powering through Smith, who committed his second early foul, in the process. It was Meeks’s team-leading eighth “and-1” of the season and, for just the third time, he completed it with a made free throw.
  • NCSU3 (14-4): With Markell Johnson now running the point for the ‘Pack with Smith on the bench with foul issues, NC State ran a set to create a look for Terry Henderson. Williams took a bit of a bad (high) angle fighting around the screen, allowing Henderson to penetrate after receiving the ball in the right corner. A good help rotation by Hicks forced Henderson to give it up to Abu, and Berry’s help-the-helper rotation caused a deflection and near-turnover. Abu, however, was able to kick out to the perimeter, allowing NC State to swing the ball for a lightly contested left corner 3 for Torin Dorn (with Meeks working hard to close out late). Abu out-battled Hicks again for the offensive rebound, falling to the floor to ultimately  corral it. Pressure (and floor burns) by Jackson, Meeks, and Williams caused Abu to throw the ball into the backcourt for another NC State turnover.
  • UNC4 (14-4): UNC’s first of three empty trips during the run, this one was still defined by really good offensive execution. The Heels ran the “elevator doors” option for Williams out of their box set. With Williams well-defended on the initial option, Berry opted to hit Jackson in the left corner before exchanging with Williams (who never stopped moving) on the left wing. Williams received the pass from Jackson before missing a lightly contested 3 from the wing. Despite not scoring, Carolina created a good luck even though its primary option was taken away.
  • NCSU4 (14-4): NC State ran Johnson off of a UCLA cut on the left elbow, feeding him on the left block. Berry defended the cut well, forcing Johnson to back the ball out and settle for a contested left corner 3-pointer. Hicks grabbed the airball (aided by a superb Williams box-out) to hold the ‘Pack to only one shot.
  • UNC5 (14-4): On the ensuing secondary break, Berry fed Meeks (good entry angle, and well-delivered pass), who had established deep post position on the right block. Meeks drop-stepped to get right to the rim, only to have his shot contested by Yurtseven’s length. This showcased the good (ability to carve out space in the paint, quick feet to get to the rim) and bad (inability to finish against length) of Meeks’s post game. It probably would have been a dunk for Brice Johnson last year and, despite the miss, this is the type of look that Roy Williams will take an every single possession.
  • NCSU5 (14-4): Abu received a post entry on the right block, then powered up against Hicks. The 6’9″ senior from Oxford was up for the challenge, however, blocking the shot after forming a textbook defensive wall. Though there were many to choose from, this may have been my favorite defensive play of the game, as it demonstrated how Hicks can use fundamental soundness to avoid fouls while still impacting the game with his athleticism.
  • UNC6 (16-4): Berry grabbed the loose-ball rebound following Hicks’s rejection and turned it into a primary break opportunity. He dropped a perfectly-timed bounce pass to Williams for the quick transition score.

NC State called a timeout after this transition hoop, halfway through the 20-0 run (it clearly didn’t work). Carolina checked in Britt and Maye for Williams and Hicks during the stoppage of play.

  • NCSU6 (16-4): After good ball pressure by Berry caused NC State some difficulty getting into its offense, the ‘Pack finally set up a pick-and-roll between Maverick Rowan and BeeJay Anya with 10 seconds left on the clock. Berry and Meeks switched the screen, forcing Rowan to find Abu for a contested 17-footer.
  • UNC7 (19-4): Berry boarded the air-balled Abu jumper, pushing the ball back the other way. Maye and Meeks both beat the State bigs (Anya and Abu) down the court, forcing Wolfpack wing Rowan to help defend the paint in transition. This allowed his man, Justin Jackson, to step into a wide-open transition 3 at the top of the key. Berry delivered the pass perfectly, and Jackson knocked down his 99th career 3 (he’d end the game with 104) to stretch the lead to 15.
  • NCSU7 (19-4): Soon after Britt checked in, NC State ran Henderson off another screen and isolated him against the smaller Heel on the right wing. He beat Britt off the bounce to the baseline, drawing a shooting foul in the process. Luckily for UNC, Henderson missed both free throws (State made just 3-of-11 foul shots in the game—the type of aberrations a team generally needs on its way to a record-breaking victory margin).

Between foul shots, Theo Pinson checked into the game to a raucous standing ovation from the Smith Center fans. He replaced Jackson at the 3, where he’d play almost all of his minutes in his return to action off the bench (although he’d also play brief stints at both the 2 and the 4 in this game).

  • UNC8 (19-4): Immediately upon Pinson’s arrival on the floor, chaos ensued as both he and Britt ran to the left wing in secondary (with no one on the right side of the court). Berry threw it off Britt’s back for UNC’s first turnover of the game after 14 clean possessions. Not sure what Britt was doing here, as the 2 generally fills the right wing in the secondary break (and he and Pinson were aligned accordingly on the second free throw). This wasn’t a huge deal, but it’s the type of possession that Carolina can’t afford to give away in closer contests.
  • NCSU8 (19-4): NC State fed Anya on the left block against Meeks, and the massive Wolfpacker immediately tried to back him down. Meeks held his ground well to force a really tough, off-balance hook shot which was rebounded by Pinson.
  • UNC9 (21-4): Pinson pushed the ball hard himself and, although it didn’t lead to early offense, it did showcase another dimension that he’ll bring to the table to help the Heels’ transition game. UNC got into its freelance motion, and Meeks was posting hard on Anya for about 15 seconds before Pinson entered the ball to him on the right block. Not having good, deep position, Meeks faced up the larger, slower defender and attacked him with the dribble. That led to a fall-away jumper from about 11 feet, which he converted while also drawing a foul (his ninth “and-1” of the year). He’d miss the free throw.
  • NCSU9 (21-4): Sensing the game slipping away, Gottfried checked Smith, his star freshman PG, back into the game. After getting switched onto Smith on a guard-to-guard exchange, Britt allowed penetration after gambling for a steal on a wing overplay. Maye made a timely help rotation to force Smith to kick it back to Yurtseven for an elbow jumper (with Berry and a hustling help-and-recover Maye closing out). This was a decent look for NC State, but a Yurtseven 16-footer is a vastly superior option for UNC than having Smith get to the rim. Anya outfought Meeks to grab the offensive board, then Pinson committed a reach-in (non-shooting) foul. Bradley checked in for a tired Meeks at the whistle, and promptly helped to force an NC State BLOB entry turnover with his length/pressure on the ball. Anya’s lack of mobility as a receiver also contributed to this miscue, as it was largely unforced by UNC.
  • UNC10 (23-4): Protecting Smith with two fouls, NC State switched to its first possession of zone in the game. Pinson quickly located Maye in the high post, who confidently stroked a 17-foot catch-and-shoot jumper from near the right elbow.
  • NCSU10 (23-4): NC State used a (right) side ball screen from Yurtseven for Smith on its next possession. Maye flat-hedged on Smith, allowing Berry time to recover and somewhat contain the explosive Smith off the dribble. The State star was able to drive deep into the paint, drawing help from both Bradley and a recovering Maye. Smith left his feet with nowhere to go, but was able to hook around an athletic pass to Anya on the right block. Britt, scraping down for his help-the-helper rotation, was able to get a hand on the pass and ultimately come up with the steal. A big with better hands could have caught this pass for an easy lay-up, but the help rotations throughout this defensive possession made both the Smith pass and Anya catch high-degree-of-difficulty ones. Anya fouled Britt immediately after the steal.
  • UNC11 (26-4): State was in its zone again, this time looking fairly confused (lots of finger-pointing) by UNC’s ball and player movement. The result was a wide-open Pinson 3-pointer from the top of the key. His game jumper looked a little rusty, clanging hard off the back iron. Maye was about to corral a contested offensive rebound, immediately locating Berry on the right wing for a second-chance 3-pointer. Berry, who loves the right wing (now 12-23 on 3s from that spot this season) cashed in to cap off the Heels’ 20-0 run. This was a quintessential Maye possession, as his movement and energy played a key role: he first received the ball in the short corner, then skipped to to the top of the key; Maye then flashed to the right high post to occupy a defender and free Pinson for his 3 attempt, before finally crashing the glass to capture the rebound (and set up his assist).

Smith would end the run on NC State’s next possession after hitting a tough isolation 3-pointer over Berry using a series of foot fakes. But, in vintage Joel Berry style, he’d answer the Smith 3 with one of his own on the very next trip. Spotting up in the left corner against the ‘Pack’s zone, he received the ball following some crisp Britt-to-Pinson-to-Berry around-the-horn movement. Another favorite part of the court, Berry’s now 5-of-8 on left corner 3s this season. He did some woofing at the State bench and crowd, too, after this one—and the score prompted another Gottfried timeout. In their first three possessions against the NC State zone, the Heels scored eight points.

Following this 20-0 run to push the margin to 22, the Wolfpack wouldn’t cut the lead under 20 the rest of the way. While it won’t always be this easy for Carolina, the ability to deliver a well-timed knockout punch and score points in spurts will pay dividends all season long.

 

Scouting NC State

Scouting NC State

Strong Offense, Suspect Defense

Like usual in the six-year Mark Gottfried era, NC State has been excellent on the offensive end (31st in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency) but mediocre defensively (108th in adjusted defensive efficiency). The ‘Pack have been remarkably consistent year-over-year under Gottfried: their offenses have always ranked between 10th and 35th in the country (averaging 27th), while their defenses have fallen between 76th and 150th each season (with an average of 110th).

Offensively, NC State excels at making both 2-pointers (28th in the nation at 54.7%) and 3-pointers (49th at 38.6%), resulting in an eFG% that’s 23rd in the country. The Wolfpack are also excellent at getting to the free throw line, ranking 33rd with a FTA Rate of 42.9. On the defensive end, forcing misses and keeping opponents off the line are also the 4 Factors in which NC State has been the most proficient (ranking 66th and 69th, respectively, in eFG% allowed and opponents’ FTA Rate). NC State is mediocre on both backboards, so Carolina, an elite rebounding team, should be able to capitalize here. Likewise, the ‘Pack have been amongst the worst in the country (302nd) at forcing turnovers, so might not be able to exploit what has been a recent weakness for the Heels.

To Run or Not to Run?

Led by freshman point guard Dennis Smith, an explosive and lightning-quick athlete, NC State is playing at its fastest pace of KenPom era (since 2002), ranking 49th in the country in tempo. Always fast under Roy Williams, the Heels rank 28th in this metric. Digging a little deeper, it’s revealed that NC State is pretty fast on both ends (81st in offensive possession length, 57th in defensive possession length). Carolina, meanwhile, is really fast on offense (11th), but opponents try to slow the game down on the other end (the Heels’ defensive possession length is just the 239th-fastest in the country). That implies that opponents have been very willing to run with NC State, but more cautious in trying to play up-tempo with UNC.

Under Gottfried, NC State has tried both approaches: engaging UNC in its preferred fast-paced game, and trying to turn it into a half-court slugfest. In the first seven games against UNC, Gottfried’s teams averaged a fast 72.0 possessions (including beating the Heels at their own game in a 91-83, 80-possession game in Raleigh in 2013). Over the last four contests, however, the Wolfpack have slowed the pace down to an average of 64.3 possessions (including just 60 possessions in their 58-46 victory over UNC in Chapel Hill in 2015).

With Smith at the helm, the ‘Pack seems more likely to return to its up-tempo strategy against the Heels. Even though the star freshman excels in transition, that still seems like a gameplan that would favor Carolina (especially at home).

Smith Stirs the Drink

As alluded to above, Smith is the guy that makes everything happen for NC State. According to Synergy Sports’ charting data, Smith uses over half of the ‘Pack’s isolation possessions and is the ball-handler on nearly 70% of their pick-and-rolls. Using these opportunities (as well as the transition game), Smith is able to spearhead NC State’s elite catch-and-shoot offense (in the 87th percentile of the country in spot-up efficiency, according to Synergy). Wolfpack wings Terry Henderson (93rd percentile in spot-up efficiency), Torin Dorn (91st), and Maverick Rowan (72nd) all thrive on the catch-and-shoot opportunities (usually from behind the arc) that Smith creates for them. In fact, 94% of this trio’s made 3-pointers are assisted on. Smith, on the other hand, is only assisted on 58% on his 3-point makes (as he’s a threat to hit one off the bounce in transition or if a defender goes under a ball screen).

In transition, Smith also leads the way with 4.7 points per game, ranking in the 82nd percentile in transition efficiency. According to hoop-math.com, Smith has connected on 10-of-21 3-pointers in transition. Much of his elite FTA Rate of 51.0 is also as a result of exploiting unset defenses in the open court. Dorn (3.7 points / game) and Henderson (2.3) are NC State’s next-most-prolific transition scorers, but neither does so nearly as efficiently as Smith (they place in the 55th and 22nd percentiles, respectively, in transition efficiency).

Smith is converting 67.3% (53-80) of his opportunities at the rim, according to hoop-math’s data. This includes 72.5% (29-40) shooting on close transition opportunities, which account for exactly half of his overall chances at the rim. Keeping Smith contained in transition will be of utmost importance for the Heels. He becomes less and less efficient as the shot clock wind down: per hoop-math, his eFG% drops from 67.3% in the first 10 seconds of the clock (78 FGAs) to 53.4% in seconds 11-20 (73 attempts) to a terribly-inefficient 31.1% in the final 10 seconds of the clock (53 attempts). He’s more likely to take inefficient 2-point jumpers in late-clock situations. Likewise, his FG% at the rim plummets in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock, as he’s forced to attack/try to create against set defenses.

The NC State Bigs

According to Synergy’s data, NC State is using only 6% of its possessions on post-ups. Abdul-Malik Abu is the most-used and most-efficient option on these traditional post-ups, ranking in the 70th percentile in terms of post-up efficiency. Freshman 7-footer Omer Yertseven, recently back from a 9-game suspension, was received a few post touches, too. As of yet, he’s not been especially productive with them. The Wolfpack will also use its bigs (especially Yurtseven) as rollers in its high screen game (generally with Smith as the ball-handler). But, most frequently, NC State will simply use its bigs as cutters/drive-and-dish recipients to play off of Smith’s elite ability to penetrate and create for others. While State hasn’t been an elite offensive rebounding/put-back team, bench big Ted Kapita has excelled in this area and must be accounted for on the glass in his minutes. Abu will also crash the offensive boards hard, and is an above-average finisher in the paint. He’s actually leading the ACC with 25 dunks this season. The high-flying ‘Pack ranks second in the league with 68 dunks, trailing only Florida State’s 74. Carolina places fourth in this category with 49 (led by Isaiah Hicks with 20 and Tony Bradley with 13).

Prediction

I think NC State will choose to run with the Heels, and it’ll find some scoring success in transition. Carolina, which always crashes the offensive glass hard at the expense of defensive floor balance, is willing to allow some early hoops in an effort to dominate second-chance scoring and dictate tempo. Smith, a transcendent talent, will certainly give Joel Berry all he can handle defensively. This will be a fascinating match-up to watch, as Berry will certainly make Smith work on the defensive end, too. Kenny Williams and Justin Jackson should do a solid job of denying Henderson, Dorn, and Rowan the catch-and-shoot opportunities that they relish. Of course, that will depend on how the Heels choose to help on Smith’s penetration (helping early with the wings, or letting the bigs try to handle it in the paint). The extent to which Berry can curtail Smith’s penetration will be a big factor here, too. Theo Pinson’s return will be an X-factor also, but it’s hard to predict in which direction. His gambling defensive nature might actually work against the Heels against the spot-up wings of the Wolfpack. But the spark and energy that his return will provide, plus just having another capable rotation player in what figures to be an emotional, fast-paced game, should clearly boost Carolina’s chances. Hicks’s ability to stay on the court/avoid foul trouble when guarding (most likely) Abu will also be something to watch. While the Heels don’t mind going small (with either Jackson or, now, Pinson at the 4), it will be tougher against State’s big, physical frontcourt, In fact, I’m going to predict that we’ll even see a few minutes of Bradley-Meeks on the court together (a frontcourt pairing that, after getting big minutes in Maui, has been shelved ever since).

This feels like a game that will be played in the 80s. While Smith will get his numbers, he’ll make enough bad decisions in his first big rivalry game to prevent the ‘Pack from pulling the upset. Let’s call it:

Carolina 89, NC State 80