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UNC’s Early Offense

UNC’s Early Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

UNC vs. Virginia: Tempo-Free Season Box Scores

UNC vs. Virginia: Tempo-Free Season Box Scores

No big game can ever have too many previews, so…

Here’s a look at tons of pace-adjusted stats for the teams and players that will collide tomorrow at 8:15 in the Dome of Dean. Specifically, the team stats (besides pace and offensive efficiency) are per 70 possessions. The team’s percentile rank among the 351 teams in D1 are also given.

Team And Opponent Stats

Stat    UNC          UVA Opp              UVA         UNC Opp      
Pace     74.4   92%                        61.1   0%               
OffEff  117.3   99%     89.4  99%         110.8  88%     96.5   80%
2P%      52.4   79%     44.1  92%          53.4  87%     47.1   70%
3P        6.9   40%      6.8  66%           7.6  60%      7.9   24%
3PA      18.7   26%     21.0  46%          19.6  36%     22.7   19%
3P%      37.1   74%     32.3  85%          38.9  90%     34.9   49%
eFG%     53.4   78%     55.0  94%          55.0  90%     53.4   60%
FT       15.5   74%     12.9  70%          11.2   5%     11.8   88%
FTA      22.1   75%     18.8  67%          15.7   2%     16.5   92%
FT%      70.1   53%     68.5  73%          71.5  62%     71.3   32%
P        82.1   99%     62.6  99%          77.6  88%     67.5   80%
OR       14.7  100%      7.8  99%          10.1  48%      8.6   90%
R        41.1  100%     32.7  88%          37.3  87%     28.9  100%
A        17.1   98%     10.7  96%          16.7  96%     11.2   88%
B         3.1   44%      2.8  80%           4.8  89%      4.0   10%
S         6.9   75%      5.9  54%           6.5  62%      5.9   57%
PF       16.6   88%     17.0  11%          18.5  56%     18.8   47%
TO       11.5   88%     14.8  87%          11.4  89%     13.5   60%
No surprises here. Ours is the better offense, theirs the tougher D. The numbers say they 
should out-block us, but we have a shot at getting some steals and deflections and they
shouldn't exactly parade to the free throw line.

Our offensive boards should be a clash of titans (and could be quite busy, given the 2P% 
and block stats of their D vs. our O); in theory we should own the glass at their offensive 
end, but when teams don't strategically cede DR's to us to control our transition game 
they often have second-chance success.

We can't count on fast-break points or Berry/Jackson long bombs. We have to solve the
Bennett mystery and execute our formula of paint and 2nd-chance points.

Player stats, presented in a pet normalization of mine that I introduced in my first post about
Theo's extraordinary stat line. These are the averages and shooting totals the players would have
if they played 30 mpg for 35 games at a pace of 70 with 35 rebounds per game at each end. It's
intended to paint a very intuitive picture of what a starter who produced like the player in
question would look like. Stats are divided into two rows so as to fit on this page.

UNC Players
Name              Ht    Wt   Class  G   MPG       
   2P%   3P  3PA  3P%   eFG%  FT   FTA  FT%          P     OR   R     A    B    S    PF   TO 
Justin Jackson    6-8   200  Jr     27  31.4      
   51.9  82  212  38.9  54.8   82  108  76.1         16.8  1.2   4.4  2.3  0.2  0.5  1.3  1.4
Joel Berry        6-0   195  Jr     25  29.6      
   51.2  83  199  41.9  57.6   87  102  85.5         14.4  0.4   3.1  3.9  0.1  1.5  2.2  2.0
Kenny Williams    6-4   175  So     26  23.7      
   52.5  44  129  33.8  51.4   31   48  63.3          7.5  1.6   4.0  2.6  0.4  1.1  1.8  1.4
Kennedy Meeks     6-10  260  Sr     27  23.6      
   53.0   0    0   0.0  53.0   91  147  61.7         15.2  4.5  11.3  1.4  1.1  1.2  2.8  1.6
Isaiah Hicks      6-9   235  Sr     26  23.4      
   61.0   0    0   0.0  61.0  128  159  80.4         15.3  2.4   6.7  1.4  0.9  0.4  3.6  2.1
Nate Britt        6-1   175  Sr     27  19.7      
   39.0  36  105  33.9  44.0   30   49  61.5          7.1  0.5   2.8  3.7  0.1  1.7  2.7  1.6
Theo Pinson       6-6   205  Jr      8  17.5      
   59.3  21   78  27.3  53.9  100  142  70.0         11.2  2.3   8.3  5.5  0.2  1.6  2.4  0.8
Tony Bradley      6-10  235  Fr     25  15.0      
   56.5   0    0   0.0  56.5  144  229  62.8         14.8  5.8  10.7  1.3  1.3  0.5  3.4  1.4
Luke Maye         6-8   230  So     22  13.7      
   50.6  26   69  38.1  52.0   40   79  50.0         11.1  3.4   7.9  2.4  0.5  1.0  3.8  1.9
Brandon Robinson  6-5   160  Fr     27   8.9      
   41.9  29  112  25.9  40.5   71  104  68.0          7.6  1.2   4.6  2.6  0.4  0.9  2.8  1.4
Seventh Woods     6-2   175  Fr     27   8.7      
   37.5   8   42  20.0  36.0   89  156  56.8          6.9  0.7   5.1  5.1  0.2  1.9  2.4  4.2

UVA Players
Name              Ht    Wt   Class  G   MPG       
   2P%   3P  3PA  3P%   eFG%  FT  FTA  FT%          P     OR   R    A    B    S    PF   TO 
London Perrantes  6-2   192  Sr     25  31.7      
   47.5  77  196  39.1  53.2  77   96  79.4         13.8  0.4  3.4  4.2  0.1  0.7  1.1  1.9
Isaiah Wilkins    6-7   230  Jr     25  28.5      
   57.3   7   11  57.1  58.8  56   78  71.7          9.1  3.3  7.9  1.8  1.7  1.3  2.2  1.5
Devon Hall        6-5   209  Jr     25  26.4      
   45.7  44  114  38.7  50.0  64   81  79.5         11.2  0.7  5.6  2.5  0.1  0.7  2.6  1.1
Marial Shayok     6-5   213  Jr     25  21.6      
   49.7  31  101  31.1  49.0  79  103  76.1         15.3  0.6  4.3  1.8  0.5  1.6  2.2  1.9
Darius Thompson   6-4   196  Jr     25  20.2      
   57.7  46  135  33.9  54.7  39   60  64.0         10.7  0.3  3.1  4.3  0.5  1.6  1.7  1.9
Jack Salt         6-11  110  So     25  18.5      
   57.1   0    0   0.0  57.1  39   79  50.0          7.1  2.9  7.1  0.8  1.1  0.6  5.0  1.3
Kyle Guy          6-3   165  Fr     25  17.4      
   44.4  95  196  48.6  58.5  64   84  76.7         15.1  0.3  2.8  2.4  0.1  0.8  2.1  1.1
Mamadi Diakite    6-9   195  Fr     23  11.7      
   65.5  13   42  30.0  62.3  46   92  50.0         11.0  2.4  7.0  0.6  3.8  0.7  6.1  0.8
Jarred Reuter     6-7   243  So     24  11.3      
   60.8   0    0   0.0  60.8  70   86  81.0         11.6  2.9  7.7  1.9  0.2  0.6  4.2  2.7
Ty Jerome         6-5   190  Fr     25  11.0      
   81.8  73  165  43.9  71.4  40   56  71.4         11.5  0.1  3.2  4.1  0.2  1.0  4.1  2.6

Berry and Jackson’s 132 treys put them in a three-way tie for 29th-most by a duo in the country. Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson of Central Michigan are the maddest bombers with 172. Clearly we need somebody handcuffed to Kyle Guy as soon as he enters the game.

Hopefully we’ll get our first extended look at the Pinson-Hicks effect. My own play-by-play charting has Isaiah at 23 P, 8 R, and 7.3 FTA per 30 minutes on 63 & 91 shooting with Theo vs. 16, 7, and 4.5 on 61 & 79 without him.

Three of their best rebounders are foul-prone. Hopefully that comes into play late in the game. Early would be fine, too.

I have Kennedy as tied for 14th-best rebounder in the country and Tony tied for 24th. There are reasons why we probably won’t see significant minutes for those two together with Joel, Theo, and Justin, but it would be oh-so-interesting to see how that would work.

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.

Carolina’s ACC Rotation and +/-

Carolina’s ACC Rotation and +/-

With Carolina two-thirds of the way through its ACC schedule, let’s check out how the different lineup combinations are shaping up. As usual, small sample size caveats are in effect for the plus-minus numbers—a dozen games really isn’t enough to draw meaningful inferences about the future. In terms of describing how the Heels’ conference rotations have looked (and performed) so far, though, it can be a helpful exercise.

Let’s start with the cumulative ACC-only plus-minus numbers:

  • The first thing that might stick out is how many bench players are above the team average (and, correspondingly, how many starters are below it). Of the starting 5, only Isaiah Hicks has had an efficiency margin that’s higher than UNC’s ACC average for all minutes.
  • In general, lineups with the bench players have been worse-than-average on the offensive end. But that’s been more than outweighed by how (relatively) strong those lineups have been defensively. This is especially true in the case of lineups with Seventh Woods at point guard (albeit in only a 76-minute ACC sample size). The starters have the opposite pattern: above-average offensively, but well below the mean for defensive efficiency.
  • While I certainly wouldn’t advocate playing Berry-Jackson-Meeks fewer minutes going forward, this does demonstrate that there’s room for defensive improvement in the starting 5.
  • It’s also, of course, true that the bench is playing a significantly higher proportion of its minutes against opposing benches (and/or tired starters). As always, there is plenty of noise and confounding variables in any plus/minus metric. That said, the Carolina bench (primarily Woods/Robinson/Bradley) is grading out well from a defensive charting perspective. And, from a pure “eye test” analysis, those bench lineups are clearly bringing good defensive energy and effort.

Next. let’s break it down by frontcourt and backcourt combinations. We’ll also focus on the 3 position in isolation (rather than try to make things even more granular with 1-2-3 combinations).

  • Both the starting frontcourt (Hicks-Meeks) and the (primary) bench frontcourt (Maye-Bradley) have similar efficiency margins in league play. As was the trend above, however, Hicks-Meeks has been the vastly superior offensive frontcourt and Maye-Bradley the much stronger defensive combo.
  • Small-ball lineups have been unsuccessful. With Pinson at the 4, the offense has been great but the defense poor. With Jackson at the 4, the defense has been above-average but with poor offensive efficiency (which is a historical aberration for UNC’s small-ball lineups—they tend to be strong offensively, below-average defensively).
  • With a couple minutes against Duke, the Bradley-Meeks pairing has now played in two ACC games (Virginia Tech, Duke). In all games, it’s played about 27 minutes. Most of that time (77%) has been against Pomeroy Tier A&B opponents (i..e, top-100 teams), during which the Bradley-Meeks frontcourt has an efficiency margin of +20.7 (while posting above-average efficiency on both ends). I know why the staff doesn’t use that combo much (especially against stretch 4s), but it actually hasn’t been exploited yet defensively during its limited minutes. I’d be curious to see how that frontcourt would do with some more extended minutes (like it got in the Oklahoma State/Wisconsin games in Maui).

  • Unlike in non-conference play when the Berry-Williams backcourt was vastly superior to Berry-Britt on both ends, it’s much more even in ACC minutes. Berry-Williams has been the better offensive backcourt (used heavily with the other three starters, of course), but Berry-Britt has been the better defensive duo (used more heavily with the bench frontcourt).
  • Though the minutes are split somewhat equally, the Woods-Britt combo has been significantly better than the Woods-Williams one. Most of that advantage has been on the defensive end.
  • Pinson hasn’t played much 2 yet, but it’s been very successful in its limited use. The Berry-Pinson-Jackson 1-2-3 trio was great last year, too (used heavily when Paige was injured), so it will be interesting to monitor Pinson’s time at the 2 (and possibly even his insertion into the starting lineup as a 2).

  • The Heels have also been very successful with Pinson at the 3 this season. While the Jackson-at-the-3 lineups are Carolina’s best offensively, the team defense has been significantly better with Pinson in that spot.
  • Williams at the 3 (alongside a 2-PG lineup—generally Berry-Britt) hasn’t been working in league play. It was below-average in non-conference games, too.
  • Just like in the non-conference schedule, UNC’s been strong defensively with Robinson on the floor, but well below-average on the offensive end.
  • After a dominating non-conference run, the starting 5 has regressed to slightly above-average in league games. While it’s still an excellent offensive unit, that quintet’s ability to get stops has fallen precipitously.
  • Given the lack of dominance, might a Pinson-for-Williams swap in the starting 5 be in order? It obviously depends on many factors (Pinson’s health, team chemistry/how Williams might perform off the bench, how to best utilize Pinson between the 2/3/4 positions, etc.). From a pure efficiency standpoint, however, I think the Berry-Pinson-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks lineup is probably Carolina’s strongest (although there not much (if any) drop with Bradley at the 5).
Defending Duke’s Threes

Defending Duke’s Threes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

UNC-Duke: Crunch-Time Execution

UNC-Duke: Crunch-Time Execution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of concluding thoughts:

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

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

UNC Shooting Trends

UNC Shooting Trends

Let’s take a quick look at some Carolina shooting trends for various shot types/locations. This analysis will be comparing numbers from the first 12 games (through Kentucky) to those from the last 13. It’s roughly a non-conference vs. ACC split, although the final 13 includes Northern Iowa and Monmouth (in addition to the 11 conference games).

One area that figures to be of utmost importance against Duke is Carolina’s ability to finish at the rim. Because of how the Devils typically defend (pressure the ball, front the post), the Heels have a hard time delivering post entry passes against Duke. However, they have an easier time getting to the rim off the dribble to exploit perimeter pressure. And, irrespective of whether the ball enters the paint via the pass or the bounce, getting (and efficiently converting) second-chance opportunities will be of paramount importance for UNC.

  • Close FG% (games 1-12): 63.2% (204-323)
  • Close FG% (games 13-25): 58.4% (220-377)
  • Close FG% off the dribble (games 1-12): 53.4% (63-118)
  • Close FG% off the dribble (games 13-25): 45.9% (56-122)

It’s not too surprising to see Carolina’s close FG% drop as the competition improves. Finishing against the longer, more athletic defenders of the ACC is inherently more difficult than finishing over Radford’s or Davidson’s bigs. The quantity of close attempts has actually ticked up a little over the second half of the season (from 26.9 FGA / game to 29.0), a promising sign for any Roy Williams team.

The more troubling number, perhaps, is UNC’s inefficiency at the rim off the dribble. Never a great team at creating off the bounce (Ty Lawson isn’t walking through that door), the Heels have been trending in the wrong direction in this metric. Specifically, its two most prolific creators have been significantly less efficient over the last half of the season. After making 58.3% (14-24) of his close off-the-dribble attempts in games 1-12, Joel Berry has finished just 40.6% (13-32) over the last 13 games. Likewise, Justin Jackson has dropped from 56.5% (13-23) in games 1-12 to 41.4% (12-29) since. The one Heel who has stayed consistent in this area is Isaiah Hicks—68.8% (11-16) in games 1-12, 62.5% (10-16) in games 13-25.

For Carolina to beat Duke on the road, Berry and Jackson will have to get into the paint off the dribble and consistently finish (or at least get the ball on the rim for the bigs to clean up).

Speaking of the bigs, let’s take a look at their close-shooting trends.

Kennedy Meeks, despite playing against bigger and better ACC posts, is actually finishing at the same rate at the rim. In games 1-12, he made 60.3% (41-68) of his close attempts; in games 13-25, that’s improved slightly to 60.7% (54-89). Those slight efficiency upticks have been consistent for Meeks’ second-chance opportunities (57.7% (15-26) to 58.3% (21-36)) and tips (53.7% (7-13) to 64.3% (11-17)), too. Tony Bradley has also improved his put-back efficiency from 50.0% (10-20) in games 1-12 to 58.8% (10-17) in games 13-25.

While the Carolina bigs have had noticeable declines in their close FG%, there have been efficiency drops in most categories of post moves. Meeks, who made 50.0% (12-24) of his hooks in games 1-12, has made just 33.3% (7-21) in games 13-25. Likewise, Bradley’s hook percentage has fallen from 42.9% (6-14) to 22.2% (2-9). Hicks, on the other hand, has just removed the hook shot from his offensive repertoire entirely. After shooting 12 in the first 12 games (and making five of them), he’s attempted just a single hook in the last 13 games (which he missed). His turnaround jumper—now his clear go-to post move—has improved from 42.9% (6-14) in games 1-12 to 53.3% (8-15) ever since.

A few other interesting shooting trends:

  • Jackson floaters: 40.7% (11-27) in games 1-12; 48.6% (17-35) in games 13-25
  • Jackson right-wing 3s: 26.3% (5-19) in games 1-12; 29.0% (9-31) in games 13-25
  • Jackson left-wing 3s: 48.3% (14-29) in games 1-12; 59.3% (16-27) in games 13-25
    • Same percentage trends for Jackson (loves the left wing, struggles from the right), but he’s been taking a higher proportion of his 3s from the right wing lately (a troubling trend, perhaps, given the relative percentages)
  • Britt close off-dribble: 45.8% (11-24) in games 1-12; 71.4% (5-7) in games 13-25
    • Attempts way down, but finishing more efficiently
  • Britt mid-range jumpers off-dribble: 25.0% (3-12) in games 1-12; 10.0% (1-10) in games 13-25
    • Just stop shooting these, Nate!
  • Berry mid-range off-dribble: 55.6% (10-18) in games 1-12; 41.7% (5-12) in games 13-25
    • Down in both volume and efficiency lately, but still UNC’s best option from 10-20′ off the bounce
  • 3s against the zone: 50.0% (3-6) in games 1-12; 37.6% (50-133) in games 13-25
    • Huge uptick in volume as the amount of zone defense that the Heels have faced has skyrocketed in league play

And finally, a few passing trends:

  • Berry—games 1-12: 8.44 assists / 40, 16.14 potential assists / 40, 5.48 potential close assists / 40
  • Berry—games 13-25: 4.91 assists / 40, 14.05 potential assists / 40, 3.64 potential close assists / 40
    • Berry’s assist numbers are way down lately; some due to worse luck (i.e., more missed 3s on potential Berry assists), but mostly due to him creating fewer opportunities (and especially fewer close/good opportunities). Having Pinson around for part of that time has cannibalized some of Berry’s assists/assist opportunities, of course.
  • Woods—games 1-12: 6.33 assists / 40, 15.07 potential assists / 40
  • Woods—games 13-25: 10.00 assists / 40, 18.09 potential assists / 40
    • Unlike Berry, Woods has had both better “assist luck” and potential assist volume in the season’s second half. His potential close assist rate has stayed steady, but he’s had more assists following routine post feeds over the last few weeks (just by making the simple/easy play consistently).

Woods’ turnover / 40 number has also dropped from 6.63 in games 1-12 to 5.24 over games 13-25. That’s been driven almost entirely by a reduction in his ball-handling turnovers—from 2.11 / 40 to 0.48 / 40. Over the last handful of games, his overall turnover rate has dropped even more dramatically, as he’s finally started to reduce his rate of passing turnovers.

 

What’s Happened to the UNC Defense?

What’s Happened to the UNC Defense?

Through the first 17 games of the season, Carolina had posted an unadjusted defensive efficiency of 90.7 (i.e., allowing ~91 points per 100 possessions). When accounting for the strength of those opponents (who had an average adjusted offensive efficiency of 108.6—better than the national average of 104.7), the Heels’ adjusted defensive efficiency for the first 17 games improved to 87.4.

Over the last seven games, however, UNC’s unadjusted defensive efficiency has climbed the whole way to 111.8 (allowing more than 21 additional points per 100 possessions). While the quality of opposing offenses has risen a bit over that span to 113.3, the Heels’ adjusted defensive efficiency over the past seven games is still a significantly worse 103.3.

To examine what’s changed on the defensive end from the non-conference portion of the schedule to the ACC portion, let’s take a look at a couple of defensive charting summary tables. The first shows charting stats for only the 14 non-conference games. The second summarizes the same stats for the 10 ACC games that the Heels have played so far.

Not surprisingly, individual Stop%’s have dropped across the board. At the team level, UNC is now getting stops 54.5% of the time as compared to 59.9% during the out-of-conference slate. Some of this is due to facing a higher caliber of offense during league play (UNC’s ACC opponents have an average adjusted offensive efficiency of 112.5; its non-conference opponents had a mark of 108.1). But some has simply been due to worse defense/more mental mistakes by the Heels.

As seen by comparing the two tables, Joel Berry has been the biggest defensive decliner during league play. His Stop% has dropped from a pre-ACC mark of 66.9 to 50.4 in conference games. This reduction in defensive effectiveness has been fueled largely by an inability to force turnovers. Both Berry’s rates of turnovers created and deflections have fallen precipitously during league contests. Likewise, Nate Britt has seen drops in his defensive disruption numbers in ACC action. Both of UNC’s smallish guards have also allowed a much higher TS% on shots they’ve defended in league play. Britt, in particular, has also been committing fouls much more frequently in league play (or at least shooting fouls).

Many of Britt’s defensive difficulties can be directly linked to the absence of Theo Pinson. Pinson, as seen in the second table, has been Carolina’s most effective and (especially) disruptive defender during ACC play. Without him, Britt has had to absorb heavy minutes on the wing and match up with big, athletic guards like Bruce Brown and Jamel Artis.

Kenny Williams, who leads the Heels in both steals (13) and drawn offensive fouls (9) in ACC play, has continued to be an effective defender according to the defensive charting metrics. Likewise, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks haven’t fallen off very far from their non-conference numbers (although Hicks’ pre-ACC metrics weren’t great either). Overall, however, the Carolina starting 5 has been much less effective as a defensive unit. In the non-conference, the Berry-Williams-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks lineup posted an (unadjusted) defensive efficiency of 80.7 in 98 minutes. In 109 ACC minutes, however, that number has skyrocketed to 109.6 (that unit’s offensive efficiency continues to be excellent—posting a mark of 120.2 in the ACC, down from 138.8 in non-conference games).

Another factor to keep in mind is that, perhaps, Carolina’s ACC opponents have just been extraordinarily hot from behind the arc. While hot shooting/bad shot luck doesn’t excuse bad defense/breakdowns, it can explain why numbers look especially bad over a relatively small sample. In 14 non-conference games, 77% of the 3-pointers that UNC allowed were either open or lightly contested according to my charting numbers. But opponents made just 34.0% of those clean looks. In the 10 ACC contests, the percentage of open/lightly contested 3s has inched up a bit to 81%. But the 3-point percentage on those clean opportunities has exploded to 45.1%. Historically, the Heels’ opponents have shot between 37-40% on open/lightly contested 3s (with between 75-80% of total 3s being classified in these categories). That suggests that: a.) UNC’s non-conference foes were uncharacteristically cold from behind the arc, and b.) UNC’s ACC opponents have been uncharacteristically hot (so far). I’d expect some regression to the mean on opposing clean 3-point looks, which will result in defensive “improvement” even if it’s purely related to better shot luck.

 

Carolina’s 3-Point Report

Carolina’s 3-Point Report

With opponents using more and more zone defenses against Carolina, the Heels’ perimeter offense is taking on even greater importance in recent weeks. Let’s break down how UNC has been creating its 3-point opportunities.

We’ll summarize 3-pointers by location, shot creation type, possession type (half-court, primary, or secondary), and possession length.

By Location:

  • Carolina continues to be much better from the left side of the court (40.4% on 198 attempts) than the right side (31.9% on 185 attempts). Justin Jackson has especially stark left-wing/right-wing splits. Joel Berry, on the other hand, has actually been much better from the right wing.
  • Nate Britt has been effective the most effective Tar Heel from the corners (46.7% on 15 attempts).
  • Kenny Williams has the best balance of 3-point attempts across the five general locations. Other than the right corner (where he’s struggled), his percentages are also very consistent across locations.
  • Luke Maye and Brandon Robinson have both been very effective from the top of the key, but have struggled from all other locations. Since Maye gets some clean secondary reversal looks from the top of the key, this could be a huge part of his game in upcoming seasons.

By Creation Type:

  • “Perimeter pass” 3-pointers are ones that are created from just a lateral (or hit-ahead in transition) pass without doing anything else to break down/shift the defense. That is, if an around-the-horn or perimeter passing sequence is triggered after a drive-and-kick or inside-out pass, it will be categorized into that type (whatever starts the action). Because “perimeter pass” is a catch-all for station-to-station 3-pointers that often occur against a set defense, the percentage on this type is historically very low (low-3os). Because Berry’s been so good at them this year (many from several feet behind the arc), the Heels are actually shooting them decently as a team. It is an area of weakness for Jackson, though.
  • These aren’t mutually exclusive, as a 3-pointer can be against a zone and created via a (for example) drive-and-kick. Although UNC’s been very streaky against the zone (cold on the road at Georgia Tech and Miami; hot at home against Virginia Tech and Pitt), its zone percentage is very close to its overall percentage from behind the arc. Berry’s been excellent against the zone, while Jackson’s been below-average (since zone 3s are correlated with “perimeter pass” 3s, this makes sense given the previous bullet).
  • Jackson’s shot over half of Carolina’s off-screen 3s this season. He’s been really effective coming off of screens (and especially curling off of them).
  • Jackson’s also been really effective on his inside-out attempts. Consistent with historical data, this has been one of Carolina’s most efficient ways to generate perimeter opportunities.
  • Berry and Jackson account for the majority of UNC’s 3s off the dribble. Both have been very effective off the bounce from behind the arc.
  • Maye’s largest category by volume has been pick-and-pop 3s. An upperclassman Maye figures to be a productive secondary break and/or pick-and-pop perimeter threat (while ramping up his volume of 3s).

By Possession Type:

  • Baseline out of bounds (BLOB) 3s account for only a tiny fraction of UNC’s 3-point attempts. Over 90% of the 3s in the halfcourt/BLOB category are of the half-court variety.
  • From behind the arc, he Heels have been vastly more efficient in the half-court than in transition (primary/secondary). The 2009 Carolina team was actually significantly better in transition (as has been the historical trend for UNC). Jackson’s half-court vs. transition splits (45.0% vs. 31.1% are especially pronounced); Britt’s are, too (44.1% vs. 21.1%).

By Possession Length:

  • There’s obviously a lot of overlap between 3s by possession length and 3s by possession type. Most primary/secondary 3s fall into the “early offense” (1-10 seconds) bucket. Some secondary 3s leak into the 11-17 category, though. And many BLOB or second-chance 3s fall into the “early offense” (but non-transition) bucket.
  • Both Jackson and Berry have been significantly better in seconds 11-30 than seconds 1-10. Of the primary 3-point shooters only Kenny Williams and Luke Maye have been better on early-offense attempts.
  • Berry (6-9) and Jackson (5-9) have been deadly on late-clock (seconds 25-30) 3-pointers. All other Heels, however, have made just 3-of-11 against expiring shot clocks. It’s no surprise that the ball should be in the hands of either Berry or Jackson in late-clock situations.

While there’s obviously some small sample size stuff going on here, this data dump should hopefully give Tar Heel fans a better idea of which types of 3-pointers to feel confident about (e.g., an inside-out diagonal pass from Meeks on the right block to Jackson on the left wing) and which types to feel less good about (e.g., a station-to-station secondary break pass to Jackson on the right wing).

Learning to Finish

Learning to Finish

Up nine with about six minutes left, Carolina had a perfect opportunity to step on a lesser opponent’s throat. Due to some suspect late-game execution, though, the Heels had to force a last-second stop to escape with a victory. While a win’s a win, especially in the ACC, it would be nice to see the Heels develop the mentality to consistently put away inferior teams. And that starts with a dedication to the defensive end and stringing together consecutive stops.

Let’s break down the last several minutes of Tuesday’s contest to see what went wrong (and right) for UNC.

Following a Kennedy Meeks passing turnover (after he tried to kick it out to the wing following a post double; Nate Britt didn’t do him any favors by being completely stationary), Pitt took over down 68-59 with 5:30 left in the game. We’ll go possession-by-possession from that point on:

PITT1 (68-62): Pitt ran a staggered high ball screen, then had the second screener (Sheldon Jeter) immediately set a screen for the first (Michael Young) to free him for a three from the top of the key. You may remember this exact set from when Syracuse ran it twice for Tyler Lydon (see below) to victimize Isaiah Hicks. Hicks was again targeted here, and he simply needs to do a better job of anticipating and navigating screens away from the ball. I love this set, by the way, and wouldn’t mind if RoyW stole it to use in a key postseason possession with Jackson as a small-ball 4 (playing the Lydon/Young role).

UNC1 (68-62): For the second straight possession (with Pitt back in its man-to-man defense), Meeks received a touch on the right block (this time on a Justin Jackson post entry). Unlike on the previous turnover, Britt immediately relocated to the left corner, allowing Meeks to hit him with a nice pass after the Panthers again doubled. Britt had a clean mid-range look from about 17 feet, but wasn’t able to connect.

PITT2 (68-65): Following the Pitt defensive rebound, Jeter simply outraced Meeks down the court. He called for help, forcing Jackson to pick up Jeter at the rim (and causing Hicks to pick up Jackson’s man). In the ensuing confusion, Meeks was a step late to locate/close out on Young, who caught a simple secondary break reversal pass at the top of the key and splashed his second straight 3 from that spot.

UNC2 (70-65): Joel Berry missed a contested left-wing 3 after a simple perimeter exchange with Britt (and using a bit of a brush screen by Meeks). This was a shot that Berry can make, but the Heels didn’t do enough to shift/break down the defense before settling for it. Hicks, however, crashed the glass for the offensive board. After missing an open put-back with his left hand, he grabbed a second offensive rebound and drew the foul on UNC’s third chance. Hicks made both free throws.

PITT3 (70-65): The Panthers got Young a post touch on the left block against Hicks. As he started into his post move, Britt, helping from the top of the key, made a late swipe at the ball. Young easily located Britt’s man (Jamel Artis) for a clean 3-point look. Luckily for the Heels, Artis’ 3 rimmed out. This was probably a low-percentage gamble from Britt considering the time, score, and skill level of Young as a passer.

UNC3 (71-65): After a Hicks defensive rebound, Berry pushed the ball hard in transition against a scrambled defense, drawing a foul at the rim. He split a pair of free throws to push the Heels’ lead back to six.

PITT4 (71-68): But the Panthers would quickly slice that lead in half, creating another 3-pointer by screening Hicks away from the ball. This one started when Jackson and Hicks switched an exchange earlier in the possession, leaving Jackson on Young (who was demanding the ball in the post against him) and Hicks on Cameron Johnson. Artis, after being denied a dribble hand-off by Britt, set a little down screen (more of a brush than a solid pick) for Johnson. Hicks did a poor job of getting through the commotion, allowing Johnson a clean look for his sixth 3-pointer of the night.

UNC4 (71-68): With the shot clock under 10, Berry received a ball screen from Hicks, who then set a screen for a curling Jackson. Berry hit Jackson on the right wing, who then shot-faked, took a single dribble, and launched an open 3 from near the top of the key. This was good patience by Jackson to create a clean perimeter opportunity; he simply misfired. Despite the miss, this was good late-clock execution by the Heels to get their top scorer a look (and to engage its other top options in a ball screen).

PITT5 (71-68): Sensing an exploitable opportunity, Pitt again set an off-ball screen (a Johnson down screen from the left wing) to free Hicks’ man (Young) for a 3-pointer. Hicks took another bad route (losing contact with his man) which allowed Young to flare out for a clean left-wing 3. Though right on line, this one missed a little long. Even on Pitt’s misses, it was consistently creating high-caliber chances during this final stretch.

UNC5 (71-68): Britt grabbed a strong defensive rebound in traffic and was immediately fouled. With the Heels still in the single bonus, he missed the front-end of a 1-and-1.

PITT6 (71-70): After his missed free throw, Pitt went immediately after Britt on the other end. The Panthers posted up the much-bigger Artis on Britt on the left block. Using a couple of powerful back-down dribbles, Artis was able to spin to the hoop for a little floater to cut the lead to a point. As long as Carolina continues to play its 2-PG lineups (and, with Pinson out, there will be long stretches when it’s necessary), Britt’s size will keep being exposed by bigger, more athletic wings like Bruce Brown and Artis.

UNC6 (74-70): With under two minutes left and the Heels clinging to a 71-70 lead, Berry seized the opportunity to make another big play. He used another ball screen from Hicks to get all the way to the rim and finish over Johnson while drawing the foul. It was Berry’s fourth drawn “and-1” of the season, and he’s now completed all four of them by making the foul shot. A key to this finish is that Johnson had switched onto Meeks earlier in the possession, meaning that a Pitt wing was tasked with the help-side rotation rather than one of its bigs. This allowed Berry—who’s struggled recently at the rim (in fact, he had missed 11 straight close shots, and 12 2-pointers in a row dating back to very early in the Boston College game)—to explode to the rim rather than being overpowered by help-side strength/length.

PITT7 (74-73): Following his big play on the offensive end, Berry gave it right back defensively. He gambled for a steal while overplaying the passing lanes, ending up on the floor after the failed attempt. This gave Pitt a 5-on-4 advantage against a scrambling Tar Heel defense. Chris Jones hit Artis on the right wing for a 3-pointer that cut the lead back to 1. While overplaying passing lanes is a central tenet of UNC’s defense, and Berry is among the team leaders in forcing turnovers/getting deflections, this was a really bad gamble given the time and score implications. Despite being a veteran team, Carolina still has some issues with situational awareness that could haunt it in March.

UNC7 (76-73): Jackson, upon receiving a perimeter pass on the left wing, aggressively attacked off the dribble, getting all the way to the rim for a layup. Meeks, who was posting up on the left block, did a nice job of lifting his defender (Young) a step above the block to give Jackson a driving angle and to make Young’s help rotation a bit tougher (as he was wrestling a bit with Meeks for post position). Meeks makes a bunch of little under-the-radar plays like this that speak volumes about his basketball IQ. Kudos to Jackson, too, for not settling for a jumper (or giving the ball up) and instead taking it to the rim with a purpose.

PITT8 (76-73): With Jackson again on Artis (UNC switched Britt off of him immediately after the post move that made it 71-70), the Pitt star attempted to attack him off the bounce. Jackson did a good job of cutting him off, forcing Artis to change directions with a behind-the-back dribble, and setting up Meeks to block his shot in the paint. Both Jackson and Meeks defended this excellently, and the call to take Britt off of Artis was definitely a smart one from the bench (though one could argue that matchup should have never occurred in the first place).

UNC8 (78-73): Following Jackson’s defensive rebound of Artis’ blocked miss, UNC had the ball up 3 with a 13-second differential between shot and game clocks. Berry, who had the ball against light defensive pressure, gave it up to Britt, who the Panthers immediately fouled. While Britt (who’s connected on plenty of big close-and-late free throws as a Tar Heel) did knock down both shots, this is another example of suspect situational awareness. I saw no reason for Berry to give up the ball at all on this possession (unless/until Pitt trapped him, etc.).

PITT9 (78-76): As it would do over the last couple of possessions, UNC subbed in Kenny Williams for Meeks for perimeter defense reasons. Pitt had a sidelines out-of-bounds entry following a Britt deflection, and UNC forced the Panthers into a contested corner 3 (that was created by a perimeter pass against a set defense—no screens, or drive-and-kicks, etc.). Jones ended up knocking it down over Berry, but there’s not much to say about this one other than it was a tough shot. Berry certainly doesn’t want to foul in this situation and, given his size/length, he contested it about as well as he could have.

UNC9 (79-76): During a Pitt timeout, Meeks came in for Williams to throw the in-bounds pass. The Panthers didn’t put anybody on the ball, instead opting to shadow Berry with a second defender. Given that Pitt took away the Heels’ top free throw shooter, Meeks did a good job of finding Jackson, who split a pair of free throws. His late-game issues at the line have been pretty well-documented.

PITT10 (79-78): With Carolina only having five team fouls and 10 seconds left in the game, Roy Williams decided to put the Panthers on the line rather than giving them a potential game-tying 3. I thought this was absolutely the correct call, and I applaud the staff for making it. I do wish that Jackson would have allowed another second or two to come off the clock prior to the first (non-shooting) foul, but that’s a tricky spot (since the worst thing to do is foul in the act of shooting, which Artis tried to do on the second foul). Overall, Jackson executed this really well, and UNC had a one-point lead with five seconds left after Artis hit both free throws.

UNC10 (80-78): This time, Pitt had a defender on the ball during Meeks’ in-bounds attempt. That meant that Berry was single-covered (with Artis shadowing him), but Carolina didn’t set a screen for him and was unable to get the ball into his hands. Hicks used his quickness to break to the ball and receive a Meeks pass, but he too split a pair of crucial free throws. Carolina’s press-breaker doesn’t generally involve setting screens (it’s more free-lance motion and just cutting to open spots of the floor—and sending players deep, too), but it might be a nice wrinkle to help maximize the chances of Berry getting the ball for late-game free throws.

PITT11 (80-78): On Pitt’s final possession, Artis had four seconds left to get the ball up-court to create a game-winning opportunity. He mishandled the ball almost immediately, triggering a level of desperation on his part. Pitt was able to set a brush ball screen in transition, but Hicks (who I’ve maligned a bit in this piece for his inability to recognize situations/fight through screens) did a fantastic job of switching it instantly and forcing a heavily contested running 3 by Artis that never had a chance. After the way that the Villanova and Kentucky losses occurred, this one had to feel good for Hicks, as his perimeter defense here was top-notch.

So, despite hanging on to win, the Carolina players gave the coaching staff plenty of teachable moments during film review. The late-game execution continued to be inconsistent at best, and careless at worst. Ultimately, though, the Heels made just enough plays to win. As a (somewhat spoiled) fanbase, we’d like to see more going for the jugular and less squeaking by. If history’s taught us anything, however, Tar Heel fans should expect Roy and the staff to have this team peaking by late-February and into March. In this case, that will involve cleaning up a lot of the defensive mistakes that have plagued UNC over the last few weeks.