- I wrote this down with about four minutes left in the game: “Win or lose, these two regular season games between North Carolina and Duke have been incredible.” I stand by it. Even though the final margins were eight and seven, both games were played at such a high level. Tonight’s game had 18 (EIGHTEEN!) lead changes in the first half.
- Love the senior night tradition of starting the seniors, even the walk-ons. This year was particularly fun because there are exactly five seniors who make up a sensible line-up – Nate Britt, Stilman White, Kanler Coker, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks.
- Heels finish the year undefeated at home – 16-0.
- I did not like hearing the crowd chanting “overrated” at Harry Giles. The poor kid has struggled with knee injuries and surgeries. Not classy. Sorry, Duke fans.
- You might recall that the Tar Heels scored just 43 points Monday night against Virginia, a Roy Williams-era low. When did they hit 43 in this game? With 2:55 left in the first half. In fact, it was a huge basket of a pretty cut by Brandon Robinson to put Carolina back in the lead.
- There are many things to point to as the “main factor” in this game. One of them was Isaiah Hicks, who missed the first Duke game with an injury, and has not played well of late. Can’t overstate how huge it was to have him back on the floor this time. On Hicks’ senior night, he scored 21 points, had nine rebounds, shot 7-8 from the free throw line, and, most importantly, only had two fouls. He picked up both fouls in the first half but then did a fantastic job in the second half of moving his feet and not fouling. He needs to learn, as Jay Bilas said tonight, that “you can get a basket back, but you can’t get a foul back.” Also, let’s just never talk about that missed dunk. Okay? Okay, great.
- Congrats also to Isaiah Hicks for becoming the fourth Tar Heel this year to reach 1,000 points for his career. Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, and Joel Berry also hit that mark this year.
- As well as Hicks played, Joel Berry is the MVP of this game. 28 points on 5-5 from deep. Several huge shots down the stretch. His performance, particularly in the first half, was very reminiscent of the National Championship.
- As hot as Berry was, Justin Jackson really struggled with his shot in this game. He started off 0-6 from deep before getting his seventh to fall. However, following that made three-pointer he had several nice assists and finished with four assists and no turnovers.
- As good a year as Jackson has had, I’ve got to give the Conference Player of the Year to Luke Kennard. He matched Joel Berry’s 28 points and hit tough shot after tough shot, often with really good defense in his face. In a year of inconsistency for Duke, Kennard has brought consistency and is the most indispensible player on that team.
- The Tar Heels were much better at running Duke off the three-point line tonight than in the first game. The Blue Devils had 13 made threes in the first game and seven tonight. That’s a big deal.
- Another key in this game was the free throw line. The numbers heavily favored Duke for most of the game, and indeed they outscored Carolina 28-16 from the line. However, after starting off 25-28 from the free throw line, the Blue Devils shot 3-7 after the under 4:00 media timeout.
As I sat in the discouraging aftermath of Villanova’s 2016 National Championship, not only was the loss hard, but the impending personnel loss weighed heavy as well. This was the end of an era. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the players responsible for 35 of Carolina’s 74 points that night, including the final 10, would never again don a University of North Carolina Tar Heel uniform.
As the offseason unfolded, things got worse as I realized how loaded Duke’s roster would be in the 2016-17 season. Just days after Marcus Paige’s miraculous three-pointer, Grayson Allen announced he was coming back to school for his junior year. A few weeks later, big man Amile Jefferson was granted another year of eligibility after a foot injury held him out most of the 2015-16 season. Duke had already signed three of the top 10 recruits in the class (depending on which recruiting site you go by), but then another top 20 recruit (Marques Bolden) picked the Blue Devils over Kentucky. Once again, Duke was picked to run away with not only the ACC Championship, but also the National Championship.
I realized I was beginning to have this fear that Duke was dominating the ACC year after year after year and that no one else could keep up with their talent, recruiting, and on-court victories. My perception was that the Blue Devils were in a class of their own of late, winning all sorts of regular season and conference championships.
So I decided to actually look at the results to help confirm my suspicions.
This is Roy Williams’ 14th season coaching the Tar Heels. Here are the ACC regular season conference champions during that span:
- 2004 – Duke
- 2005 – North Carolina
- 2006 – Duke
- *2007 – North Carolina, Virginia
- 2008 – North Carolina
- 2009 – North Carolina
- *2010 – Duke, Maryland
- 2011 – North Carolina
- 2012 – North Carolina
- 2013 – Miami
- 2014 – Virginia
- 2015 – Virginia
- 2016 – North Carolina
- *2017 – North Carolina (Notre Dame can share the championship if they win and North Carolina loses today)
*the ACC allows co-champions when teams tie, regardless of head-to-head results. Notre Dame can tie North Carolina this year if the Irish beat Louisville today AND the Heels lose to Duke.
Looking at the results, North Carolina actually has eight regular season championships, compared to Duke’s three. Virginia also has three, but no other school has more than one. Okay, I guess I can breathe a little easier.
If it isn’t regular season championships, perhaps my feelings of Duke’s domination of the ACC are based on ACC Tournament championships. Here are the results of the championship game for the past ten years:
- 2007 – North Carolina 89 – NC State 80
- 2008 – North Carolina 86 – Clemson 81
- 2009 – Duke 79 – Florida State 69
- 2010 – Duke 65 – Georgia Tech 61
- 2011 – Duke 75 – North Carolina 58
- 2012 – Florida State 85 – North Carolina 82
- 2013 – Miami 87 – North Carolina 77
- 2014 – Virginia 72 – Duke 63
- 2015 – Notre Dame 90 – North Carolina 82
- 2016 – North Carolina 61 – Virginia 57
So that’s not it either. North Carolina and Duke have each won three ACC Tournament championships in the past ten years. In fact, during that ten-year span, the Tar Heels have made the ACC Championship game seven times while the Blue Devils have only advanced to the final four times. Interestingly, a different team has won the ACC Tournament each of the past six years.
Taking a deeper look, Duke has actually not won an ACC regular season or tournament championship since the conference expanded to 15 teams in the 2013-14 season.
Maybe if we expand the scope further, we can uncover my fears of Duke supremacy. Perhaps my worries are due to the fact that Duke has had more success that Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. Here are the NCAA Tournament results for both teams in the Roy Williams era:
- 2004 – UNC: 2nd Round; Duke: Final Four
- 2005 – UNC: National Champions; Duke: Sweet Sixteen
- 2006 – UNC: 2nd Round; Duke: Sweet Sixteen
- 2007 – UNC: Elite Eight; Duke: First Round
- 2008 – UNC: Final Four; Duke: Second Round
- 2009 – UNC: National Champions; Duke: Sweet Sixteen
- 2010 – UNC: NIT Finalist; Duke: National Champions
- 2011 – UNC: Elite Eight; Duke: Sweet Sixteen
- 2012 – UNC: Elite Eight; Duke: First Round
- 2013 – UNC: 2nd Round; Duke: Elite Eight
- 2014 – UNC: 2nd Round; Duke: First Round
- 2015 – UNC: Sweet Sixteen; Duke: National Champions
- 2016 – UNC: Finalist; Duke: Sweet Sixteen
- National Champion – 2
- Finalist – 1
- Final Four – 1
- Elite Eights – 3
- Sweet Sixteen – 1
- Second Round – 4
- First Round – 0
- NIT Finalist – 1
- National Champion – 2
- Finalist – 0
- Final Four – 1
- Elite Eight – 1
- Sweet Sixteen – 5
- Second Round – 1
- First Round – 3
- NIT – 0
These results don’t point to Duke dominance either. In the 13 NCAA Tournaments of the Roy Williams era at North Carolina, both teams have two National Championships to their name. The Tar Heels were relegated to the NIT the year after the 2009 championship, while the Blue Devils have made the NCAA Tournament each year. Carolina has never lost in the first round (the REAL first round) of the NCAA Tournament in the Williams era, while Duke has been knocked out three times at that level. Carolina’s biggest advantage in NCAA Tournament success is that they have made it to the Elite Eight or beyond in seven of the 13 years, while Duke has advanced that far four times. Needless to say, NCAA Tournament results also do not explain my fear of Duke dominance.
Perhaps my worries are unfounded? Maybe my fears are irrational and Duke hasn’t actually dominated the ACC?
Then it hit me. I needed to narrow my scope, not broaden it. Here is Carolina’s record against Duke each year of the Roy Williams era:
- 2003-04 – 0-2
- 2004-05 – 1-1
- 2005-06 – 1-1
- 2006-07 – 2-0
- 2007-08 – 1-1
- 2008-09 – 2-0
- 2009-10 – 0-2
- 2010-11 – 1-2
- 2011-12 – 1-1
- 2012-13 – 0-2
- 2013-14 – 1-1
- 2014-15 – 0-2
- 2015-16 – 1-1
- 2016-17 – 0-1
In the Roy Williams era at North Carolina, the Tar Heels have a total record of 11-17 against Duke. Duke holds a comfortable lead in the series during this time span, but since Carolina’s 2009 championship, the Blue Devils have absolutely dominated. From the 2010-11 season through the present, the Tar Heels have a 4-12 record against Duke.
Mystery solved. My fears of Duke ACC dominance are actually based on the fact that they have absolutely owned North Carolina head-to-head in the Roy Williams era. It is always nice to beat your rival, but, at the end of the day, give me the championships every time!
Will tonight’s regular season finale be a turning point in the series for the Tar Heels? Or will it be a step in the right direction for a Duke team that was supposed to run away with the 2016-17 season?
The free throw line is the loneliest and most pressure-filled place on a basketball court. Some basketball players thrive on this moment. Others? Weeeeeelllll, not so much.
Two players in NBA history have shot over 90% for their careers (Steve Nash, 90.4% and Mark Price, 90.4%). Stephen Curry (90.4%), though still active, shares the same distinction. Coming in just behind these three is Rick Barry who famously shot his free throws underhanded (and technically rounds up to 90% free throw shooting himself).
On the other side of the coin are the “not-so-much-ers”. We all know about the “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic of fouling an opponent even when he doesn’t have the ball. Why? Because he’s so awful at shooting free throws that the percentages say you are better off giving that player two free shots from 15 feet rather than letting the opposing team run their offense. It’s become so rampant that the NBA has been forced to employ rules discouraging the use of this tactic. As you would imagine, this strategy is so named because teams started doing this to Shaquille O’Neal. While Shaq is a poor free throw shooter, and believe me, he is bad, the Big Aristotle actually more than half of his free throws (52.7%) for his career.
Believe it or not, there are actually several NBA players with worse free throw shooting percentages than Shaq. One of the most famous players of all time – Wilt Chamberlain – shot just 51.1% from the charity stripe. Several NBA players have shot under 50% – Chris Dudley (45.8%), DeAndre Jordan (42.1%), and Ben Wallace (41.4%).
Finally, coming in under 40% free throw shooting is Andre Drummond at 38%.
When it comes to the best free throw shooters in North Carolina basketball history, Shammond Williams leads the way at 84.9% (292-344). As recently as last year, it looked as though that Williams’ career record would fall. Entering his senior year, Marcus Paige had actually eclipsed Williams in career free throw percentage at 86.5% (275-318). Paige, as you might recall, had an “off year” (by his standards) in the 2015-16 season, shooting “just” 77.4% (72-93). When all was said and done, Paige wound up fifth on the all-time list for UNC at 84.4% (347-411), behind Williams, Kim Huband, Marvin Williams, and Danny Green.
Shammond Williams also holds the single-season record for free throw percentage at 91.1% (133-146) in 1997-98; the only Tar Heel to shoot above 90% for an entire season. Marcus Paige holds two of the top nine single season free throw percentage marks. He hit 87.7% (128-146) in 2013-14 (third place) and 86.5% (96-111) in 2014-15 (ninth place).
This brings us to Joel Berry. Berry did not begin his Tar Heel career as a candidate to be one of the best free throw shooters in North Carolina history. During his freshman year, Berry shot 75.7% (28-37). Things changed, though, in his sophomore year when Berry shot 86.7% (91-105), which is the eighth best single-season mark in Tar Heel history. This incredible sophomore year allowed Berry to begin his junior year at 83.8% (119-142) for his career, which is seventh on the all-time list.
Joel Berry entered his junior year with great possibilities of continuing to move up the career free throw percentage list as well as having one of the best single seasons of free throw shooting in UNC history. Right out of the gate, that’s exactly what Berry did. Oddly though, Joel Berry’s free throw shooting in 2016-17 has been a tale of two halves.
Let’s use the natural dividing of non-conference schedule and conference schedule to create those two halves.
First, the good. In non-conference, Berry hit 39 of 42 free throws over the course of 11.5 games (he missed most of the second half against Radford after suffering an ankle injury and the subsequent games against Davidson and Tennesee). That’s a 92.9% clip during roughly the first third of the season. That free throw percentage would give Berry the best single season number in Carolina history; beating Shammond Williams’ 91.1% mark for a single season by almost two percentage points. This hot start also propelled Berry to 85.9% for his career, a full percentage point above Williams’ career record.
As the conference part of the schedule began, everything changed. Let’s call this part the “not-so-good”. The Tar Heels have played 17 conference games (and have one more to go against some team from eight miles down the road). In those games, Joel Berry has shot 35-47 from the free throw line, which is 74.5%; a drop of 18.4 percentage points from the non-conference portion of the schedule. This is a respectable number, but not an “all-time-best-in-program-history” type of number. The worrisome part is that things have continued to get worse. Over the last 11 games, Berry has shot just 68.8% (22-32) from the line. Remember, this is statistically one of the greatest free throw shooters in Carolina history.
Here’s a telling way to look at things. In the non-conference schedule, Berry shot free throws in nine of the 11.5 games he played in. In those nine games, he hit every free throw he took seven times. By contrast, Berry has shot free throws in 11 of the 17 conference games. Of those 11 games, he’s made every free throw he’s taken just twice.
It’s also troubling to notice the discrepancy in the number of free throws Joel Berry has attempted when comparing the non-conference and conference. In his 11.5 non-conference games, Berry shot 42 free throws. In the 17 conference games, he’s shot 47, just five more. That means that in non-conference games, Berry 3.65 free throws a game, which dropped to 2.76 per game during the conference schedule. In the non-conference schedule, there were three games when Berry didn’t shoot any free throws. In conference, there have been six such games.
It’s hard to say exactly what is causing the drop in Joel Berry’s free throw percentage. Perhaps it’s the fatigue of playing point guard for Roy Williams over the course of a grueling season. Perhaps it’s a problem of shot mechanics. Perhaps Berry is in his own head. Perhaps the hot start was an anomaly. Perhaps it’s a lack of focus.
Whatever the reason, while Justin Jackson has been the most consistent scorer this year for North Carolina, Joel Berry is the heart and engine of the team. In order for this year’s version of the Tar Heels to reach, and possibly exceed, what the 2015-16 team achieved, Berry will have to continue to be that driving force as the regular season gives way to postseason tournaments. And it wouldn’t hurt if he hit a couple more free throws along the way.