All posts by isaacschade

Quick Hitters – UNC vs. Stanford

Quick Hitters from North Carolina’s 90-72 victory over Stanford on Monday night in the Tar Heels’ home opener.

Highlights:

  • Let’s start with a crazy stat: Cameron Johnson is shooting 71.4 percent…on THREE POINTERS. WHAT?! No, that can’t be real. Wake up, Susan. It’s real. Johnson has hit 10 of 14 from deep and his shot is so smooth and squared up it looks like it’s going in every time he pulls the trigger. The law of averages says there’s no way he’ll maintain that pace, so let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Additionally, Cam is currently second on the team in rebounding behind only Luke Maye.
  • Seventh Woods threw a beautiful lob to Nassir Little from the top of the key for a thunderous alley-oop. While Little’s dunks are something to behold, the best part of this play is Seventh’s reaction before Little even catches the ball:

  • This was a tale of two different halves. In the first 20 minutes, Carolina doubled up Stanford in the scoring column 52-26, outrebounded them 24-11 and allowed zero free throws. Stanford didn’t get to double-digit points until 10:08 remaining in the first half. If the Tar Heels can find this gear consistently through the season, we’re in for a fun ride.
  • After halftime, no combination of players on the court brought the cohesion exhibited in the first half. To Stanford’s credit they settled into the game and played much better while the Heels at times looked lethargic. Admittedly, Coach Williams was clearly tinkering with different lineup combinations due to the lopsided score.
  • In the post-Hansbrough years, many Tar Heel teams have been labeled “soft” and allowed opponents back into games. The current batch had the opportunity to put a team away tonight. Instead of building on the 26 point halftime lead, the Heels allowed Stanford to get as close as 85-70 with 3:12 remaining. The jury is still out on what kind of fight the 2018-19 crew will display.

  • Turnovers from the point guard position reared its ugly head this evening. Coby White and Seventh Woods each had three, including White giving the ball away on each of the first two possessions of the game. The team finished with 12.
  • Let’s get back to good news. Kenny Williams is off the scoring schneid. The senior had one point in the first two games. He quickly changed that tonight with a nice steal and coast-to-coast bucket just 90 seconds into the game. Williams totaled 12 points including shooting 2-for-3 on three pointers. Importantly, he also dished out four assists against only one turnover. Here’s Williams talking about his performance:
  • In very Roy Williams fashion, nine different players played in the first 6:30 and that number rose to 10 when Leaky Black entered with 11:12 left in the first half.
  • Speaking of depth and balance, these have been the themes of the first three games. Even with Kenny Williams’ rough start to the season scoring-wise, five players are averaging double-digits in scoring (Johnson, Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, Little and White). Only twice this season has an individual player played more than 30 minutes (Maye and Johnson against Wofford). Nine players are averaging double-digit minutes played (with Brandon Robinson just behind at 9).
  • Black played his first meaningful minutes as the sole point guard on the floor for a four-minute stretch in the first half. Black, the most unheralded of the freshmen, is a lot of fun to watch. On two different occasions his length disrupted a sideline out-of-bounds play for Stanford. One resulted in a tie-up, the other with a breakaway dunk. Black is shooting 60 percent (including 4-for-4 tonight) from the field and has six assists with just one turnover. Here’s Black talking about his transition to college and playing multiple positions for the Tar Heels:
  • North Carolina teams typically assist on a high number of made baskets. That propensity has not held true early this season. The numbers are 58 assists on 109 made baskets, totaling 53.2 percent. The low number could be a product of young and inexperienced point guard play. It could just be a statistical anomaly. We’ll have to keep our eyes on it.
  • Sterling Manley had this ridiculous block midway through the first half. I offer no commentary. It’s just fun to watch:

Roy Williams postgame press conference:

Remember to check in for Quick Hitters after every North Carolina basketball game. Next up is a road game against Tennessee Tech on Friday, November 16. Tip is at 7:00ET on RSN & WatchESPN.

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Quick Hitters – UNC @ Elon

Quick Hitters from North Carolina’s 116-67 road win on Friday night over Elon.

Highlights:

  • Let’s not bury the lead: rebounding was the story of the game. 60 rebounds for Carolina. First time to haul in 60 boards since grabbing 64 against Duke on March 5, 2016. Additionally, the Heels had more offensive boards (24) than Elon had defensive boards (21). And those offensive rebounds led to:

  • A point of concern has been turnovers. That number continued to shrink tonight, with Carolina only surrendering 11. Most importantly, the point guards combined for only one of those 11.
  • Garrison Brooks did not have the same numbers as he did against Wofford, but was solid. Seven points on 3-for-5 shooting, six rebounds, and three steals in 16 minutes. Sterling Manley had a much more productive night: 11 points and eight boards in 15 minutes. A combined 18 points & 14 boards in 31 minutes is great production from the center position.
  • Remember last year when Cam Johnson only shot 34% from deep? Two games is an admittedly small sample size, but he is 7-for-10 so far this year. Additionally he hasn’t missed a free throw yet and is leading the team in scoring. Impressively, as well as Johnson is shooting, he’s still looking for his teammates. Against Wofford, a lob in the lane to Garrison Brooks. Against Elon, a kick out to Coby White for a three in transition. In both instances, Johnson could have taken the shot and no one would have batted an eye. But in both instances he found a better shot. Here’s Johnson talking about his shot:
  • Last year, Carolina had to rely heavily on the starters for consistent offensive production. While tonight’s game was admittedly against Elon, the bench contributed 65 points.
  • Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Tar Heel guards will need to do better at stopping dribble penetration (which leads to wide open threes) going forward. After allowing the Phoenix to shoot 57% from the field in the first half, Carolina buckled down in the last 20 minutes and allowed a paltry 16% field goal percentage.
  • Leaky Black is the type of guy that might wind up with a triple-double on his résumé before he leaves Chapel Hill. The rangy freshman finished tonight with eight points, six boards, five assists, zero turnovers and a steal in just 15 minutes.
  • 10 different Tar Heels scored…in the FIRST HALF. All 15 available players scored a point in the game (Walker Miller was out with an injury).

  • Poor Kenny Williams can’t buy a basket right now. He still hasn’t made a field goal and his only point in the first two games is one made free throw. As has been documented, Williams is impacting the games in multiple other ways. His shot will come around (unless his shoulder injury from the other night is worse than we know).
  • More on the point guards: Coby White (14 points, three boards, two assists, a turnover and a steal), traditionally a score-first point guard, is still learning how to balance when to hunt his shot and when to distribute. He is young, relentlessly fast, can light it up and will have a long leash. Be patient with him Tar Heel fans. Remember than playing point guard for Roy Williams is one of the most difficult things in college basketball. Seventh Woods (three points, three boards, five assists, one block and zero turnovers) looked the most comfortable I’ve ever seen him. He is in control, setting others up and making good play for himself. Here’s White talking about adjusting to the point guard role:
  • Having more offensive firepower this year is allowing Luke Maye to somehow fly under the radar. He scored 24 points against Wofford and it was an afterthought. He had a near double-double tonight (eight points, 10 boards) and it’s just business as usual. He’s a career below 60% free throw shooter who is shooting 91% so far this year. The lack of attention will hopefully allow Maye to be more fresh as the season wears on.
  • Is it time to talk about Nassir Little now? This guy can do a little bit of everything. Hit threes. Block shots. Dunk ferociously. Play defense. Despite an authoritative tip-dunk at the end of first half, Little’s first huge highlight reel dunk came with just under 14:00 left in the game after stealing an Elon pass and finding himself alone on the break. Little is beautifully not forcing anything at this point, just playing within the flow of the team. He is very “North Carolina”.

Roy Williams post-game press conference:

Remember to check in for Quick Hitters after every North Carolina basketball game. Next up is Carolina’s home opener against Stanford on Monday, November 12. Tip is at 7:00ET on ESPN2.

Quick Hitters – UNC @ Wofford

Quick Hitters from North Carolina’s 78-67 road win on Tuesday night over Wofford.

Highlights:

  • First off, kudos to Coach Roy Williams for scheduling back-to-back true road games to start the season. The first of which was tonight’s rematch against essentially the same Wofford team that beat Carolina in the Smith Center last season. Click here to read how the Tar Heels’ true road non-conference scheduling compares to other blue blood programs.
  • Turnovers (22 of them) were an issue in Carolina’s exhibition game against Mt. Olive. The Heels started off in the same mode, committing four before the first media timeout, finishing with 15 total. While starting point guard Coby White was responsible for two, Seventh Woods kept his miscues to one.
  • Speaking of White, he unfortunately had a rough first game. Whether it was nerves or something else, the team looked smoother with Woods at the helm. In addition to White’s three turnovers, he took several ill-advised, early shot clock threes. The kind you can get at any point in a possession. The good news is that White played a much better final five minutes, hitting a couple shots and making some solid passes. The electric freshman should settle in to his role and run the team with aplomb.

  • On the flip side of the point guard equation, Woods turned in a solid effort. He made several hustle plays, had a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and nabbed two steals. This is a foundation that Woods can hopefully build on as he continues learning to trust his body again.
  • Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, one of the best shooters in the country, had a rough shooting night. He didn’t hit a field goal for the first 16 minutes of the game. His first three didn’t come until six minutes into the second half. Though he finished with 21 points, it took 23 shots to get there.
  • Coach Williams started the same five in each half: White, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks.
  • Offensive rebounding numbers were of concern on Tuesday night. While the Tar Heels won the overall rebounding battle 35-27, they won the offensive rebound category only 10-9. Although against a team that shoots a lot of threes, leading to unpredictable long rebounds, Coach Williams will not be happy surrendering that many to the undersized Wofford team.
  • Garrison Brooks had a big game against Mt. Olive and several questioned if it was a one-off or if that level of performance would transfer to the regular season. A career high 20 points and five rebounds later, it appears the answer is “yes”. If Brooks can consistently provide that level of production from the center position, the Tar Heels will be in good shape.
  • On the flip side of the sophomore big equation, Sterling Manley was wholly ineffective. He missed his only field goal attempt and both free throws he took. The Tar Heels will need Manley to step up in the future. History suggests he will.
  • Sticking with big men, Luke Maye led all scorers with 24 points, scoring in a variety of ways as usual. With everything Maye did extraordinarily well last year, the free throw line was a chief area of needed improvement (59.8% career). Maye went 8-for-9 from the line tonight, the most he’s ever made in a single game.
  • Coach Williams has consistently praised the shooting of his team and it showed on Tuesday night as the Heels shot 9-for-22 from deep. Cam Johnson was the key contributor, personally going 5-for-7 from three. Johnson also (importantly) led the team in rebounds with eight, five of which were offensive.
  • Kenny Williams didn’t score a point, but affected the game in a multitude of other ways. Williams played strong individual defense against Wofford’s backcourt, hauled in six rebounds and passed out a team high five assists. Of concern is that Williams appeared to hurt his shoulder diving after a loose ball late in the game. He came back in later, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

  • Though he had a quiet Tar Heel debut, Nassir Little hit a confident three to push the cushion back to six after back-to-back threes from Magee cut the Tar Heel to three. His athleticism is obvious, and it will be fun for Tar Heel fans to watch him develop throughout the year.

Roy Williams post-game press conference:

Remember to check in for Quick Hitters after every North Carolina basketball game. Next up is a road game against Elon on Friday, November 9. Tip is at 7:00ET on ESPNU.

The Road Less Traveled

As you look at North Carolina’s 2018-19 men’s basketball schedule, something curious jumps off the page about the first two games. The Tar Heels are beginning their season by playing back-to-back true non-conference road games – against Wofford (who won in the Smith Center last year) and Elon.

“What is Roy Williams thinking?” you ask yourself. “Major programs like Carolina don’t have to take road games. They can get anyone they want to come to Chapel Hill.”

Here’s the thing: playing away from home in the non-conference part of the schedule actually isn’t a strange phenomenon or outlier for Coach Williams and the Tar Heels.

But just how does Carolina’s scheduling stack up against programs of a similar ilk?

Why go on the road?

Of the country’s historically successful major college basketball programs, most only venture away from home when they absolutely have to. Some coaches will argue that conference and NCAA Tournament games are all played on a neutral court, so it’s pointless to schedule true non-conference road games.

To only look ahead to postseason tournaments, however, is to miss the mark. Half of the regular season conference match-ups are true road games. The results of these games play a huge factor in conference seeding, which ultimately helps determine a team’s seed in the NCAA Tournament. To fail to test your team on the road in the non-conference portion of the schedule is to set them up for failure when they go on the road in conference games.

Criteria

To determine how the Tar Heels compare to other programs in this metric, I examined the 10 winningest programs of all time. I looked at the past 10 schedules for each of these programs (from the 2009-2010 season through the upcoming 2018-2019 season) to determine which teams were willing to go prove themselves outside the friendly confines of their home gym. To be included, a team had to have been in a BCS / Power 5 conference for each of those 10 seasons. This stipulation ruled out Temple (#5), St. John’s (#9), BYU (#12) and Utah (#14).

The list is therefore whittled down to these 10 (in order of all-time wins):

  • Kentucky (#1 | 2,263 wins)
  • Kansas (#2 | 2,248)
  • UNC (#3 | 2,232)
  • Duke (#4 | 2,144)
  • Syracuse (#6 | 1,884)
  • UCLA (#7 | 1,870)
  • Notre Dame (#8 | 1,866)
  • Louisville (#10 | 1,825)
  • Indiana (#11 | 1,817)
  • Arizona (#14 | 1,796)

Which teams are willing to consistently schedule true regular season non-conference road games?

What do the schedules reveal?

After studying each program, one team stands out above the rest. Below is the total number of true non-conference road games each of the programs scheduled during the 10-year period evaluated (from most to least):

  • North Carolina – 24
  • Arizona – 19
  • Louisville – 17
  • Kansas – 16
  • Kentucky – 13
  • Indiana – 11
  • Syracuse – 10
  • Duke – 9
  • UCLA – 9
  • Notre Dame – 7

Additionally, there are interesting takeaways concerning these blue-bloods and their scheduling of true non-conference road games (or lack thereof) strewn throughout the research.

In the 10-year span…

  • Carolina is the only team of the 10 to have multiple true non-conference road games in each of the 10 seasons.
  • Carolina is the only team to amass more than 20 true non-conference road games.
  • Carolina has four seasons (including each of the last three) with three true non-conference road games. No other team on the list has more than one.
  • In five of the 10 seasons evaluated, Duke and Notre Dame have scheduled precisely 0 (ZERO!!) true non-conference road games.
  • For the past eight years, Duke has only voluntarily scheduled two true non-conference road games. Those were both at Madison Square Garden, which only technically counts as St. John’s second home arena.
  • Notre Dame has by far the most putrid total of true non-conference road games with seven. Of those seven, only four were voluntary. The other three are all Big 10 / ACC road games.

Take Aways

Last season, I wrote a piece about Carolina’s road success in conference games over the previous seven years. Prior to last year’s 4-5 conference road record, the Heels had recorded seven straight seasons of a winning conference road record. Meanwhile, the rest of the conference fell miserably short of that level of success.

Think that type of achievement is pure happenstance? Think again. The road to success in conference road games is paved in the non-conference portion of the schedule. By exposing his team to hostile road environments early in the season, Roy Williams is preparing them to succeed away from home when it matters most – on the road in the country’s most difficult conference. The road to success is a road less traveled.

For reference, below is a table with each team’s true non-conference road games over the past 10 years:

Quick Hitters – UNC vs. Duke

Quick Hitters from North Carolina‘s 90-83 win over Duke:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 BrittStilman WhiteKanler CokerIsaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks.
  3. Heels finish the year undefeated at home – 16-0.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

Does Duke Dominate the ACC?

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

North Carolina:

  • National Champion – 2
  • Finalist – 1
  • Final Four – 1
  • Elite Eights – 3
  • Sweet Sixteen – 1
  • Second Round – 4
  • First Round – 0
  • NIT Finalist – 1

Duke:

  • 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?

A Tale of Two Halves: Joel Berry’s Free Throw Shooting

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.

Flickr

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%).

Flickr

Finally, coming in under 40% free throw shooting is Andre Drummond at 38%.

Wikimedia.org

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.

Quick Hitters – UNC @ Virginia

Quick Hitters from UNC Basketball’s 53-43 road loss to Virginia on Monday night.

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Joel Berry gets about as open a look as you’ll get against Virginia. Unfortunately, there were not enough of these opportunities as the Cavaliers slowed down the Tar Heels, 53-43. Photo Credit: J.D. Lyon, Jr.
  1. Win or lose (lose, by the way), this game was a tough proposition. Back-to-back road games tipping 55 hours apart is extremely difficult. Add to this that Virginia has been struggling of late and was desperate for a big win.
  2. My hope was that I could say, “Hey, here’s one nice take-away: Isaiah Hicks became 76th Tar Heel to score 1,000 career points.” Nope. Things were so bad that Hicks, who needed just three points to make it to 1,000, scored how many? You guessed it. Two.
  3. This game was doomed from the beginning. Carolina’s first shot was a Justin Jackson air ball from three. For just the third time all year Jackson droyidn’t score in double-digits.
  4. Remember being worried about being outworked and outmuscled by Louisville last week? That happened tonight against Virginia. Prime example? 12 (TWELVE!) first half turnovers for Carolina. If you want to win on the road, you have to be stronger with the ball. A positive sign was that the Heels had only two more turnovers in the second half.
  5. Another sign of a lack of competing showed up in the rebounding numbers. Sure UNC won the overall rebounding battle 38-35. But this is a team that is leading the nation in rebounding margin by a large berth. This is a team that is winning in large part due to their ability to overwhelm their opponents on the glass. For reference, when these teams played nine days ago, Carolina owned the boards, 44-26.
  6. Here’s what’s even more befuddling about the rebounding. Virginia elected to start a small line-up that hadn’t started together all season. The Tar Heels could not take advantage of this glaring mismatch.
  7. In the first meeting, Virginia shot 2-20 from three. Tonight they hit their second three just six-and-a-half minutes in, and the third ninety seconds later. For the game the Cavs were 10-24 from deep. This is what Roy was saying after the first game about wide-open shots just not falling. Well, tonight they did and it really hurt Carolina’s ability to win.
  8. For Roy Williams run-and-gun fans, playing Virginia is painful. It’s similar to playing Georgia Tech in football. You must stay disciplined for 25+ seconds on nearly every possession on both sides of the ball. Virginia didn’t score until almost four minutes into the game, but they didn’t care. They just kept plugging away and out-competing the Heels.
  9. While Syracuse’s 2-3 zone tricks you into shooting lots of mid-range jumpers and threes, Virginia’s defense forces you to do the same.
  10. Call me a whiner (I’m a big boy, I can take it), but the officiating was rough in this game. Virginia’s defense is stellar, but because of the reputation they get away with a lot that other teams would be called for.
  11. Another missed free throw for Joel Berry. I need to study up on the decline of Berry’s free throw shooting this year and write an article about it. It really is hard to believe the difference from early in the season.
  12. Well, it never fails, unless something crazy happens with Louisville, Florida State, and Notre Dame this week, Carolina will be playing Duke to earn the outright regular season championship. Just to be clear, Duke cannot win the regular season title; they can only stop Carolina from doing so. Louisville and Notre Dame play this week, so it cannot be a four-way tie. However, we are looking at a possible three-way tie for the regular season ACC championship.

 

Quick Hitters – UNC @ Pittsburgh

Quick Hitters from Saturday afternoon’s 85-67 road win over Pittsburgh:

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Tony Bradley dunks during UNC’s 85-67 victory over Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: J.D. Lyon, Jr.
  1. This was a big time road win for UNC. It’s always tough to play against a team on their senior day. And don’t forget, the Tar Heels only beat Pitt by two AT HOME earlier in the season. More importantly, the win assured Carolina of at least a share of the regular season ACC title as well as a top two seed in the ACC Tournament. If Duke loses to Miami later today, the Heels will clinch the number one seed in the tournament.
  2. Pitt’s frontcourt rotation is thin, and Carolina was able to take advantage by drawing two early fouls on Sheldon Jeter. Jeter eventually fouled out in the second half.
  3. With Jeter on the bench for most of the game (only played seven minutes), the Heels were able to do what they do best: rebound everything. Carolina had 48 total rebounds, half of which were offensive. By comparison, Pittsburgh had 28 total rebounds. As has been the case several times this year, the Tar Heels had more offensive rebounds (24) than their opponent had defensive rebounds (19).
  4. Here’s a number for you: Carolina was 33-73 on field goals, meaning they missed 40. Of those 40, we’ve already noted that they rebounded 28. That means the Heels rebounded 60% of their misses.
  5. Pitt got out to a 17-11 lead. This savvy and veteran UNC squad isn’t fazed on the road. They went on a 13-2 run to make the score 24-19. Pitt came back and made it 30-28 with 2:39 to go. Then the Tar Heels went on a 10-0 run to end the half, turning a close game into a 12 point halftime lead.
  6. In the first half, UNC assisted on nearly every made field goal. The Heels had 12 assists on their first 12 made baskets. They had 13 assists on 14 made baskets. The lone outlier would have actually been an assist, but Kennedy Meeks missed a lay-up, got his own rebound, and scored.
  7. Carolina only turned the ball over eight times. The first turnover didn’t occur until thirteen minutes into the game.
  8. Though Isaiah Hicks finished with four fouls, he picked up his first with about six minutes to go in the first half.
  9. One big lapse early in the second half: North Carolina turned the ball over on three straight possessions. This allowed Pitt to cut the lead to eight. The margin never got any closer though, and the Heels eventually pulled a way.
  10. Isaiah Hicks is so close to the 1,000 career points mark. He scored eight today and needs three against Virginia on Monday to join Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, and Joel Berry as the others to do so this year.
  11. Justin Jackson is very likely going to finish this year holding the UNC mark for most made three-pointers in a single season. He hit five today, giving him 83 for the year. The record is 95, set by Shammond Williams in 1996-97. This also means Jackson could also be the first Tar Heel to reach 100 made three pointers in one year.

Worst-Case Scenarios & My Irrational Fears

I have a problem. As the events of a given day unfold, I often play them out to their worst possible ending point in my head. Here’s an example: One day in college, I was playing ultimate frisbee with some friends on campus. About 20 yards beyond one of the end zones that we had marked out with hats and tennis shoes, standing several feet out of the ground like a beacon of impending doom, was an old yellow fire hydrant. The terrible scene that played out vividly in my head? I saw myself streaking downfield to make a diving catch that Odell Beckham, Jr. would have been envious of. The problem was that as I came back down to earth, I impaled my face on the fire hydrant, shattering every bone on the front side of my skull. Gruesome, huh?

On another occasion, I was hiking up a mountain with some friends at Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas. We came to a rocky overlook with beautiful surrounding scenery and asked some other hikers to take our picture near the edge. You can already guess where this is headed. The awful scenario that played out in my head this time? As we waited for the picture to be taken, a strong gust of wind pushed me over the edge where I hurtled to my death on the sharp rocks below.

This is my curse. The struggle is real.

Truth be told, I’m actually an optimistic, glass-half-full type of person. I look for the best in people and believe, perhaps naively, that the world is a good place.

My worst-case scenario, doomsday problem also plays itself out in the world of sports. Rather than being disappointed when my favorite college basketball team loses a national championship game on a buzzer-beating three-pointer (oh wait, that happened) or my favorite football team chokes a 25 point lead in the Super Bowl (oh wait, that happened too), I assume the worst – that the North Carolina Tar Heels will lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament or that the Atlanta Falcons won’t even make the playoffs.

With that said, we are coming down the stretch of the college basketball regular season. After every game, I like to play my “worst-case scenario” game with regard to where the Tar Heels could possibly end up in the ACC standings. Earlier this season, when they mathematically could not be passed by last place Boston College, I excitedly told myself, “Even if the Heels lose every game the rest of the season, the worst they can finish is 14th!”

After Carolina’s big win over Louisville on Wednesday night (and Syracuse’s upset of Duke a few hours earlier), I decided to investigate what the Tar Heels’ two game conference lead had earned them in terms of their worst possible seeding for the ACC Tournament.

I decided to investigate what the Tar Heels’ two game conference lead had earned them in terms of their worst possible seeding for the ACC Tournament.

First, some context: The main goal is obviously to win out, get the number one seed, and capture a convincing regular season conference championship. However, if the one seed can’t be had, teams want to achieve at least a top four seed. Doing so earns a double-bye to Thursday’s quarterfinal round.

Here is what my research uncovered: Every ACC team (except Syracuse, Wake Forest, and NC State) has three remaining games. The Tar Heels’ three games are at Pittsburgh, at Virginia, and home against Duke. For this worst-case scenario analysis, the assumption is that UNC loses all three games. Currently sitting at 12-3 in the conference, the worst North Carolina could finish is 12-6. This means that five other teams could potentially finish ahead of or tied with UNC. So we’ve solved it! That was simple. The worst UNC could finish in the ACC is 6th. Not too bad.

But wait, a closer look at the schedules reveals a different truth.

The five teams within striking distance of the Tar Heels are Louisville, Duke, Florida State, Notre Dame, and Miami. The current tiebreaker scenarios concerning Carolina and those teams (ACC tiebreakers are first based on head-to-head matchups, which solves each of these):

  • North Carolina holds tiebreaker over Louisville, Florida State, and Notre Dame.
  • Miami holds tiebreaker over the Heels.
  • In this scenario, Duke beats Carolina on March 4 and therefore holds the tiebreaker over the Heels.

Below is the remaining schedule and current conference record for those five teams (and North Carolina):

North Carolina (12-3)

  • @ Pittsburgh
  • @ Virginia
  • Duke

Louisville (10-5)

  • Syracuse
  • @ Wake Forest
  • Notre Dame

Duke (10-5)

  • @ Miami
  • Florida State
  • @ North Carolina

Florida State (10-5)

  • @ Clemson
  • @ Duke
  • Miami

Notre Dame (10-5)

  • Georgia Tech
  • Boston College
  • @ Louisville

Miami (9-6)

  • Duke
  • @ Virginia Tech
  • @ Florida State

You might notice that Louisville and Notre Dame still have to play each other, meaning at least one of these teams has to finish with six losses and Carolina holds the tiebreaker over both. Therefore, the worst UNC could finish in the ACC is 5th! Solved!

Nope. Not quite yet. Let’s keep digging.

All three of Duke’s remaining games are against teams from this group – Miami, FSU, and UNC. Here is what happens depending on how Duke’s games play out (again, these scenarios assume UNC loses all three of their remaining games):

  • Duke beats Miami and FSU – Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker), and Duke has 5 losses. The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke beats Miami and loses to FSU – Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 5 losses, Duke has 6 losses (holds the tiebreaker over UNC). The worst UNC could finish is 4th, behind FSU, Duke, and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke loses to Miami and beats FSU – Miami has at least 6 losses (holds the tiebreaker over UNC), FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker), and Duke has 6 losses (holds the tiebreaker over UNC). The worst UNC could finish is 4th, behind, Miami, Duke, and either Louisville or Notre Dame.

To add one final wrinkle, Florida State and Miami also still play each other. Building on the Duke scenarios we just established:

  • Duke beats Miami and FSU; FSU beats Miami – Duke has 5 losses, Miami has at least 8 losses, FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker). The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame
  • Duke beats Miami and FSU; Miami beats FSU – Duke has 5 losses, Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 7 losses. The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame
  • Duke beats Miami and loses to FSU; FSU beats Miami – Duke has 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), Miami has at least 8 losses, FSU has at least 5 losses. The worst UNC could finish is 4th, behind Duke, FSU, and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke beats Miami and loses to FSU; Miami beats FSU – Duke has 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker). The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke loses to Miami and beats FSU; FSU beats Miami – Duke has 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), Miami has at least 7 losses, FSU has at least 6 losses (UNC holds the tiebreaker). The worst UNC could finish is 3rd, behind Duke and either Louisville or Notre Dame.
  • Duke loses to Miami and beats FSU; Miami beats FSU – Duke has 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), Miami has at least 6 losses (holds tiebreaker over UNC), FSU has at least 7 losses. The worst UNC could finish is 4th, behind Duke, Miami, and either Louisville or Notre Dame.

So what does all this mumbo-jumbo mean? What’s the bottom line? Here it is:

UNC has already locked up a top-4 seed and an all-important double-bye in the ACC Tournament.

What a relief. The worst-case scenario is that North Carolina finishes fourth. And there are only two scenarios in which that becomes a reality. This is great news, but the work isn’t done. The Tar Heels are not going to sit idly by and take three losses.

If Carolina can win at least one of the three remaining games, they lock up at least a share of the ACC Regular Season Championship and at least the two seed in the ACC Tournament. Should the Tar Heels win at least two of their three remaining games, they will clinch the outright ACC Regular Season Championship and the one seed in the ACC Tournament. Also, don’t forget that the other five teams involved in these scenarios have other games they could possibly lose, which would help Carolina’s cause.

I can rest in peace knowing that, for once, the worst-case scenario isn’t all that bad.