UNC Primer 2013

Evan Nolte and the Hoos hope to open the ACC schedule with a win.

After an impressive 74-39 victory over Wofford, the Virginia Cavaliers (10-3) open the ACC slate with a Sunday night home tilt against rival North Carolina. Will the Wahoos start off ACC play with a win or fall victim to the hated Heels? Find out in the UNC Primer.

1. Team Introduction. Last season, UNC coasted to a 27-4 (14-2 ACC) record that included a 70-52 home win and a 54-51 road victory over UVa. This regular season record plus a loss to Florida State in the finals of the ACC Tournament earned the Heels a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That tournament appearance ended with a Regional Finals loss to No. 2 seed Kansas, but UNC’s National Championship aspirations really ended when point guard Kendall Marshall was injured in a Round of 32 win over Creighton. What then followed was a pilgrimage of players declaring for the draft and lowered (for UNC) expectations for the 2012-2013 season.

North Carolina was picked to finish third in the ACC in the Preseason Media Poll, but received no first-place votes. Nationally, in the preseason AP Poll, UNC was tabbed the No. 11 team in the nation. During most of its out-of-conference schedule, Carolina failed to live up to these expectations. In its first dozen games, UNC lost its only three tilts against competent opponents, getting blown out at Indiana (83-59) and Texas (85-67), and losing to Butler, 82-71, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. And, in a 93-87 home victory over a mediocre East Carolina team, Roy Williams’ squad gave up 61 points in the second half.

That said, in their most recent game, the Tar Heels recorded a 79-73 home victory against a top 25 UNLV squad, and that was without the services of Reggie Bullock, who was out with a concussion. On the season, UNC is 10-3, with an RPI of No. 31, a No. 34 KenPom rating, and a No. 55 ranking in TAPE.

2. Offense. As I discussed in last year’s UNC Primer, Roy Williams’ teams look to score in three ways. The first is the primary break with the Heels pushing the ball up the court after a miss or a make and pressing their advantage if two or fewer defenders have gotten back. This primary break can be deadly against teams that crash the offensive glass but is neutered against teams designed to shut down transition offense like UVa. If three or more defenders are back, UNC immediately moves into a secondary break, typically out of a “4-out, 1-in set.” Basically, in the first 10 or so seconds of the shot clock, UNC tries to take advantage of a defense that hasn’t yet set and uses screens, ball reversals, and/or skip passes to create inside and outside looks against a scrambling opponent. If neither of these breaks leads to a bucket, Carolina will typically turn to Dean Smith’s freelance passing approach, which eschews offensive sets and instead looks to create isolation and post opportunities.

This season, with a lack of players who can drive and finish, UNC’s percentage of points that comes from 3-pointers has spiked to 21.5% from 15.3% last season. And that’s not great news for the Heels, who shoot a pedestrian 35.8% from behind the arc (vs. UVa’s 38.1%). On the season, UNC is No. 41 in adjusted offensive efficiency.

3. Defense. On the defensive side of the ball, Roy Williams’ teams employ the Dean Smith scramble defense. Hoops Playbook has a full breakdown of this numbers-based defense. Basically, though, you see three actions out of this man-to-man defense: (1) applying pressure immediately after the ball crosses half court; (2) trapping the dribble; and (3) trapping the pass. The goals of the defense are also three-fold: (1) force turnovers; (2) force contested shots; and (3) coax the offense into taking quick, low percentage shots.

To achieve these goals, Roy Williams needs a seasoned point guard. This season, he’s mainly been relying on Marcus Paige , an undersized freshman. The results? UNC is No. 170 in opponent turnovers per possession, No. 54 in opponent effective field goal percentage, and No. 101 in adjusted tempo (vs. No. 16 two years ago and No. 10 last year). Overall, this has translated into a No. 47 rank in defensive efficiency, following No. 11 and No. 16 finishes the last two years.

4. Player Turnover. As noted, UNC lost a great deal of production from last year’s Elite Eight team. Simply put, four of last season’s five leading scorers are now playing in the NBA: Harrison Barnes (17.1 points per game), Tyler Zeller (16.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game), John Henson (13.7 PPG and 9.9 RPG), and Kendall Marshall (8.1 PPG and 9.8 assists per game). Justin Watts graduated and Stillman White is serving a Mormon mission. All of this means that UNC only returned four players who averaged more than 5 minutes a game last season. In other words, there’s a lot of new (blue) blood in Chapel Hill.

5. Possible Starters. Here is a look at the UNC line-up …

Point Guard: Some of that new blood comes in the form of former Virginia recruiting target Marcus Paige (No. 5), a 6’0″, 157-pound freshman. The No. 1 point guard prospect in the class of 2012 according to some recruiting services, Paige is having some problems adjusting to the speed and physicality of the college game. Despite his listed weight, I would be shocked if Paige tips the scales at more than 150 pounds. Defensively, that has translated into Paige playing some matador defense, and the frosh has also looked a step slow in defending faster 1’s.

Offensively, Paige isn’t much of a scorer. He’s averaging 7.4 points per game, but that comes on 7.8 shots per game. This is because Paige is shooting a mere 35.5% from the field and 30.2% from 3-point range, which translates into an effective field goal percentage of only 42.4%. It’s not that Paige has a bad looking shot; he just has trouble getting it off cleanly against bigger and more experienced defenders. Paige does possess a solid handle, and he has some nice court vision, which has led to him averaging 4.3 assists per game, an average that has increased as the season has progressed. But on the rare occasions when he tries to penetrate, Paige usually coughs it up (2.5 turnovers/game) rather than drawing a foul (1.1 free throw attempts per game).

Indeed, this has been a problem with the entire Heels’ team. It might shock you to learn that UNC is No. 296 in the country in free throw rate, and that’s even after 33 free throw attempts in the win over UNLV. Long time followers of the ACC know that we all should take this stat with a grain of salt, but it still tells you a bit about the brand of basketball the Tar Heels are playing this year. If Virginia had Jontel Evans at 100%, I would love this match-up. As things stand, whether Paige matches up against Teven Jones , a rusty Evans, or even Doug Browman, I feel pretty good about the Hoos’ chances.

Shooting Guard: Joining Paige in the backcourt will likely be Dexter Strickland (No. 1), a 6’3″, 185-pound senior, the only senior who sees more than trivial minutes for the Heels. While Strickland starts at the off-guard position, he logs some minutes at the point when Paige is on the bench and even sometimes handles the duties at the “1” when both are in the game (he records 4.5 assists/game). And therein lies a big part of the problem for the Heels: Neither Paige nor Strickland is an outside threat. Strickland is shooting 22.2% from behind the arc on 1.4 attempts per game. Moreover, his overall shooting percentage of 47.4% is more in line with his freshman (43.2%) and sophomore (45.6%) numbers than the percentage he posted as a junior (57%) before going down with a season-ending ACL injury. Part of the explanation for the drop is shot selection, and another part is defenders being able to play Strickland tighter because of the Heels’ scoring issues at the “1” and the “5.” But something also just seems off about Strickland’s shot. He’s shooting a career-low 59.1% from the free throw line, and his field goal percentage is actually inflated by some easy buckets in transition. In the halfcourt offense, he has really struggled. Overall, Strickland averages 9.4 points per game. Defensively, however, Strickland remains one of the Tar Heels’ best players as he is a fast, physical player who can lock down opponents.

Small Forward: After missing the UNLV game with a concussion and practices for most of the week, Reggie Bullock (No. 35), a 6’7″, 205-pound junior, should be back in the starting line-up for this game. Bullock is a silky smooth player with a silky smooth jumper who is second for Carolina in both points (13.1) and rebounds (5.7) per game. He’s the team’s best 3-point shooter (47.5% on 5.1 attempts/game), and he’s also shooting 50.9% from inside the arc. If anything, Tar Heel fans want to see Bullock both shoot and take the ball to the hole more rather than remain the spot-up shooter that he’s been for most of his career (Bullock’s 1.4 free throw attempts/game on the season are actually a career high). Defensively, Bullock isn’t quite up to the standard of Strickland, but he’s still a very solid stopper and averages 1.5 steals/game. On paper, the match-up between Bullock and Joe Harris is a fantastic one, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it plays out on the court.

Power Forward: James Michael McAdoo (No. 43), a 6’9″ sophomore who weighs in at 230 pounds, leads the Tar Heels in points (14.8) and rebounds (8.3) per game. That said, McAdoo has really struggled becoming “the man” this year after coming off the bench last year. McAdoo is shooting a mere 61.9% from the free throw line and an okay 46.4% from the field. But in UNC’s three losses and the win over UNLV, his field goal percentage is only 36%. Part of McAdoo’s problem is the lack of a true back-to-the basket game, and another part is that he lacks the heft or desire to bang down low. What that leaves is an abundance of athleticism and a sometimes pretty jumper that all too often is of the fade-away variety. Defensively, McAdoo has increased his consistency and intensity from last year and did a decent job of neutralizing Anthony Bennett in the win over UNLV. It will be interesting to see how McAdoo responds if Akil Mitchell plays with the aggression that he’s displayed for most of the season.

Center: It’s been a revolving door at the “5” for the Heels with a sophomore – Desmond Hubert (8 starts, 10.5 minutes per game) – and two freshmen – Joel James (3 starts, 13.6 minutes per game) and Brice Johnson (2 starts, 13.6 minutes per game) – splitting minutes. The last two starts, however, have gone to Hubert (No. 14), a 6’9″, 220-pound sophomore, and I expect him to start a third straight game based upon his performance against the Running Rebels (20 minutes, 3 rebounds, and 3 blocks). The former UVa recruit reminds me a bit of Assane Sene as he has the potential to be a disruptive force on the defensive end but will probably never be a huge offensive threat. Hubert is averaging just 1 shot and 1.2 points per game, with most of his scores coming on put backs and dunks. Hubert barely ever gets to the free throw line (.7 attempts/game) and has shown no inclination to cash in when he gets there (11.1% from the free throw line). Defensively, he isn’t putting up big numbers either (.9 blocks and 1.2 rebounds/game), but he was very active in the UNLV win, serving as a defensive eraser in the low post. If Darion Atkins is back to 100%, I think the Hoos have a distinct scoring advantage down low, and this could be a game where Mike Tobey ‘s current defensive limitations are not too much of a liability.

6. Key Back-ups. The bench for Carolina …

Shooting Guard/Small Forward: P.J. Hairston (No. 15), a 6’5″, 220-pound sophomore, sees 18.8 minutes of action per game. Hairston is the definition of a streaky shooter whose solution to missed shots is to just keep shooting. Despite playing back-up minutes, he’s second on the team with an even 10 field goal attempts per game, and he’s not hitting them at a very high clip. Hairston is scoring 12.4 points per game but only shooting 38.3% from the field and 33.8% from the 3-point line. Known for his long range accuracy as a high school player, Hairston worked with Hubert Davis in the offseason to correct a weird leg kick on his jumper, but his modified jump shot still doesn’t quite look right. Hairston does have a sweet shooting form, though, which allows him to shoot a team high 86.8% from the free throw line. But in the heat of the game, Hairston’s jumper is too often off-the-mark, and he currently lacks the ability to take it to the hole with enough authority. Meanwhile, the story’s the same on the other side of the ball. Sometimes, as in the UNLV game, Hairston is excellent on and off the ball. Other times, usually when his offensive game isn’t clicking, Hairston takes too many plays off on the defensive end.

Shooting Guard/Small Forward: Leslie McDonald (No. 2), a 6’5″, 215-pound redshirt junior, is coming back from a torn ACL last season. Like Hairston (59%), the majority of McDonald’s shots (55.3%) come from behind the arc. For McDonald, that’s a good thing because his 3-point shooting percentage (45.5%) dwarfs his two-point shooting percentage (36.4%). McDonald is another spot shooter for the Heels who rarely takes it hard to the hole (1.2 free throw attempts/game). Defensively, McDonald is a solid defender on the perimeter but nothing more.

Power Forward/Center: Brice Johnson (No. 11) is a 6’9″, 187-pound freshman, who averages 13.6 minutes per game. In those minutes, he’s averaging 8.9 points per game on 63.2% shooting and 4.8 rebounds per game. So, why isn’t he playing more? First, he’s rail thin and unable yet to deal with the rigors of the college game. Second, he’s a defensive liability, both on and off the ball. But, boy, will he be a force down the road. He sports a nice mid-range jumper, some good low post moves, and speed to burn. For now, though, he’s primarily a bench player.

Center: The play of Hubert and Johnson has largely relegated Joel James (No. 0), a 6’10”, 260-pound freshman, to the bench. James is a physical specimen but raw as all get out. Still, his abundant physical gifts earned him 16.6 minutes of floor time in the Tar Heels’ first 9 games, and he’s averaging 3.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. But, in his last 4 games, James is getting a mere 7 minutes per game and has as many turnovers as points (6) in those games. We should expect him to play limited minutes against UVa.

7. Prediction. The Team Rankings Simulation has this game as a 69.2-65.3 Virginia win. 504-C Brandon, who has UVa at No. 54 in TAPE and UNC No. 55, projects a 68-62.6 Cavalier win, with the Hoos having a 66.3% chance of winning.

On paper, this game looks to me a lot like UNC’s 85-67 loss to Texas. Like Virginia, Texas is a team that plays at a slow pace (No. 248) and is much better on the defensive end (No. 5 in adjusted defensive efficiency) than the offensive end (No. 226 in adjusted offensive efficiency). Against the Longhorns’ methodical style, the Heels really struggled to put the biscuit in the basket and physically folded in the closing minutes of the game. The Heels looked better in the win against UNLV, and the Hoos certainly have had the expected up (Wisconsin and Tennessee wins) and down (George Mason, Delaware, and ODU losses) season given the team’s youth and injuries. So, while I don’t have much confidence in this pick, I’m going to take the Cavs in a 58-55 offensive struggle.