UNC Primer No. 2 2013

Can Akil Mitchell and the Hoos keep their winning ways going at UNC?

Virginia opened ACC play with a 61-52 victory against North Carolina at the John Paul Jones Arena. In the weeks since that victory, UVa has compiled an 8-3 conference record while UNC has gone 6-5 in league play. Who will prevail in the Dean Dome on Saturday? Here are 10 things to consider about the rematch.

1. Since losing to UVa to open ACC play, UNC has beaten all of the decent and bad teams that it has faced: Florida State (No. 109 in KenPom), Maryland (No. 62), Georgia Tech (No. 70), Boston College (No. 116), Virginia Tech (No. 161), and Wake Forest (No. 134). Meanwhile, the Heels have lost against all of the good to great teams it has squared off against: Miami twice (No. 8), NC State (No. 31), and Duke (No. 6). This is consistent with UNC’s M.O. this season. On the year, the Tar Heels have beaten a total of one team that is in the top 50 in the KenPom ratings, and it is a fringe top 50 team at that: a UNLV squad (No. 46) that is 5-5 in the Mountain West Conference. Conversely, UNC has only lost to one team outside of KenPom’s top 50: a Texas squad that is rated No. 90. All of this bodes well for UVa as it currently stands at No. 19 in the KenPom ratings.

2. What also bodes well for the Cavaliers is that the game is at noon on Saturday, the next game for the Tar Heels after they lost an intense 73-68 game against their main rivals, the Duke Blue Devils. In my NC State Primer, I noted that one of the reasons that I liked Virginia’s chances against the Wolfpack was that they were due for a letdown playing in the game after they faced (and beat) UNC. I think that similar reasoning applies here. It is going to be very difficult if not impossible for the Tar Heels to match the intensity that they exhibited in the Wednesday night loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. On the other hand, UVa coasted to a 73-55 home victory over Virginia Tech on Tuesday, which means that the Hoos’ attrition-stricken team should have sufficient time to rest and recharge before the early Saturday afternoon tilt.

3. In UNC’s first game against Virginia, freshman center Joel James didn’t do much, scoring no points but recording 4 rebounds in 9 minutes of floor time. Therefore, I wouldn’t have expected him to play much against UVa in any event, but it should be noted that he suffered a concussion against Wake Forest and had to sit out against Duke. As such, I doubt we see him on the floor much if at all on Saturday afternoon.

4. What I would expect out of the Tar Heels, however, is the new 4-guard lineup that Roy Williams unveiled against the Blue Devils to pretty solid success. In the Duke game, UNC’s starting line-up consisted of Marcus Paige (6’0″, 157 pounds), Dexter Strickland (6’3″, 185 pounds), P.J. Hairston (6’5″, 220 pounds), Reggie Bullock (6’7″, 205 pounds), and James Michael McAdoo (6’9″, 230 pounds). These 5 players accounted for 168 of the 200 minutes played by Heel hoopsters during the game, with another 20 minutes coming from Leslie McDonald (6’5″, 215 pounds). Given the Cavs’ injury issues in the front court, this plays right into UVa’s hands should UNC use a similar rotation on Saturday.

Going small isn’t going to help the Tar Heels score in transition against Virginia, and it forfeits the size advantage that they could have against a depleted front court. Essentially, it would be exactly like what Mark Turgeon did against the Hoos, turning the Maryland game into an outside shooting contest, which neither the Terps nor the Heels are going to win given both teams’ (1) problems at the point; and (2) lack of outside shooting threats. And yet, based on how the 4-guard lineup played against the Blue Devils, and based upon how poorly UNC’s bigs have played, I think that it is what UVa should expect to see on Saturday.

5. The difference between Virginia’s 4-guard lineup and UNC’s 4-guard lineup is that the Hoos’ one big – Akil Mitchell – likes to bang down low. Conversely, UNC’s one big – James Michael McAdoo – too often platoons on the perimeter. McAdoo can get away with this against lesser teams, but his offensive efficiency drastically drops when he plays better opponents. In his most 2 recent games against Miami and Duke, McAdoo was 1-9 and 2-9 from the field, including a combined 0-6 from 3-point range. This shooting (in)accuracy is consistent with his performance against UVa, when he went 1-7 from the field and 0-3 from 3-point range.

6. Even before Roy went to the 4-guard lineup, this year’s UNC team played a more perimeter-oriented game than in previous seasons. As I noted in my prior Primer, one consequence of this finesse game is that UNC is getting to the charity stripe much less frequently than in years past. Last season, the Tar Heels were No. 94 in free throws per offensive play. This season, they are No. 324. The Cavaliers should never expect terrific treatment from the zebras at the Dean Dome, but this statistic shows that there may be somewhat less cause for concern about foul trouble this season. Moreover, assuming that the Hoos do get into foul trouble and UNC camps out at the foul line, it is important to note that the Heels are only No. 299 nationally in free throw shooting, knocking down their freebies at a mere 64.5% clip.

7. Since scoring 22 points against Virginia on 7-9 shooting, Reggie Bullock has emerged as North Carolina’s best player. On the season, he is averaging 14.1 points per game (with a gaudy 59.8% effective field goal percentage) and 5.7 rebounds per game. I’m assuming that, given UNC’s four-guard lineup, Bullock will be attempting to score against Justin Anderson . How Bullock does against Anderson’s length and athleticism and whether Justin is able to overcome some of the defensive lapses that have plagued him (like many freshmen) through most of the season, will be one of the major narratives of the game.

8. Another major storyline will be point guard play for both teams. The first UNC game was Jontel Evans ‘ first game back after missing the previous four games because he reinjured his foot. Evans’ performance that night – 6 assists and 8 points on 4-7 shooting – led many, myself included, to conclude that he was covered with Rust-Oleum and that he would picked up where he left off last season. As the next several games proved, however, there was a long way for Bub to go on the road to recovery. The Virginia Tech game kind of brought everything back full circle as his stat line was identical to his UNC performance: 6 assists and 8 points on 4-7 shooting. Evans’ performance against the Hokies leads me once again to believe that he’s mostly back, and the fact that he did so well in the first UNC game despite his rust leads me to believe that the Tar Heels have a match-up problem at the “1.” That match-up problem comes in the form of Marcus Paige .

In the first meeting, Paige scored 2 points on 1-7 shooting, a stat line that looks similar to his lines from the last 2 games: 2 points on 1-9 shooting against Miami and 4 points on 2-9 shooting against the Blue Devils. The question for Paige on Saturday will be whether he is fast and physical enough to stay with Evans on both ends of the court.

9. Since starting ACC play, UNC has dropped from No. 41 to No. 51 in adjusted offensive efficiency. In particular, the Tar Heels have struggled to score from inside the arc. While UNC is No. 92 nationally in 3-point shooting percentage (35.6%), it ranks only No. 212 in the nation in 2-point shooting percentage (46.6%). This makes sense given that, when the Heels don’t get easy buckets in transition or 3-point attempts, the Tar Heels are relying on mid-range jumpers rather than lay-ups or dunks to a greater than extent than in years past. Given that the Hoos are No. 9 nationally in opponent 3-point percentage (28.7%), and given that the Heels will likely employ a 4-guard line-up for most of this game, UNC may need to rely on those mid-range jumpers to crack the Pack Line.

10. North Carolina’s defense has been pretty consistent during non-conference and conference play. At the start of the ACC slate, the Tar Heels ranked No. 47 in adjusted defensive efficiency. After 11 ACC games, they have incrementally increased that ranking to No. 45. The main thing to consider here is what will happen with UVa’s 3-point shooting on Saturday. Riding several hot hands, the Cavaliers rank No. 8 nationally in 3-point accuracy, hitting on 40.2% of attempted triples. Meanwhile, UNC is No. 236 in opponent 3-point percentage (35.1%). Ostensibly, part of the reason that Coach Williams switched to the 4-guard line-up was to improve the Heels’ perimeter defense, but the results against Duke were inconclusive. The Blue Devils connected on 6-16 (37.5%) of their attempts from behind the arc, about what you would expect given both team’s stats entering the game.

Prediction. 504-C Brandon has this one as a 64.6-62.6 UNC victory, with the Tar Heels having a 55.9% chance of winning. I see it going the other way. Carolina’s one quality win this season came against a UNLV squad that ranks No. 39 in adjusted tempo and that allowed the Heels to consistently get out in transition. When you take away that transition game, as the Hoos will, you take away the heart and soul of this UNC team. I will pick the Hoos to pull out a tough road victory at the Dean Dome, 67-63.