Pre North Carolina Thoughts |

Pre North Carolina Thoughts


Basketball Maven
Aug 28, 2011
Who is North Carolina?

The best answer is, a team that likes to run. Everything they do facilitates transition offense. On defense they are going to pick up pressure right around half court, and play a tight man to man that generally switches on screens and relies on the athletic gifts of their players to overcome any mismatches that may occur. In this regard they are going to look a lot like a bigger slower version of Villanova. The goal is to force turnovers and get transition baskets. If they have to they will try to run even on makes.

We know that North Carolina has a lot of history and is an attractive place to play basketball. As a result they always have a deep bench, and ultra athletic players. They are going to substitute liberally, and keep everybody fresh and ready to run, and when they do sub, their quality of play is not going to go down much at all.

Why did North Carolina beat such good teams and lose to such bad teams?

Sports fans always go straight to psychological explanations like “they play to the level of their competition” or “they are more up for the big games.” In my opinion these explanations are always reactive and never predictive, which makes them useless. To take it one step further, they seem to be the last recourse of sports reporters who do not understand what they are seeing.

So I want to get into why North Carolina won the games they did (and lost the games they did).

First, understand that North Carolina is not a very good team. They are a below average offensive team and maybe a slightly above average defensive team.

Here is my proof:

North Carolina is the worst shooting team in the ACC (from both the three point line and the free throw line). They are okay in the post, and below average at dribble penetration. Take all three together and you get a below average offensive team. They score a lot of points per game only because they play so fast. When you look at points per possession (a much more accurate statistic for how good an offense is) you see they are mediocre, averaging only 1.06 points per possession, compared to Syracuse's above average 1.17. To give more context to this stat, Florida State is closest to UNC offensively with an average of 1.05 points per possession, and they are seen as a good defensive/bad offensive team.

Defensively, North Carolina is okay. Their opponents average .94 points per possession, which is just about as good as Syracuse has been this season (not counting Syracuse's last three games where they allowed 48, 44, and 52 points, and seem to have put everything together defensively). When you think back to the early season and remember Syracuse gave up 67 to Minnesota, 81 to Cal, 67 to Baylor, 63 to St. John's, you probably think SU was okay. Not great, and not terrible. That's about how North Carolina is.

Now that you see North Carolina for what they are, understand that they lost to two pretty decent mid majors in Belmont and UAB, only because they shot terribly. Belmont was an 11 seed in the tournament last year (not too far off North Carolina who was an 8 seed). UAB has seen some success recently as well, and is 11-3 so far this year.

Against Belmont, North Carolina went 22-48 from the line. Against UAB, North Carolina went 4-11 from the line. That's 26 free throw misses in a 3 point loss, and 7 free throw misses in a four point loss.

Against Belmont, North Carolina was 2-7 from three, and against UAB, North Carolina was 1-12.

When you shoot a combined 15% from three, and 44% from the line against two solid mid- majors it should be no surprise that you might lose.

What do all these numbers mean? North Carolina didn't play as horribly as you think they did against Belmont and UAB. They just shot bad.

The same is true against Wake Forrest and Miami. North Carolina shot 13% from three against Wake Forrest, and 29% from three against Miami.

Marcus Paige in particular (who is UNC's only reliable outside shooter) had off days in these losses. He is a combined 4-28 or 14% from three in these losses.

Now lets take a look at the wins. You will find that North Carolina didn't drastically change what they do and who they are.

Lets start with their most impressive win against Michigan St. They shot 2-11 from three (sound familiar?). So how did they score 79 points and get the win? The answer is all in the X's and O's.

Did you know that Roy William's owns Tom Izzo, and has, I believe, an 8-0 record against him all time? This is a pretty big sample size, and it tells us something. So lets look at what we know about the two coaches.

One, Roy William's teams all like to get out in transition and run, and they are all good at it.

Two, Tom Izzo's teams all like to crash the boards hard, and are all good at it.

Three (you might not have noticed this, but I have picked up on it over the years and its definitely true), Tom Izzo's strategy changes the least from opponent to opponent of any major coach. His team's do the same thing game in and game out and never change what they do to match up better with an opponent.

I want to talk about the North Carolina/Miami game now (this might seem like a tangent, but its not). I am sure that most of what you have heard about the game involves North Carolina only shooting 30% from the floor and only scoring 57 points, but right now I am only concerned with the first 8 points (UNC got out to an 8-0 lead and scored all 8 points in transition).

So what did Jim Laranaga do? He put in his best ball handling line up, and stopped his guys from crashing the offensive glass. The minute Miami took a shot, all five of their guys sprinted down the court to play defense, and only got an offensive board when it fell right to them. Thus they stopped North Carolina from scoring in transition, and North Carolina was not a good enough offensive team to score much in the half court (losing 63-49 after the 8-0 start).

Do you see what I am getting at here?

Michigan St. ALWAYS crashes the offensive glass hard.

Michigan St. NEVER changes what they do because of the opponent.

When you crash the offensive glass hard you are choosing to not get back as quickly as you can on defense and are thus giving up more transition opportunities which is what North Carolina is the best in the country at exploiting.

That is why Roy Williams is 8-0 all time against Tom Izzo. It has nothing to do with psychology, or UNC stepping up in a big game, or playing to the level of their competition. It has everything to do with a clash of styles that works out in North Carolina's favor.

Take a look at the Louisville and Kentucky wins and the first thing you notice is, neither team is as good as their pre-season hype, so their losses to North Carolina should not be overly shocking.

What do we know about Louisville?

One, they like to press and push tempo, which is one of the worst things you can do against North Carolina.

Two, they are small and weak in the front court since Deing left.

If North Carolina has an offensive strength its scoring around the basket, and against Louisville, UNC's two back up big guys (Johnson and Meeks) scored a combined 26 points on 11-13 shooting.

So Louisville did not slow the game down much and force North Carolina into half court offense, and when they did, North Carolina had an out so to speak, by pounding the ball inside against Louisville's lack of shot blockers.

What do we know about Kentucky?

They play all freshmen.

What is the one thing every freshman says they have to adjust to when making the move to college? The speed of the game.

I'm sure Calapari told his guys that they had to sprint back on defense every time, but I'm equally sure its a difficult lesson to learn when you've never played in a game where a team goes from end to end as quickly as North Carolina does.

North Carolina shot their usual crappy 28% from three, and 58% from the line against Kentucky, but they got a bunch of easy baskets in transition to make up for it, and they got the win.

Lets take all this and turn it back on the Syracuse game. Hopefully I described why North Carolina is not really an erratic team that is a world beater one week and a disaster the next. They are simply a mediocre team that played some bad teams who exploited their weaknesses and some good teams whose weaknesses they could exploit.

North Carolina can't score in the half court against a zone, and Syracuse plays the best zone's in the country, so Syracuse is starting with a major advantage.

North Carolina's points are pretty much only come from outside shots made by low percentage shooters, offensive rebounds, and transition points. The problem is, the last two items on this list can be taken away by good execution. My keys to the game deal with how Syracuse is going to successfully shut down North Carolina's transition and offensive rebounding advantages.

Keys to the game:

Get out rebounded.

Okay, this is an intentionally misleading statement, obviously Syracuse does not want to intentionally lose the rebounding battle, but if they play the way they should they WILL lose the rebounding battle. Syracuse has been good on the boards this year, but not because they have limited offense rebounds. They are winning rebounding battles by giving up a lot of offensive rebounds but getting even more offensive rebounds themselves. In this game you will see Syracuse take a page out of Miami's playbook and choose to sprint back on D and force UNC to score against the set up zone rather than try for the offensive board, so Syracuse is not going to get nearly as many offensive rebounds as they usually do. On the other end, obviously you want Syracuse to grab every shot that UNC misses, but UNC is a good rebounding team and this is not really realistic. What you hope, is that North Carolina does not absolutely kill you on the boards (For what its worth, I don't think they will. You can't lose the game because of rebounds - you only lose when the rebounds are converted into points, and when North Carolina gets an offensive board you can always foul them. It was proven against mid majors who also could not keep North Carolina off the boards that fouling their bigs rather than letting them get a put back leads to missed free throws rather than points).

So the real key is, send all 5 guys crashing the defensive glass, and send nobody crashing the offensive glass.

The down side to this strategy is, Syracuse will limit its own transition points and second chance points and force itself to score against a decent North Carolina's defense. North Carolina can match up with Fair and Grant better than almost any other team so this is going to put a lot of pressure on Ennis and Cooney.

My next key is Ennis needs to convert around the basket and Cooney needs to hit threes.

Ive mentioned that North Carolina plays pressure defense and switches off on screens like Villanova does. Unlike Villanova they have big guys who struggle to guard the perimeter, and I've seen a lot of teams get an easy lay ups by forcing UNC to screening in a way that forces UNC to switch its center over to guarding a point guard.

Ennis should be able to generate a lot of easy baskets. Remember, he scored 20 against Villanova who played this way. He should be able to score even more against North Carolina. The problem will come if he starts missing layups like he sometime does, because that will lead to transition baskets for North Carolina, and a few too many four point swings could change the outcome of the game.

Keep Christmas in the game. I realized during the Virginia Tech game that Syracuse has been playing a thunder and lightning duo of Christmas and Keita. Keita plays against O's that spread us out with shooters, and Christmas plays against O's that pound the ball down low. We will need Christmas's strength and his hands against UNC's offense . . . and his ability to score won't hurt either.

What to expect:

Britt, UNC's small point guard who can't shoot will spend a lot of time on the bench in favor of McDonald who has been inconsistent but is at least a threat to make threes. This may hurt them in the turnover department, but they need the offensive firepower.

Paige has someone in his face the entire game. UNC generally loses when he is has bad scoring nights. Right now he is in a two game slump, and I can guarantee you Boeheim wants to keep it that way. Any open look he gets will be a defensive mistake, and will probably lead to somebody getting taken out of the game.

Ennis scores 20+ and generates even more national praise.

North Carolina wins the rebound battle by 10 or more.

Syracuse does what they have to do to get back on defense, and North Carolina fails to score many points.

In the end this game will come down to Syracuse's offense against North Carolina's defense. If Syracuse scores, UNC wont get transition baskets and Syracuse wins easily. If Syracuse struggles to score things could get interesting.


Master Image Editor
Oct 11, 2011
Wow. GREEEEAAAAT post. General, you are a great asset to this board. Thanks for these reads.

"North Carolina is the worst shooting team in the ACC (from both the three point line and the free throw line)."

Welp, I guess that means they will shoot near 60% vs us.


All Conference
Sep 24, 2011
Fantastic writeup! I love some of the statistics re: UNC's FT and 3PT shooting %'s. Sounds like we are the matchup nightmare for them, not vice versa.


Living Legend
Aug 26, 2011
Great post. Have seen a number of Carolina games - including one in person (Louisville). Ennis will control the pace - so no worries there. That, combined with getting back on defense and Carolina is toast


2nd String
Aug 26, 2011
I've said this before but it's worth saying again - I can't believe there are well-paid professional analysts who write previews focusing on which team is "due" for a loss while the General provides these detailed, insightful, data-driven analyses for free. I want justice!


Internet Sleuth
Aug 20, 2011


Hall of Fame
Aug 15, 2011
Okay I'm going to divulge a JB secret to slowing down NC's fast break/speed up game.

If you watched the SU/NC game a few years ago where we schooled them in MSG, you'll notice that almost every time we made a basket we had one of our players along the baseline retrieve the basketball and toss it the baseline ref. That bought us a couple of additional seconds to get back on D. It appeared to work like a charm.

I can't guarantee that we'll do the same tomorrow, but I think we will. JB is a basketball genius.


Basketball Maven
Aug 28, 2011
Okay I'm going to divulge a JB secret to slowing down NC's fast break/speed up game.

If you watched the SU/NC game a few years ago where we schooled them in MSG, you'll notice that almost every time we made a basket we had one of our players along the baseline retrieve the basketball and toss it the baseline ref. That bought us a couple of additional seconds to get back on D. It appeared to work like a charm.

I can't guarantee that we'll do the same tomorrow, but I think we will. JB is a basketball genius.

Yes I agree with this.

I also noticed Miami got a couple steals just by playing one guard up to try to slow the inbounds down. I can definitely see Ennis doing the same thing.


Living Legend
Aug 15, 2011
General, awesome write up!

And I'll admit, I got a chuckle out of your section about the amateurish psychology rationalizations.

Great stuff, per usual!

Let's Go Orange!!!


Living Legend
Aug 27, 2011
I am going to sound so smart when my Dad calls to ask me what I think of the game in the am.

Thanks so much for these general20 they really help me more fully understand stuff that I kind of get to start.

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