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January 27, 2013
Smarter After Saturday
Why UNC's On the Bubble

by John Gasaway


North Carolina was ranked No. 11 in the nation in the AP preseason poll, and before you go blaming those silly voters for overrating Roy Williams' young team, bear in mind that computer rating systems liked the Tar Heels too (albeit not quite as much). Whether your laptop of choice belonged to Ken Pomeroy (who pegged UNC a preseason No. 15) or Dan Hanner (No. 26), it's fair to say a rough consensus emerged from the traditional polls and the computer ranking systems: North Carolina was likely going to be good enough to be ranked, just not in the top 10.

That consensus doesn't look so good at the end of January. The Heels are just 13-6 overall, and they've started ACC play 3-3. True, the schedule's about to give Carolina a break, and indeed it's possible that "3-3" could transform into "6-3" in relatively short order. But projecting what UNC's record's going to look like in a week or two is not the question at hand. The real question is what this team's record will be on March 17, when the NCAA selects the field for its tournament.

In his latest projection, my colleague Joe Lundardi has North Carolina safely in the field as a No. 9 seed, but that bracket was put together before the Heels won at home against Georgia Tech and lost on the road to NC State. In terms of the "quality wins" that the selection committee likes to see, Carolina has just two victories against potential at-large teams (vs. UNLV and Maryland), and both of those games were played in Chapel Hill. That's a start, but the phrase "still has work to do" most certainly applies here.

Blame it on the offense, where to this point North Carolina rates out as merely the ACC's No. 7 unit on that side of the ball. Featured scorer (and likely 2013 first-round pick) James Michael McAdoo has made 45 percent of his twos against league opponents. That's not terrible, but for a player who's not a perimeter threat and shoots just 59 percent at the line, it does represent something of a ceiling on performance. And it's been a long, long time since we've seen a team in Tar Heel blue record so few free throw attempts.

Limited by a so-so offense, Carolina has charted what might be termed a classic .500 trajectory thus far in conference play, scoring 0.98 points per possession and allowing 0.97. That's a worrisome trajectory for fans in Chapel Hill, because in recent seasons 9-7's been the dividing line for ACC teams with respect to the NCAA tournament. Of the last six teams to record 9-7 conference records, three received at-large bids, and three were shipped to the NIT. (Of course now that the ACC plays an 18-game schedule, you can think of 10-8 as the new 9-7.)

So circle the dates, North Carolina fans. Two upcoming games against Duke, as well as one each against Miami (on the road) and the Wolfpack (at home) loom very large for UNC. Win two of those four games, and the Heels' tournament resume looks fairly solid. Anything less, however, could result in Carolina missing the tournament for the first time since 2010.

Being Villanova: North Carolina-level numbers, much different reception
In Chapel Hill the local team is outscoring its conference opponents by 0.01 points per trip, and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Meanwhile a few miles north in Philadelphia, one particular local team is also outscoring its league foes by the exact same margin -- and these guys are the toast of the town.

Funny how that happens when those "league foes" include two teams ranked in the top five in the nation -- and you beat them both. Meet Villanova, riding high after wins at home over Louisville (73-64) and Syracuse (in overtime, 75-71).

The Wildcats have recorded their razor-thin scoring margin against a tougher schedule than the Tar Heels have faced (Jay Wright's team has already played the Orange twice and the Cardinals once), but the difference in competition actually isn't all that great. So while Villanova has knocked the "quality wins" ball out of the park and is quite rightly reaping universal acclaim for doing so, over the long haul the question with this team will be how many points it can eke out.

Thus far the answer to that question has been: "Not very many." Villanova has committed a turnover on fully 25 percent of its Big East possessions, and its shooting from the field has been below the conference average. So, to sum up, they don't get many shots, and the shots they do get don't go in very often. The result has been the Big East's No. 11-ranked offense, one that has scored just 0.96 points per trip.

Nevertheless, Wright's team has managed to outscore their opponents thanks to excellent defense and a lot of free throws, in that order. At the moment this is actually the best interior defense in the Big East, one that has limited league opponents to 41 percent shooting inside the arc. Opposing offenses aren't faring well in the paint against 6-10 senior Mouphtaou Yarou and 6-11 freshman Daniel Ochefu. And what Villanova may lack in scoring from the field they offset in part at the line, where JayVaughn Pinkston is drawing eight fouls per 40 minutes (tops in Division I).

Give the Wildcats credit. They've insinuated themselves in the tournament discussion with one of the best weeks any team has had this season. And the course this particular conversation takes from this point forward will depend in large part on how much Villanova is able to improve on offense.

Why Virginia Commonwealth needs to force all those turnovers
It's no secret that the purpose of VCU's "havoc" defense is, well, to create havoc. On that front the Rams have succeeded quite nicely, forcing a turnover on an incredible 26 percent of their Atlantic 10 opponents' possessions.

Of course even that level of havoc means the other team does end their possession with a shot 74 percent of the time. And on those possessions Shaka Smart's team has been getting killed. VCU has allowed conference opponents to score a whopping 1.39 points per effective (turnover-less) possession, the worst such figure in the 16-team A-10. That's not surprising when you consider that the Rams' field-goal defense has also come in dead last in the league.

If there's a silver lining here it's that the bulk of the damage has been done against Smart's defense from the perimeter. Other things being equal, one would expect that conference opponents will not continue to sink 41 percent of their threes. And clearly this is still another potent VCU offense, one that has made an outstanding 55 percent of its twos in A-10 action. (Give much of the credit there to 6-9 junior Juvonte Reddic, who's hit 68 percent of his attempts inside the arc against conference opponents preoccupied with tracking featured scorer Treveon Graham.)

In other words, VCU is still VCU, and the Rams will very likely have their say in who wins the A-10 title this season. But when you watch Smart's team over the next few weeks, make a mental note of the possessions where they don't force a turnover. In back-to-back losses at Richmond and at home to La Salle, VCU forced turnovers on "just" 20 percent of their defensive possessions, with the result that the Spiders and the Explorers combined to ring up 1.15 points per trip against the Rams.

As good as this offense is -- and it's very good -- no team can survive for long in a win-or-go-home setting when it's allowing that level of scoring. VCU doesn't just force turnovers. It needs to force turnovers.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Introducing the EGOT's (01/28)

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