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January 21, 2010
Sifting the Rubble
North Carolina's Woes

by John Gasaway

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Watching North Carolina struggle this season has cast at least some doubt upon a budding notion in college hoops circles. Like a lot of people I had been under the impression that in an era of constant roster turnover the bluest of blue-chip programs can rebuild (or, ugh, “reload”) more or less instantly. For example Kansas won the national championship in 2008 and then lost all five starters. No matter, in 2009 the Jayhawks went 14-2 in the Big 12 and reached the Sweet 16. At a time when the very best players pass through the college game in the blink of an eye, elite programs can restock entire starting fives serene in the knowledge that their competition has either lost their best players too or (snicker) is relying on players that won’t make it to “the next level.”

Anyway, that was the idea. It’s not working out that way for the Tar Heels in 2010, however, at least not so far. Certainly bad luck has played a part. The Heels looked underpowered in last night’s 13-point loss at home to Wake Forest at least in part because they really were underpowered. Ed Davis missed the game with a sprained ankle, and Tyler Zeller has been sidelined for the past ten days with a stress fracture in his right foot.

Then again the Tar Heels probably won’t garner too much sympathy in the ACC by pleading that they’re hard up talent-wise. We are after all talking about a team that has as many 2009 McDonald’s All-Americans as the entire Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences combined. All of that new talent, along with returning stars like Davis, Zeller, Deon Thompson, and Marcus Ginyard, led me to believe that this year could be a reprise of 2006 in Chapel Hill.

That year Roy Williams had just said goodbye to the majority of minutes and points from a national championship team and was playing a lot of very talented but very inexperienced underclassmen. (Sounding familiar?) UNC went “just” 11-5 in the ACC that year but that is the most deceiving 11-5 I’ve ever seen. Led by freshman Tyler Hansbrough and token veteran Reyshawn Terry, the Heels outscored conference opponents that season at a rate that would more commonly result in a 13-3 record. If not for a singularly unfortunate NCAA tournament draw that put Carolina on a second-round collision course with Destiny’s Team of the Decade (George Mason), who knows how much noise that team could have made?

I certainly didn’t think it was unreasonable, then, to expect similarly big things from this 2010 group. After all, they have way more experience--primarily in the persons of Davis, Thompson, and Ginyard--than the 2006 team had. To this (admittedly early) point in the season, however, there is precious little resemblance between the two teams.

Following a national championship team used to be easier
Post-national championship North Carolina: 2006 vs. 2010
Conference games only, 2010 figures through games of January 20
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

      Pace   PPP   Opp. PPP    EM 
2010  71.3   0.99    1.06    -0.07   
2006  71.3   1.11    0.98    +0.13

OK, so maybe there is a slight resemblance between the Tar Heels then and now. This 2010 team is, coincidentally, operating at the exact same pace as their 2006 predecessors. It’s just that this present-day version of Carolina isn’t getting the same results from that fast tempo. How come?

Yes, turnovers are a problem. However….
In four conference games North Carolina has turned the ball over on 25 percent of their possessions, with players like Ginyard, Larry Drew, and Dexter Strickland all sporting extremely high TO rates. Sure, 25 percent is too high, but last night the Tar Heels gave the ball away just nine times in a 67-possession game and lost by 13 anyway, suggesting that the team’s problems run deeper than simply holding on to the ball. Indeed they do: Carolina in ACC play is scoring a respectable but not very Carolina-like 1.31 points for every “effective possession,” that is, every trip where they do not record a turnover. The 2006 players were certainly no paragons of ball-possession prowess themselves, coughing up the rock on 24 percent of their trips. But that team got a much more robust 1.45 points out of every effective possession in-conference. The problem this year is that even when the Heels get off a shot, too often they get no points for their trouble.

Opposing defenses can sag with, as yet, no negative consequences.
On paper UNC looks pretty normal from the perimeter, having made 36 percent of their threes for the year. Against ACC opponents, however, Williams’ team has hit just 30 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. Carolina has never been a team that shoots a lot of threes, of course, but in past years they’ve always had the ability to make those shots. This year, by contrast, opponents aren’t so sure that’s true and so they’re clogging the interior. (Again, it certainly didn’t help matters last night that both Davis and Zeller were unavailable.)

The free throw spigot’s been turned off.
Free throws aren’t glamorous to watch, but they add up. This year North Carolina is making a smaller percentage of the smaller number of free throws they now attempt.

For the first time in memory, it’s OK to criticize North Carolina’s defense.
The Tar Heels have long labored under the misapprehension that they don’t play defense very well, a mistaken belief fueled in large part by games that often top 70 or even 80 possessions. In 2010, however, UNC is indeed allowing opponents to score a decent number of points. ACC teams are hitting 36 percent of their threes against this D and Carolina’s defensive rebounding in-conference has been merely average.

It’s only January, of course, and if Davis and Zeller can return healthy and whole this can be a much better team than what we’ve seen the past two weeks. But I confess I am surprised to find myself in the position of saying North Carolina might still be good. For years we’ve all been able to just assume they would be.

John also offers walk-in pre-mortems on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

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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