This is our first look at North Carolina, something we will be doing a lot this week. We aren't looking past St. Johns, but win or lose against the Redmen, the UNC-Kentucky game is the most anticipated game of this year, and perhaps for several years. It therefore deserves an unusual amount of attention.
We always knew it was possible for North Carolina or Kentucky to drop a game in the very early part of the season, but North Carolina was always more likely due to their strength of schedule -- North Carolina has three games against op 20 or better competition before ever getting to Kentucky, where the Wildcats will only manage one such opponent before welcoming the Tar Heels into Rupp Arena this Saturday.
There have been signs of weakness in the Tar Heels that aren't obvious from their lopsided scores, but that are pretty obvious when you look at their statistics. Primary among them is offensive rebounding, which when combined with their not so super field goal percentage defense and tendency to take the first open shot really hurt the Tar Heels against UNLV. But that wasn't all, as we'll get to later.
North Carolina is among the fastest teams in America swapping ends, due in no small part to the brilliant up-court passing of Kendall Marshall. I said that Marshall was among the most overrated players this year, but I think he has proven me wrong for the most part. We haven't seen the Tar Heels do much besides fast break all year, but one area where Marshall is absolutely peerless is getting the ball up the floor to the open man. As such, keeping up with UNC on the break has been all but impossible this year for anybody, including UNLV.
Where UNLV has excelled this year is by being pretty good at everything, and great at nothing. Against North Carolina, they were able to get a vast number of wide-open looks from 3-point range. UNLV made them, and in spite of giving up a tremendous number of layups and dunks on the other end, they discovered the same path to beating North Carolina that Kentucky did in the Final Four last year -- shoot 40%+ on 3-pointers and take them when you are open.
North Carolina is the kind of defensive team that tries to pressure your ballhandling starting at the half-court line, and attempts to deny the first pass to any wing player. What this does is force teams to improvise on offense, get far away from the basket with the shot clock running, and because the Tar Heels rarely face a more talented team than they put on the floor, it tilts the advantage to them. They generally don't have to execute especially well to win, because their primary scoring avenue is in transition, either on the break itself or very early in possessions. That's why you see the Heels jack up so many shots early in the shot clock.
Roy Williams understands that the higher the number of possessions, the greater the number of times his superior athletes will be able to run the floor and get point-blank shots. It also explains why North Carolina is so susceptible to good three-point shooting -- they simply don't guard it much. What they want to do is force you to make that shot to beat them, because if you are shooting from three, you aren't shooting layups or short jumpers in the paint.
Williams is betting that most teams can't shoot much better than 33% from three over a high number of possessions. As the game wears on, North Carolina gets teams out of their shooting rhythm by constantly getting them in a track meet, and tiring the legs, which makes good shooting from the perimeter less likely. The strategy is sound, but it can fail spectacularly against hot or just plain good three-point shooting teams, as it did against UNLV, who suffers a significant size and talent gap with the Heels.
What you will notice about Roy Williams' team is that for the last few years, the percentage of UNC's points coming from the three-point shot has been almost eerily consistent - 19%, give or take a few tenths. It's as if he made a philosophy tweak around 2007, because since then, only one of his teams has scored more than 19+/- 1% from the 3-point line. Contrast that with Kentucky, who under John Calipari has never had less than 23% of their points coming from the arc, and last year had nearly 30% of their points coming from three.
North Carolina's offensive philosophy is simple -- get as many layups and dunks as possible. Their defensive philosophy is equally simple -- force teams out of their offensive sets so that they wind up settling for a three pointer, which will be challenged, but not strongly. UNC actually encourages 3-point shots, which is why you almost always see 30% or more of their opponent's scoring coming from three, and why UNLV this year, and Kentucky last year, beat the Heels -- because they made those shots.