Spacing is the number one point of emphasis for high level basketball offenses in today’s game. Teams will often have four or five capable three-point shooters on the court at a time to spread out defenses. NCAA teams occasionally tend to lag a few years behind the NBA in implementing the latest trends, but the spacing revolution has definitely made a big impact in the college game too.
The NBA is often reduced in description to a “make or miss league“. In other words, the talent is so good and the teams are so smart that games simply come down to who is knocking down their shots on a given night. However, the nature of NCAA basketball allows for other ways of success.
The North Carolina Tar Heels have yet to enter the spacing and three-point era under Roy Williams. This season, just 17.5% of UNC’s points have come on three-pointers (347 out of 351 division one teams). The most commonly used lineup for the Tar Heels features just one shooter, point guard Marcus Paige. The Heels not only play two back-to-the-basket big men at the same time (Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson), but also two wings with little ability to do damage from long range (J.P. Tokoto and Justin Jackson). Take a look at UNC’s shot selection this season from hoop-math.com:
Despite the Tar Heels’ inability to shoot the three, they rank 11th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom.com. No other team with similar three-point problems in recent seasons has come close to matching UNC’s efficiency this year. Even last year’s three-point shy UNC team struggled on offense, ranking just 48th in adjusted efficiency. The losses of James Michael McAdoo and Leslie McDonald, however, has led to the Heels better establishing an offensive identity built on size and athleticism in 2015.
The North Carolina offense thrives on quantity over quality when it comes to shooting. They rebound 42.5% of their own misses, ranking them second in the nation behind Baylor, and the ability to dominate the offensive glass is the key to UNC’s offense this season. Still, UNC has also shot the ball well from inside the arc. Using shot selection alone (and completely ignoring results), I calculated an expected eFG% using the NCAA averages for each given shot type. The graph below compares that expected eFG% to the actual eFG% for each team:
North Carolina has greatly outperformed expectations from shot selection. The moderate correlation between expected and actual eFG% suggests that teams would be better off limiting the amount of long two-point attempts. Yet a team like UNC is a potential blueprint for overcoming these issues at the NCAA level.
In their most recent game this weekend, the Heels had another strong offensive effort at Boston College despite making just one three-pointer. I used this game film below to illustrate the problems UNC faced from lack of shooting, and how they succeeded in spite of these problems.
Marcus Paige is the center of attention for North Carolina opponents when he has the ball. Teams can provide extra help on Paige without severe repercussions. Take a look at this Paige drive below:
With no weak-side shooter to space the floor, Boston College can hard hedge or even double team Paige and use weak-side defenders to clog the lane. The defensive pressure put on Paige makes it hard enough for him to accurately locate and deliver the skip pass to the corner. Even if he does make the pass effectively, Justin Jackson is just 10-49 (20.4%) from three on the season.
The first way North Carolina looks to solve their spacing problems is by getting out in transition. Roy Williams and UNC are well known for their secondary fast break. The break includes both a lead and trail big man. The lead’s responsibility is to sprint to the ball side block, ideally giving the player great position before the defense can get set. Here is Isaiah Hicks playing the role perfectly:
The average UNC offensive possession lasts 15.8 seconds, ranking them as the 11th fastest offense in the country (kenpom.com). The Tar Heels are at their best when maximizing their athleticism by getting up and down the court. Limiting UNC’s transition opportunities becomes a point of emphasis for most opponents.
In the half-court, UNC’s sets have an old-school feel to them. UNC uses pin down screens for Tokoto and Jackson to get to the elbows. The normal read for a shooter coming off a pin down screen in recent years has shifted to a decision between running to the three-point or line or curling all the way to the basket. However, UNC still primarily uses the elbows in a way similar to traditional flex offense. The opening play at Boston College illustrates this point:
Jackson stays very tight and is able to get a straight line drive to the hoop. One way UNC is able to deter help defenders is by forcing opposing big men to fight for position inside. In the play above, Boston College’s Dennis Clifford is a second late for this very reason. Jackson, however, was unable to convert the easy layup in this particular instance.
Good teams can take away UNC’s transition looks and can use solid defensive principles to force UNC into tough shots. However, when all else fails, the offensive glass is there to bail the Heels out. Here, Paige uses the pick-and-roll to drive into heavy traffic, only to have Johnson clean up the miss:
Boston College is able to help one pass away due to UNC’s personnel. As a result, Paige gets smothered by four defenders. And yet good things are likely to happen simply by putting the ball on the rim with Johnson and Meeks always in pursuit. Very mediocre offense gets turned into an easy dunk.
It’s not always the most aesthetically pleasing brand of offense in Chapel Hill this season, but the results are hard to argue with thus far. In fact, on a game-to-game level UNC has struggled most when attempting a (relatively) high percentage of threes:
Obviously determining the causation in the graph above can be tricky. Poor offense (and playing from behind) likely causes more three-point attempts as much as three-point attempts cause poor offense for North Carolina.
Either way, UNC is unlike any other elite offense around the country. Roy Williams is showing that he can not only survive but thrive for at least another season without joining the three-point revolution. The Tar Heels are bucking a trend, and regardless of its long term sustainability, it’s working for now.