Don't worry, that is as far as any of my Dickens' references will go; besides, I'm not even sure that this season (by Carolina's lofty standards) would qualify as the "best of times." But what I do know is the general feeling about the Heels upcoming foray into the ACC schedule is a lot more positive now than it was 365 days ago, despite the fact both this team (10-4), and the 2010 team (11-4) share almost identical non-conference records. This, of course, raises the obvious question of why? Is this just a case of expectations being knocked from their once unreachable perch as a result of last season's ACC futility, or are there tangible, and possibly even quantifiable, reasons for the heightened enthusiasm? That is what this post aims to find out.
In my mind, the most straightforward way to compare the 2010 and 2011 teams' performances is to look at the cumulative Four Factors, as well as the offensive and defensive efficiencies (points per 100 possessions), for each the teams' non-conference schedules. Shown below are the offensive Four Factors for the 2010 and 2011 non-conference schedules (category leader is in bold):
[table id=64 /]
Looking at these data, we can see that last year's team scored a bit more efficiently during its first 15 games than this year's squad has, thanks to a small advantage in eFG% and a rather sizable advantage on the offensive boards. Given the struggle that this year's team had shooting in November and early December, this is really not that big of a surprise, though it should be pointed out that the 2011 team has done a better job of taking care of the ball (overall), and given the problems turnovers caused last year, this should not be overlooked.
But what say the defensive stats?
[table id=65 /]
Well, it is almost exactly the opposite, as the 2011 squad has a 4 point edge in defensive efficiency. The 2011 Heels have outplayed last year's squad in three of the four defensive Four Factors categories, and even their increased rate of sending their opponents to the line could easily be attributed to a more aggressive/intense defensive effort. This is particularly interesting when one remembers back to last preseason, and the amount of talk that focused on how well that team was going to play defense.
But taken together, the two data sets do not make that great of an argument that this team is in a significantly better position heading into conference play than last year's team was. One was better on offense, the other was better on defense, but the efficiency margins (offensive efficiency - defensive efficiency) for the 2010 (+16.0) and the 2011 (+17.0) squads are essentially identical. So then, where is the optimism coming from?
There are really two reasons:
- The difference in how the 2010 and 2011 teams ended their non-conference schedules and,
- A comparison of both the non-conference and conference schedules the two teams faced (or will face).
Despite the strong similarities between the two teams' overall non-conference records and statistics, there is a dramatic difference in how those numbers were accumulated. The 2010 team started out very strong, winning 7 of their first 8 games and had many believing that the preseason rankings were at least possible. However, the Heels (for a multitude of reasons) took a dramatic turn in the second half of their non-conference schedule, going just 4-3 in their last 7; and even some of those wins were less than inspiring (e.g. yielding 23-2 run to close the Albany game). Now, compare that to this year's squad, which looked ragged to start the season (going 4-3), but have produced a solid 6-1 record since the start of December, and looked completely dominant in their last 3 games. A similar comparison to the one above (Four Factor, efficiencies), this time from just their last 7 games, produces dramatically different results.
[table id=66 /]
Offensively, this year's squad has really made a big jump over the last 7 games, as their eFG% is up to a very respectable 53.1, and their TO% has dropped to a Lawsonesque 16.2. All of which adds up to them producing an offensive efficiency that is now 3 points better than that which was produced over the last 7 games of last year's non-conference schedule. More importantly, this offensive improvement has not come at the sacrifice of the squad's defensive effort.
[table id=67 /]
Over the last 7 games, Carolina has gone from a good, but inconsistent, defensive team, to one that borders on great, as a (raw) defensive efficiency of 87.6 would be among the best in the nation. Overall, the 2011 team's improvement over the last seven games is most evident when one looks at their efficiency margin, which is an outstanding +24.1 (for reference, the 2009 Championship team had a raw EM of +23.5 for the season).
In addition to the dramatic difference in how the 2010 and 2011 teams ended their non-conference schedules, there is also a significant difference in the strength of the schedules the teams played (or will play). What is shown below is a comparison of the average strength of the opponents on both the non-conference and conference schedules for the two teams, using Ken Pomeroy's College Basketball Ratings.
[table id=68 /]
So, at this point last season, we had a team that was starting to regress as it made its way through an easier non-conference schedule, all in front of a very daunting ACC schedule. However, this season we have seen a young team steadily improve over the course of a more challenging non-conference schedule; and going forward, it appears that the ACC schedule could be as weak as we have seen in a long time. What does this all mean? Well, the Heels should be favored in 14 of their 16 ACC games, and while they won't win them all, 11 or 12 is certainly within reason. There will be stumbles, but if this team continues to grow at the same pace that they have grown over the last 4-5 weeks, then they should be very dangerous come March (including that last game on the ACC schedule).
And that, is reason for optimism...