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Turnovers and Defense

The assertion has been made by learned analysts and myself that UNC has a turnover problem. It just seems that way while watching the games that UNC gives the ball up far too often and then games like the Virginia Tech loss are seared in your head as the way things are. Then again the aforementioned analysts often harp on the turnover number throughout the game much the same way I have on the blog, partly playing off their insistence and partly because the numbers look so bad at times. However, today I ran across Adam Lucas' weekly mailbag article at Tar Heel Blue which cast the turnover issue in a whole new light:

A quick refresher just in case you didn't stay up all night reading Multiple Offense and Defense: Dean Smith calculated possessions by totaling possession-ending stats such as FGA, FT trips, and turnovers. The free throw trips stat is what makes calculating possessions tricky, because you can't do it simply by looking at the box score. Percent loss of ball simply shows what percentage of a team's total possessions ended in a turnover. In general, the 15-16% range is a good offensive performance--Roy Williams's last three Final Four teams have each averaged over 17%.

According to stats kept by the coaches, Carolina has fallen into that range (16% or lower) in 11 of this season's 21 regular-season games, including a 13% figure against Arizona. The Tar Heels's current season-long loss of ball percentage is 16.48%.

The primary factor at work here is the reality that UNC's offensive tendencies produce more possessions which in turn increase the chance the ball will be turned over more often. Turnovers are presented as a constant stat which is applied to a single game at a time. In other words 18 turnovers in one game is considered to be a horrendus stat and by my own admission I have seen it that way. However, the way the coaches at UNC calculate turnovers takes into account the number of possessions and how many of those are "lost" via a turnover. So while UNC might committ 18 turnovers against a team, if they have the ball 105 times then that turns out to be not such a horrible stat after all. In fact if you look at stat guru Ken Pomeroy's numbers UNC has a turnover percentage of 19.3(49th in all D-I) which is pretty good considering the frenetic pace they push the ball. On the flip side, Duke with their much slower offensive pace give the ball up four percent more often than the Heels to the tune 23.5% which is good(bad?) for 258th in the nation.

So with respect to the numbers, UNC is actually doing a decent to good job of handling the basketball. Of course one aspect that the stats cannot account for is the type and timing of turnovers which in some situations can create problems. I think the nature of the turnovers UNC committed i.e. steals which led to points as well as when they happened was one of the chief reason they fell behind Virginia Tech early and big. Then again it is still no surprise that UNC's most impressive win to date was the blowout of Arizona which was also their best turnover percentage game so far this season. In short, the raw number is a smaller indicator than most analysts would have us believe, especially when you factor in the number of times UNC has the ball in 40 minutes.

Another area UNC was tagged negatively earlier in the season was their defensive capability. In fact this week I was listening to Adam Gold who talked to a frequent caller, Brett in Chapel Hill, who I am pretty sure is a Duke fan. He tried to argue that UNC's defensive performance against Arizona was really not that good and the Wildcats not only moved the ball well but also got many open looks. I actually went back and watched the game again to see if I noticed any such issues and none were evident. Now it is true that earlier in the season the freshmen in particular had trouble picking up the defense and there was a general sense of laxness on the defensive end. That all changed after the VT loss and beginning in the Clemson game UNC's defense picked up in both intensity and efficiency. This is based largely on my own observation so how do the numbers look?

According to Pomeroy UNC is 2nd in the nation in defensive efficiency behind Duke. Basically the rating is based on the opponents effective FG%, what turnover percentage UNC forces, what percentage of rebounds are offensive, and how many free throw attempts their opponent get on average. UNC is in the top 25 in three of the four categories which turnover percentage being ranked 136th in the nation. Duke obviously has better numbers in general. The bottom line here is for as much as Duke is highly praised for their defensive efforts, UNC has been maligned for their defense even though the stats in hand show the two team to be virtually similar when playing defense. The major difference is how each team accomplishes this goal with Duke using a slower tempo and smart defensive strategy. UNC on the other hand uses speed, pressure, and depth to wear down an opponent in an effort to force them into bad shots and passes in general.

UNC is also ranked first in the nation when you combine efficiency on both ends of the court. Needless to say it will be interesting convergance of styles when these two meet up next week.