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Just Because They are Ivy Leaguers Does Not Mean They Understand Basketball

Former Penn player Stephen Danley wrote a post on a New York Times blog concerning the North Carolina team that just finished up drubbing his Quakers by 35 at the Palestra. And while he does hit some marks about UNC's need to run the fast break to be successful on offense he is dreadfully wrong on a number of assertions which I will now dismantled as you read.

North Carolina is supremely talented. I found that out last season in Chapel Hill when the Tar Heels beat my tournament-bound Penn team by 38. They confirmed it again this season, coming into a sold-out Palestra earlier this week and beating Penn by 35.

That being said, I have real questions about North Carolina’s ability to win six games in the N.C.A.A. tournament.

North Carolina will beat anyone in a track meet. But sooner or later in March some team is going to make you slow down and execute in the half court. The Tar Heels are built to run, not walk.

I wish he would have started this post off by saying "Hi, I am Stephen Danley, former basketball player from Penn and the only game I have seen UNC play this season was the one against Penn and as it turns out I was not even paying attention in that one either." I think that disclaimer would allow us all to read this with a grain of salt. It is pretty clear, based on the above statement, that Danley did not watch the previous three games prior to the Heels crushing Penn. I seem to recall two of those games being played without Ty Lawson and the Heels relying more on the offensive half court set than the fast break. UNC beat BYU and OSU both without a consistent fast break and by hitting shots in the half court, especially against OSU which included Deon Thompson scoring big points in the middle of that zone. The Kentucky game was a little more of the normal fare for UNC but still involved more half court offensive sets than Roy probably wants. The Penn game was the first time since the ODU matchup UNC was firing on all cylinders with the exception of Wayne Ellington and his "hometown jitters."

Roy Williams calls him the most focused player he’s ever coached, and you get the feeling Hansbrough may be a crazier version of Joakim Noah. He’s the type of leader who can will a team to victory.

But to carry the Florida comparison a little further, who is North Carolina’s Al Horford?

That’s where they miss Brandan Wright. His replacement, Deon Thompson, has a soft touch on short jumpers but can’t score with the same ease Wright did. Wright’s jump hook was like tossing pebbles into the Great Lakes. He was so long that the hooks often looked as if they were falling down towards the basket. U.N.C. often depended on that shot to bail them out of bad possessions in the half court.

Well seeing that Hansbrough has stepped up his scoring and Deon Thompson is working in tandem with Alex Stepheson I am not entirely convinced the loss of Brandan Wright is a dealbreaker.

And if North Carolina has one weakness this year, it’s in the half-court set. The Tar Heels don’t have a dominant scorer. Hansbrough is more of a lunch pail-type of player. He’ll get his points and rebounds, but against premiere talent you can’t just dump the ball into him for a bucket any time you need one.

Here is the problem with the above assessment. I don't think Hansbrough has faced that "premiere talent" at this point. BYU has Trent Plaistred who was very good and OSU had Kosta Koufus. Hansbrough had an excellent game versus BYU scoring 21 and I seem to recall him getting some huge baskets out of the half court set in that one. Against OSU he was stymied a bit, not so much by Koufus but the whole team defense which played zone all night. And how did UNC win? They found another dominant scorer in the person of Deon Thompson who had 14 on 7-12 shooting and Wayne Ellington who had 23. Outside of those two games I don't think you score 21.4 ppg without scoring some in the half court and when your team needs it.

Lawson is still too inconsistent a shooter to be consistently effective in the half court.

Sometimes they make it too easy. Lawson is shooting 59% from the floor. Now granted he is getting a lot of layups off the break but I am also willing to bet he is getting a lot of good looks via penetration in the half court. Lawson has only taken 11 threes all season and hit four of them with is 36%. Not great but not bad either. I am more concerned with Lawson's A/TO ratio and propensity to commit fouls instead of playing clean defense, but then again I have also watched UNC play most of their games this season. Moving on...

Wayne Ellington may eventually be that guy, much like Lee Humphrey often bailed Florida out with a 3-pointer. I’m impressed with Ellington’s one-dribble pullup and his step back. Obviously, the kid can shoot the ball. I’m just not convinced he’s ready to take the team on his back and carrying it come tournament time.

The first problem is he compares Ellington to Lee Humphrey of Florida. Humphrey was basically Wes Miller in 2006. All he did was shoot threes. That was his role. In fact Humphrey took approximately 80% of his shots from behind the arc. He was a three point specialist, Ellington is not. He is a scorer pure and simple. As for the premise that Ellington does not strike Danley as someone who can take a team on his back, allow me to provide evidence to the contrary.

UNC vs Davidson: Heels down three with six minutes left and Ellington hits a three to tie the game. In fact between going 3-4 from the line and hitting another jumper to extend a one point lead to three, Ellington scored eight of UNC's final 16 points in the four point win over Davidson.

UNC vs BYU: Ellington hits a three with less than four minutes to go to put UNC up six.

UNC vs OSU: Perhaps the most prolific evidence to prove the Penn freshman wrong. On a night with Hansbrough being blanketed in a zone, Ellington scores 23 points on 8-15 shooting and four three pointers. One of those threes came when OSU had rallied back to within six at the 3:28 mark and served as the dagger to any Buckeye hopes for a rally. Also, he played the final minutes of that came after a nasty fall in which he banged his hip.

So, I think Ellington is perfectly capable of taking this team on his back and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament but I can see where someone not watching UNC play might think otherwise. That being said allow me to present the most asinine and ignorant statement in the entire article to the point I think Penn should question his degree.

What does that leave North Carolina with? Not much. They have a series of role players off the bench, but no impact guys.

Hey, Stephen. When Penn played UNC there was this one guy wearing Carolina blue and had #14 on his jersey. He hit 9-12 shots for 19 points, stole the ball four times and generally had a great game. His name is Danny Green and he is the third leading scorer on the team coming off the bench with 14.0 ppg and leads UNC in steals which means he is pretty good defender. If you had bothered to read some UNC box scores/game recaps you would know that Green dropped 20 on Kentucky three days before he assisted in running your team out of Pennsylvania and during the Davidson game he scored eight straight points to keep the Heels in the game. I know that I am only a lowly in-state college graduate as opposed to an Ivy Leaguer like you but based on my observation of basketball for over 25 years a guy who scores 14 per game and has repeatedly stepped up to hit big shots is usually defined as an impact player.

Without an influx of talent, they’re missing a key ingredient to postseason success. Eventually in March, someone will make you play their game.

And they have and UNC prevailed so what's your point?

That’s why getting up and down the floor is so important for this team. Unless Lawson, Ellington or Hansbrough develops into a transcendent offensive player, North Carolina will struggle when the pace of a tournament game slows. North Carolina’s ability to win a national championship may rest on its ability to keep that slowdown from happening.

Here is the bottom line. Yes, UNC loves to run the ball up and down the court. That gives the Heels an advantage in terms of depth since they have it and most teams don't. It also leads to easier baskets than a half court set. None of this is in dispute. I do take issue with the idea that UNC cannot do the opposite when it has been demonstrated in at least three games that they are capable of winning in a slowdown game or one that is brazenly ugly. This is a key difference from last season and that is UNC has figured out how to maintain composure, be patient and find a means of executing on offense in tough situations. It seems to be lost on Danley that UNC played two whole games without Ty Lawson and the fast break utterly impaired. They found a way to win. Will it be more difficult against someone like Memphis or UCLA? Of course it will, but as much as there is pressure on UNC to find a way to play the other team's style if forced to, that pressure is on the opposing team to adapt to what UNC is doing.

And I cannot disagree more strongly with the idea that UNC does not possess a transcendent offensive threat. I think the three he mentioned plus Green and Thompson on occasion can be that threat. UNC has great quality of depth and while some adjustments are being made to life without Wright and Terry, I am fairly satisfied with the body of work so far. Nothing I have seen raises serious alarms with me that the Heels cannot win a national title. In fact I think Danley missed the boat by being too focused on the offensive aspects. I am not worried so much about what the Heels do offensively in a slowdown game. I think they have enough weapons to post a winning score. The real issue is whether they can shut the other team down and so far that has been good but not great. I suspect it will get better and it will not matter if the Heels have trouble scoring because the other team will find even more difficulty with it.

Let me just say this piece was poorly researched and based on a narrow scope of evidence i.e. whenever Penn plays UNC. Then again, this is about what I have come to expect from the Old Grey Lady.

Hat Tip: Jackie Manuel's Posse