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Shooting Your Way To A National Title

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A historical glimpse at UNC's shooting in previous Final Fours

If any of you are like me there is a chance that at some point this week you will wake up with a cold sweat in the dead of night having had a nightmare similar to this:  UNC is in the Final Four but because this is a dream and you ate ice cream at 10 PM it is an odd Final Four.  The Tar Heel team has a bunch of different guys on the roster from different teams.  Shammond Williams and Dante Calabria along with Rick Fox, Pete Chilcutt, Antawn Jamison, Jason Capel, Joe Forte and Serge Zwikker.  The team is playing in the national semifinal against Kansas and no one can hit a shot.  Everything they throw up comes up short or rims out.  Sure, they find the bottom of the nets every once and awhile but shot after shot bricks hard off the rim and after seeing Shammond Williams miss his 35th shot in a row you bolt up off your pillow screaming "NOOOOOOO!!!!"

That might be a little over the top but there is some hard data floating around out there that says when UNC goes to a Final Four it is either hot or cold for them.  Looking back at the Final Fours starting with 1981, if UNC wins a game on the final weekend it is a result go very good shooting around 50% or better.  When UNC loses a game in the Final Four the shooting is downright pathetic.  Obviously this is not earth shattering analysis on my part.  Shooting well wins games while missing shots loses game.  However the issue here is when the shooting goes south for UNC in the Final Four it really goes south which is shocking considering UNC averages around 50% during the course of most seasons.

Year Result FG% 3P FG% Season FG% Season 3P%
1981 W vs Virginia 53% N/A 53.7% N/A
L vs Indiana 42% N/A 53.7% N/A
1982 W vs Houston 42% N/A 51.5% N/A
W vs Gtown 53% N/A 51.5% N/A
1991 L vs Kansas 38% 16% 50.2% 39.8%
1993 W vs Kansas 53% 71% 50.6% 37.2%
W vs Michigan 49% 45% 50.6% 37.2%
1995 L vs Arkansas 37% 35% 50.8% 41.0%
1997 L vs Arizona 31% 19% 47.9% 37.2%
1998 L vs Utah 39% 13% 51.8% 36.2%
2000 L vs Florida 35% 22% 49.1% 34.3%
2005 W vs Mich St. 49% 30% 49.9% 40.3%
W vs Illinois 51% 56% 49.9% 40.3%

As I stated above, there is nothing surprising in the fact UNC lost games they shot poorly in versus winning games in which they shot well.  The startling stat here is in six Final Four losses UNC has broken 40% shooting exactly once and that was the title game loss to Indiana in 1981 when the Heels shot 42%.  In the other five losses UNC shot below 40% and the three point shooting has even bee more atrocious which likely contributes to the down overall FG% stat.  The Heels have had some incredibily bad perimeter shooting games in their losses.  Aside from the 35% against Arkansas in 1995 which included 10 made three pointers, UNC could not hit the broadside of a barn with a sawed off shotgun against Kansas(1991), Arizona, Utah and Florida from beyond the arc.  The sight of Shammond Williams going 1-10 versus Arizona and 2-12 against Utah is nightmare fuel of the highest order for the die hard Tar Heel fan.

What I have found fustrating in watching these shooting implosions happen(and it is far worse for the players themselves) is you get accustomed to watching the Heels shoot so well all season. Then comes the biggest game of the year and the shooting is nowhere close to what the average has been.  This is the maddening aspect of the previous UNC losses I have witnessed is the degree to which they falter in shooting the ball.  It is not that they average 50% from the floor and shot 44%.  The shooting is often 10-12% worse in the Final Four than it has been on average all season.  I am sure opposing defenses have something to do with that but you also get the impression that UNC players get tight in these huge games and as a result miss shots they normally make.

The flipside to these numbers is when UNC decides to shoot the ball well, they tend to do so with great efficiency which leads to the cutting down of nets.   In four wins at the Final Four, UNC has shot 71%, 45%, 30% and 56% from the perimeter which averages out to hitting half the three pointers taken.  The Michigan State game in 2005 is the only game what fell below the season average for three point shooting.  In the others UNC exceeded the average, making the perimeter shots a key part of the offense, especially in terms of achieving offensive balance.  This is important in terms of solving a tough defensive team if you can get all of your weapons firing with accuracy.

What does this all mean?  Simple.  Wayne Ellington and Danny Green in particular need to be locked and loaded starting on Saturday night.  Ty Lawson shooting well from outside will help too but I am not so much looking to his shooting given the PG matchups.  Deon Thompson and Tyler Hansbrough will have their hands full on the post facing a good Kansas defense and should they advance more of the same from either UCLA or Memphis.  This makes what happens on the perimeter key for opening up the entire offensive set along with getting out in transition.  Any team UNC faces now will be a good defensive team able to stop parts of the Tar Heel offense.  It will be extremely important to demonstrate too many offensive options for any one team to handle during the course of the game.

UNC is playing well right now and for the first time that I am aware of has won their first four tournament games by double digits.[Correction: I should have known better than to trust my memory.  Heels won the first games in both 1995 and 1998 by double digits.  1998 was a curveball because I knew the 2nd round game was in OT.  The margin of victory was the higher this season]  If the Heels can play some solid defense and have the offense clicking I like their chances.  If we see anything similar to the shooting percentages from the perimeter indicated in the losses above it might be a long night Saturday night and a short stay for the weekend.