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UNC vs. Illinois: Beyond the Box

The Tar Heels loss Tuesday night can best be characterized as a generally uneven game in which the Heels executed poorly and failed to take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves. While there is generally no shame in losing to a good and veteran Illinois team at Assembly Hall, the similarities between the loss in Champagne and the two losses in Puerto Rico are somewhat disconcerting, though it is too early to say if they are definitively a portent of things to come. By the end of the season, it is unlikely that any of these three losses will be considered bad losses, but until (or unless) the team has a few good wins to balance it out, it really does not (or will not) matter if the losses are "good" or "bad."

Four Factors

When I first looked at the post-game boxscore, I was shocked to see that the Heels had an eFG% greater than 50.0.  After failing to reach this plateau the previous 4 games, it would have been a pretty poor bet to say that they would "breakout" in a tough road environment.  However, what is most surprising about this is the fact that it marks only the 11th time in the 7+ seasons with Roy at the helm that the Tar Heels have lost a game in which they posted an eFG% of 50.0 or better (163 total occurrences).  In 9 of the other 10 such losses (7 road, 2 home, 1 neutral), Carolina had an OR% well under 40.0 and in those same 9 games, their opponent had a significant advantage on the offensive boards.  Against Illinois, while UNC was again well under 40.0% on the offensive side, they did do strong work on the defensive boards and held the Illini to an OR% of 27.3, and thus, no advantage was gained.

So what made the difference this time?  Well, besides the obvious (Illinois' 57.1 eFG% including, 66% from 3), the biggest factor was Carolina's inability to hold onto the ball.  (Surprisingly, of the 10 previous times UNC lost with an eFG% greater than 50.0, only twice had they turned the ball over more than their opponents.)  While Carolina's TO% was not staggeringly bad (remember, the 2005 team had a TO% of 21.1 for the season), it was compounded by the fact that the turnovers came in clusters.  And clusters lead to prolonged dry spells that can significantly alter the outcome of the game.  Case in point: Carolina held the Illini scoreless from 14:38 to 11:23 in the first half on Tuesday, but in that same stretch 4 of their 5 possessions ended in turnovers, and they too went scoreless.  For the season, UNC is averaging 1.34 PPP when they do not turn the ball over, and they were averaging 1.42 PPP through their first 7 possessions on Tuesday.  Using those numbers, the same 3-minute stretch, this time with only 1 turnover (an acceptable TO% of 20.0), would have seen the Heels go into the second media timeout with an 8-9 point lead.  This may not have been enough to change the ultimate outcome of the game, but it certainly would have made things interesting.

Statistical Highlights

  • It was really a story of two halves for Larry Drew.  In the first half he had 6 assists to go against 1 turnover and a team best Roland Rating of +11.  Everything flipped in the second half, as he had only 1 assist, 2 turnovers and a Roland Rating of -15.
  • Henson, Zeller and Knox combined to go 17-25 (68.0%) from the field; the rest of the team shot 10-33 (30.3%).
  • UNC's point guards had 7 turnovers and only 5 FGA.  One of the best ways to avoid turnovers is to actually shoot the ball before you can turn it over, especially if these shots are taken away from the basket.  It may not be the highest percentage play, but like Wayne Gretzky said, "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take."  Additionally, UNC has proven to be fairly good on the offensive boards (OR%: 39.1), which only increases the odds that any FGA will eventually lead to points.
  • Justin Knox was a monster on the defensive boards with a DR% of 42.7.  His play so far this season has been everything UNC could have hoped for and he should continue to provide solid minutes in rotation with Henson and Zeller.
  • Leslie McDonald had a team high +22 Roland Rating.  The lowest Roland Rating (-22) belonged to Dexter Strickland.

Beyond the Box Player of the Game

Before naming the POG for the Illinois game, let’s first take a look at the top five ORtgs for the Tar Heels (minimum possession percentage: 10%):

[table id=53 /]

For reference, the entire Illinois starting lineup posted offensive ratings of better than 130, and as such, there will not be a POG for the Heels.  That being said, John Henson's recent development should be noted.  While Henson's offensive breakout against CoC could have been attributed to playing against smaller opposition, the same cannot be said of the Illini, who possess possibly the tallest frontline that UNC will see all season.  Henson is not just scoring in the open court or on put backs, but is showing a smoothness and patience around the rim that we had not seen previously.  I know that freshman enter college basketball much more advanced than they did in the past, but that does not change the fact that the light does not always go on at the same time for everyone.  For Henson, it appears to have taken 42 college games, as his light is certainly starting to glow.  This time last year there were questions as to how Henson could have been the #5-recruit in the country, and by January, the idea that he was a "one-and-done" player was laughable.  Now, his numbers look quite similar to last year's #1-recruit (and #3 NBA draft pick), Derrick Favors.