Cautious optimism. If I had to chose two words to describe the general feeling of the UNC fan base after yesterday's win over Kentucky, those would be the two. CBS' Gary Parrish wrote that yesterday's win was not great for any of the traditional reasons a win would be considered great, but rather, the win was great because, "it was not a loss." I get the point that Parrish is trying to make, and while I do agree with him to some extent, I think he glosses over one very important thing: the way the Tar Heels won yesterday (great defense, limited turnovers, dominant post play) is far more repeatable (or, if you'd prefer, far less fluky) than if they had come out and shot 60% from the floor and dropped 100 on the Wildcats. More importantly, the players seem to recognize this. After one of UNC's many second-half stops in the second half yesterday, Larry Drew was heard shouting to Dexter Strickland, "That's what we have to do. That's what we have to do every time!" Drew is absolutely right; until their shots start falling, that is what he and his teammates have to do every time, because eventually those stops will start leading to transition opportunities, and there is no better remedy for bad shooting than open shots on the break.
Before we start looking ahead to Carolina's next game at Evansville, let's take one last moment to review the UK game in a much more fun, winning-edition, of Beyond the Box.
UNC had its second worst shooting night of the season (eFG%: 42.2) against one of it's toughest opponents, and won. That statement alone offers a significant clue as to what the Heels did do right yesterday afternoon. Against Illinois, UNC had an eFG% of 50.9 and yet, they only averaged 0.92 PPP. Yesterday, in spite of significantly worse shooting, UNC averaged 0.99 PPP, and the difference can be found in two areas: TO% and FTR. The Heels had an excellent overall TO% of 15.8 for the game (against Illinois it was 24.7), but in the second half it dropped to a level (11.1%) that would have been considered outstanding for even the Lawson-led teams. There were still a few moments where the TO problem reared its ugly head, such as the stretch late in the first half where they turned it over on 3 straight possessions and saw a 5 point lead turn into a 2 point deficit, but overall, Carolina's performance was quite encouraging.
Perhaps more impressive than Carolina's improvement holding onto the ball was their improvement getting to, and at, the line. Against the Illini, had an FTR of 29.3 and a FT% of 47.1, both of which are nothing short of terrible. However, against the Wildcats, UNC's FTR jumped to 63.8, which is not only a season's best, it is the first time UNC has been over 60.0 since their dismantling of Michigan State in the 2009 National Championship game. More importantly, the Tar Heels capitalized on their trips to the line, shooting shooting over 70% from the line (for only the second time this season), including an extremely impressive 14 of their last 16.
On the defensive side of things, UNC held Kentucky to an eFG% of 46.0 despite the fact that the Wildcats hit 9 of their 21 3-point attempts (42.9%). UNC accomplished this by holding Kentucky to 36.5% from within the arc, thanks in large part to an outstanding block percentage of 14.5. Carolina further enhanced the impact their initial defensive effort by posting a season's best 81.0 defensive rebounding percentage. As many noted, we have seen stretches of this type of defensive ability previously, but yesterday we saw what happens when it is put together for (nearly) an entire game.
- While UNC's defensive performance for the entire game was very good, in the second half it was outstanding. Over the final 20 minutes, UNC held Kentucky to 27.7% from two and 33.3% from three (eFG%: 36.7).
- Seven (7) Carolina players had individual DR% greater than 10.0, led by Henson (27.6%) and Zeller (25.3).
- Justin Watts was incredibly efficient in the minutes he played, posting the following line: AST%: 52.6, OR%: 13.1, DR%: 11.9, BLK%: 12.1, FTR: 300.0.
- Over the last two games, Larry Drew II has an A/T of 2.2. The shots still are not falling (or being taken), but as long as he continues to post an A/T greater than 2.0 and play defense like he did yesterday, then he adds a significant amount of value to the Heels.
- Drew had a team best Roland Rating of +24, the value of which is further underscored by the fact that his backup, Kendall Marshall posted a Roland Rating of -24.
Beyond the Box Player of the Game
Before naming the POG for the Kentucky game, let’s first take a look at the top five ORtgs for the Tar Heels (minimum possession percentage: 10%):
[table id=55 /]
While he was certainly not the POG, Justin Watts really deserves credit for how he played yesterday. He was not only extremely efficient, but he seems to have really bought into his role as an "effort guy" off the bench. Watts may struggle against teams with a lot of really tall players, but as more and more teams go to 3- (and sometimes 4) guard lineups, having a player like Watts who can matchup against a number of different players, if only for a few minutes, is invaluable.
As for the Player of the Game, this one is pretty easy. While John Henson had yet another double-double (4th of the season), and Harrison Barnes had a first half that reminded us why he was the #1 overall recruit, Tyler Zeller was an absolute stud and is the obvious choice for POG. Zeller posted career highs in points (27), rebounds (11) and tied a career high with 5 blocks. In other words, he played like Tyler Hansbrough, which is quickly becoming one of the greatest complements a Tar Heel player can receive. Most impressive about Zeller's game yesterday was the fact that he wanted the ball down the stretch, and Kentucky knew he wanted the ball down the stretch, and yet they still could do no more than foul him, which proved to be a very poor strategy.
Additionally, Zeller continued to show a deft ability to reliably hit shots from 18-19 feet. In THF's post-game report he smartly points out that as few as 4-5 three point field goals per game would go a long way for this team. If Zeller continues to have success shooting from what was essentially the old three-point line then one would have to assume that he will eventually migrate to behind the the current three point line. If he could become a reliable source of maybe one (well-timed) 3-pointer a game, then that would go a long way towards relieving some of the pressure on Carolina's other outside shooters.