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The 2011 Season: Beyond the Box

What a season. Despite the fact that UNC started the season ranked 8th (AP) in the nation and ended season ranked 7th, and that Doc, THF and I almost nailed our preseason predictions, this season was nothing like what was expected. For both good and bad reasons, this may have been one of the most memorable, non-championship seasons in a long, long, time. On the other side of the break, the season's final edition of Beyond the Box will explore and dissect the statistics behind this wild season.

Four Factors

[table id=118 /]

I decided to make this not only an examination of how UNC did in relation to its opponents this season, but also an opportunity to compare the overall performances of this year's team versus last year's.  In looking at these data, while Carolina certainly shot and defended better this year than they did last year, what really stands out are the turnover numbers. The Heels went from a team that threw the ball all over the gym last season (TO%: 20.8) to a team that was in the top 20% in terms of protecting the basketball (TO%: 18.3).  The difference in TO% between the two seasons equates to about 2 less turnovers per game; given that the Heels won an incredible nine games that were decided by one possession (including the overtime win against Clemson), it is pretty easy to see what a dramatic difference protecting the basketball can make.  Moreover, the Heels were able to flip the script entirely this year, going from a team who turned the ball over approximately 2 more times a game than their opponent, to a team that forced their opponents into an extra turnover a game.

While the comparison between the last two seasons is important, what is more important is the comparison of this year's team based on who was the starting point guard:

[table id=119 /]

What jumps out immediately is the fact that the Heels actually had a significantly better raw EM with Drew starting than they did with Marshall starting.  A very obvious explanation for this would be that UNC was played a much more difficult schedule the second half of the season, and this turns out to be absolutely true.  The approximate cumulative Pythagorean winning percentage for Carolina's opponents during the Drew-started games was 0.728, while in the Marshall-started games it shot up to 0.867.  However, even when the efficiency margins are (roughly) adjusted to compensate for relative strength of schedule, there still is very little difference between the performance of the Drew-led Heels (EM: 23.8) and the Marshall-led Heels (EM: 23.2).

So what gives?  Well, there are two things, actually.  First, due to Drew's departure and Bullock's injury, the Heels actually played a large portion of the games started by Kendall Marshall significantly short-handed.  In perhaps UNC's best performance of the season, at BC, the Heels got terrific performances off of the bench from both Drew and Bullock.  Unfortunately, that was really the last time they were able to count on their bench for any level of production.  The second thing that has to be considered is the improvement in TO% (19.5 to 17.5) UNC  experienced after Marshall took over the starting position.  Under Marshall, UNC was 7-0 in games that were decided by one possession.  Had they maintained their early-season TO% (19.5) in those games (again, another 2 turnovers per game), it is very possible that they could have lost 3, 4, or maybe more of those 7 games than they did win, which would have dramatically changed the overall tenor of the season.

Statistical Highlights

  • For the 4th season in a row (and 5th time under with Roy Williams as head coach) North Carolina lead the nation in total possessions (16th in the nation in PPG).
  • The Heels also lead the nation in defensive and total rebounds.  UNC's 1578 total rebounds is the 3rd most in school history, trailing only the 2008 and 2009 teams (the only two teams to crack the 1600 mark).
  • With 206 blocks, the 2011 season marks only the second time in school history that a Tar Heel team had more than 200 blocks (1993-94: 219).
  • For only the second time in his career, Roy Williams had back-to-back teams with less than 4 players who averaged 10+ points per game.  Each of Roy's 7 Final Four teams had at least 4 players score 10+ points per game, and the two champions had 5.

Beyond the Box Player of the Year

The final BTB POY rankings are presented in the table below.  The rankings were based on a points system in which a player got 10 points for being named the POG and 3 points for having a top five ORtg, with a 2 point bonus for having the top ORtg.

[table id=116 /]

Tyler Zeller had a tremendous year and was an obvious choice for the BTB Player of the Year.  Zeller was the ACC's leader in Floor % (63.2) and finished in the Top-5 in the conference in ORtg,, field goals made, FG%, free throws made and attempted, free throw percentage, points, and offensive rebounds, while also finishing 9th in blocked shots.  But what really demonstrates how very good Zeller was this season, is a comparison of his 2011 season with Tyler Hansbrough's sophomore campaign:

[table id=117 /]

It should be noted that even though Zeller was a junior this season, he had almost half as many career minutes (587) entering the season than Hansbrough did entering his sophomore season (943).  And yet, the two seasons are almost identical, with Hansbrough having a slight edge in points, rebounds and steals, and Zeller the edge in ORtg, eFG%, TS%, and Floor %, while having nearly three times as many blocked shots.  Despite the similarities in the two seasons, there is one area in which the two season diverge fairly dramatically, and that is usage.  Tyler Hansbrough was the unquestioned focal point of the Carolina attack and during the 2007 season and led UNC with a possession % of 26.0.  Tyler Zeller, on the other hand, finished third on the team in possession % (22.9) and ended the season with 111 less possessions than Hansbrough (544 - 433).  Given that the seasons ended at the same stage (Elite-8) and with similar overall records (31-7 vs. 29-8), it is hard to say that UNC would have gone further had the team focused on getting Zeller the ball more, but there is almost no question that it cost him consideration for individual accolades.  Whether those accolades come next year will have a lot to do with whether or not Harrison Barnes decides to return; however, should Barnes leave, then expect a significant portion of that lost production to be made up with an increased focus on getting Tyler Zeller the ball, in much the same way Brandan Wright's departure was made up for by feeding Hanbrough the ball more in 2008 (increase of 102 possessions from 2007 to 2008).

In other words, the sky is the limit for what Zeller (and the Heels) could accomplish next season, and it is going going to be a long seven months having to wait to watch it!

Note: For reference, a full stats glossary can be found at