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Did UNC Peak Too Soon?

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

By now everyone knows the story. UNC, after a roller coaster pre-conference slate with incredibly good wins and inexplicable losses, the Tar Heels started 1-4 in ACC play. Then when all seemed lost UNC embarked on a 12 game winning streak that righted the ship. During that win streak UNC had four games in eight days and won all of them beating Pitt, Florida State, Duke and rolling over Wake Forest by 33 points. Since that point it was clear UNC started to sputter a bit even though the Tar Heels managed to win three more games by a total of seven points. The streak ended at Duke and was followed by an early exit from the ACC Tournament against Pittsburgh.

The question is whether or not UNC peaked with the "four wins in eight days" stretch? Looking at some of the numbers, that appears to be the case.

Four Factors - Offense

Opponent Adj. ORtg eFG% OR% FTR TO%
Clemson 131.3 62.5% 48.3% 48.3% 19.7%
Georgia Tech 112.8 48.4% 32.5% 32.5% 8.7%
NC State 109.1 42.8% 47.8% 47.8% 16.9%
Maryland 103.1 54.9% 31.4% 72.5% 19.3%
Notre Dame 109.2 46.7% 40.5% 34.4% 16.4%
Pitt 105.8 49.2% 41.0% 41.0% 18.3%
FSU 117.6 53.9% 38.9% 31.2% 13.1%
Duke 107.7 49.1% 44.1% 56.4% 18.9%
Wake Forest 144.6 66.4% 41.4% 47.5% 13.8%
NC State 116.9 50.8% 46.3% 47.0% 16.5%
Virginia Tech 100.4 46.4% 28.9% 32.7% 11.7%
Notre Dame 98.3 49.1% 31.4% 40.7% 15.6%
Duke 118.5 64.4% 25.0% 36.5% 19.0%
Pitt 98.9 44.3% 26.2% 40.7% 15.8%

Via KenPom

On the offensive end, UNC has been prone to inconsistency and these numbers tend to bear that out, with the exception of one. The Tar Heels finished the ACC regular season with the best offensive rebounding rate in the league during conference play at 38.8%. During the first nine games of the 12-game winning streak, UNC's worst offensive rebounding rate was 31.4% against Maryland and only twice in that span was UNC below 38%. In the past five games since the throttling of Wake Forest, UNC has been at 31.4% or worse in four of those games. That includes three games under 30%. Possibly related to this is the fact the offensive rating in general began to suffer somewhat. In the first nine games of the win streak, UNC's worst offensive rating was 103.1 versus Maryland which corresponds with that 31.4% offensive rebounding rate. In the past five games UNC has been below 100 three times and had a fourth game at 100.4.

After winning games while controlling the offensive glass, UNC has struggled to do so leading to an even more suspect offense. UNC doesn't have great offensive weapons beyond Marcus Paige which makes the ability to use the Tar Heels' size to get offense or preserve possessions via the offensive rebound very important. UNC has not done so lately and it has shown with three very difficult wins and two losses.

On the defensive side, the rebounding isn't the issue but it's clear teams are getting more of what they want of late.

Four Factors - Defense

Team Opp ORtg Opp. eFG% Opp. OR% Opp. FTR Opp. TO%
Clemson 100.1 39.6% 41.0% 47.2% 16.4%
Georgia Tech 94.0 45.5% 15.8% 47.3% 14.5%
NC State 90.9 42.4% 28.6% 39.4% 15.6%
Maryland 86.8 44.6% 21.6% 35.7% 22.1%
Notre Dame 92.7 50.9% 31.2% 18.2% 25.4%
Pitt 100.1 43.8% 41.5% 35.9% 19.8%
FSU 108.8 47.4% 26.3% 48.3% 11.6%
Duke 96.0 46.8% 28.2% 19.1% 17.5%
Wake Forest 99.2 54.5% 23.3% 40.0% 19.3%
NC State 115.5 52.4% 37.5% 50.0% 13.8%
Virginia Tech 93.8 43.3% 24.1% 46.7% 20.1%
Notre Dame 95.2 53.9% 20.0% 23.1% 20.3%
Duke 136.0 57.9% 53.3% 54.4% 19.0%
Pitt 105.5 56.7% 33.3% 78.8% 19.8%

Via KenPom

If you have watched UNC play, you know that the defense actually starting slipping a bit in the win over Wake Forest. While Wake didn't break 100 in the adjusted offensive rating, the Demon Deacons were at 54.5% on effective field goal percentage. Prior to the second game of the season against Wake Forest, only one team had an eFG% of 50% during the winning streak. Over the past six games, five teams have done it with Virginia Tech being the notable exception. The past six games have seen UNC give up offensive ratings over 100 three times. That is the same number as the previous nine games with this caveat. Two of those were 100 on the dot with FSU's 108.8 being the high mark. NC State's 115.5 and then Duke's 136.0 were the best ratings for UNC opponents in the past 16 games. Pitt's 105.5 was fourth best in that span.

One key element to opposing teams improve offensive performance versus the Heels is their three point shooting. During the first nine games of the win streak only two teams shot over 30% from three, Clemson(40%) and FSU(38%). That included six straight games of teams shooting under 30% from three. Starting with the second Wake Forest game, five of the last six opponents have been over 30% from three. The Demon Deacons shot 50% which helped to inflate their eFG%. In the last two losses Duke shot 34.5% from three and Pitt was at 38.5%. Much like the offensive rebounding not being quite as good, the perimeter defense has faltered some in recent games.

Given UNC's issues have been with offensive rebounding and on the defensive end, it is natural questions about effort and intensity would reemerge after being laid to rest for much of the past 16 games. There is also the possibility that this is simply late season fatigue setting in. It should be noted that five of the last six games were against teams seeing UNC for a second time. It is possible adjustments from earlier games to the more recent ones explains some of these shifts. It is also plausible some good old fashioned complacency has played a role.

To answer the original question, yes UNC did likely hit a peak with the four wins over eight days in mid-February. Since then, as happens after a team hits a high point, the Tar Heels have struggled even while winning games. UNC established an identity as a team that could play solid defense and control the offensive glass. Figuring out how to return to that as well as getting the James Michael McAdoo from before the the Florida State "foul out" game would go a long way towards steadying the ship heading into the NCAA Tournament.