On Wednesday night, UNC took a ten point lead with under four minutes left and with 1:50 left in the game was protecting a seven point advantage seemingly on the way to a much needed win in Durham. What happened next was a rerun of UNC's 2012 loss to Duke in Chapel Hill where any number of plays broke the wrong way for the Tar Heels and Duke, thanks in large part to Tyus Jones, made the necessary plays to tie the game up and send it to overtime. The extra session went back and forth with Duke taking a 90-89 lead inside of two minutes. UNC's next two possessions, one trailing by a point and the next trailing by two failed to produce points. Duke hit just enough free throws as UNC ran out of time in yet another crushing 2015 defeat.
As UNCFan is wont to do in these situations, the chatter turns toward Roy Williams and specifically his use of timeouts. The chief complaint is the lack of a timeout in UNC's penultimate possession with the Tar Heels down two and Isaiah Hicks fifteen feet from the basket with the ball unsure what to do with it. He eventually passed it to J.P. Tokoto who settled for a 17 foot baseline jumper despite the fact a hobbled Jahlil Okafor was coming out to contest the shot and the junior wing could have probably gotten to the basket.
The timeout debate for UNC fans is old hat and stems from Dean Smith's system. Smith opted to hoard his timeouts for the end of the game based primarily on the fact the clock needed to be stopped after made baskets. That rule changed in the 1994 season with the clock stopping after a made shot in the final minute. In that respect the timeouts are no longer needed to save time but can still be used to better set up a press or substitute players. The other aspect of the Smith/Williams timeout usage is the idea the team should be well prepared to face any situation and a timeout isn't necessary. This is especially true for Williams who prefers his teams play through opposing team's runs versus burning a timeout trying to stem it.
This bucks conventional wisdom which seemingly has every coach in the country calling a timeout, sometimes if an opposing team makes consecutive baskets and the crowd gets loud. In that respect Williams assigns a different purpose for his timeouts than everyone else. The UNCFan reaction to this is very human and likened to George Costanza concluding that if everything he does is wrong then the opposite must be right. This logic says, UNC lost the game and Williams didn't call a timeout so calling a timeout would have surely worked. Williams' 77% win percentage would seem to indicate his use of timeouts isn't necessarily a hindrance to his success.
As for the play in question, yes, a timeout once it looked like the execution had gone to hell in a hand basket wasn't necessarily a bad idea. It also isn't a cure all either. Williams did call a timeout with 22 seconds left in regulation and the game tied. UNC ran an offensive set and UNC eschewed getting the ball to the post. Eventually Marcus Paige took a long jumper which was contested but still a decent look which hit back iron sending the game to overtime. Williams also used a timeout to stop the clock at half court with UNC down three to set up a half court attempt for a three, UNC was fouled. He used another to set up the intentional missed free throw which was actually well executed but on its face had a low chance of success anyway.
The point here is timeouts are not magic bullets. Just because a coach calls a timeout doesn't mean the execution he draws up will happen or the shot will fall. Ultimately the players need to make the plays to win the game. The best drawn up play in the world doesn't matter if the players don't execute or the other team counters defensively. Simply put, players, more than coaches decide games. On Wednesday night, Duke players making plays and UNC players not decided that game. Here is how the final two minutes unfolded.
-Marcus Paige misses a layup which rolled across the back of the rim with 1:50 remaining and UNC up seven.
-After Duke's Justise Winslow missed two free throws, Paige and Brice Johnson prevent each other from grabbing the rebound. Duke's Tyus Jones misses a three but Winslow gets the rebound then Jones' layup cuts the lead to five.
-Kennedy Meeks throws the ball out of bounds. While UNC got the ball back thanks to J.P. Tokoto tipping the Duke inbounds pass had Meeks made a good pass UNC could have had a layup or have burned another 30 seconds of clock.
-Nate Britt, a 90% free throw shooter, misses the front end of a one and one, Jones hits two free throws to make it a three point game.
-Johnson makes two free throws but Jones gets a three point play on the other end to cut it to two.
-Johnson misses the front end of a one-and-one and Jones ties the game on a driving layup.
-Williams calls timeout to set the final play which ends with a long Paige jumper that misses the mark.
During that sequence there was a media timeout at 1:38, a Duke timeout at 1:23 and two stoppages to check the clock before Williams used a timeout with 22 seconds left.
The timeouts didn't matter. Honestly the actual in-game coaching may not have mattered that much either. Tyus Jones doing what he did wasn't because Mike Krzyzewski is a great coach and UNC's miscues weren't because Roy Williams is somehow deficient running his team. Duke players made the necessary plays and when they didn't UNC players didn't make the necessary plays to capitalize. When UNC players had a chance to hit a free throw, make a layup, grab a rebound they didn't and on the other end, Duke players managed to do enough of those things to rally for overtime and ultimately the win.
Williams isn't perfect. He is more than willing to tell you he didn't do a great job coaching. However for much of the second half, UNC put itself in a position to win the game and over the final two minutes didn't do what it needed to finish the job. Ultimately UNC lost the game because players didn't make free throws, made curious decisions in execution and had Duke make every key play it needed to make down the stretch.
According to KenPom with 2:40 left in the game Duke had a 2.5% win probability. The numbers of things that must go right for Duke and wrong for UNC over the course of those two-plus minutes is fairly staggering and it has not happened twice in this rivalry in four season.
Now about that officiating...