Last night UNC played in a game that ended with both teams having well over 70 possessions. It was basketball the way it was meant to be played, unfortunately, it is also a style that has become more and more of a rarity. While a game of this tempo may now be considered unusual, what is not unusual is that it was won by the North Carolina Tar Heels. Roy wants to play fast. Everyone knows this and he's made no attempt to hide it. Since returning to Chapel Hill, Roy's teams have finished in the top 20 of adjusted tempo in 10 of 12 seasons.
But does tempo really provide an edge to Roy's teams, or is it more of a stylistic preference to which additional benefit has been unduly credited? In short, yes, tempo makes a significant difference in whether UNC wins or loses, and of late, that impact has become even more obvious. With last night's win, Roy Williams' record at UNC improved to 332-100 (0.769). Over those nearly 12 seasons, when UNC is held under 70 possessions, its win percentage drops to 0.704 (95-40). However, when it is allowed to push the pace to at least 70 possessions, Carolina's win percentage jumps to nearly 80% (237-60, 0.798). And when they get to 80 or more possessions, forget about it. Roy's Tar Heel teams have done that 69 times and lost only 10 of those games (0.855).
Over the last three seasons, as UNC's win percentage has dropped, the importance of pace has become even more dramatic. Since the start of the 2013 season, UNC has gone 75-32 (0.701) overall, but are 44-14 (0.759) when they can push the pace to 70 or more possessions. In games that end with less than 70 possessions, Carolina is a completely ordinary 31-18 (0.633).
And this season? UNC is 13-3 (0.813) in games with 70 or more possessions, and 13-8 (0.619) when they don't hit that mark.
In general, when teams can force UNC into a slow, low-possession game, they (somewhat) negate the athletic and depth advantages that UNC will almost always have over their opponents. And of late, low-tempo games also tend to exacerbate Carolina's limited shooting ability and tendency to lose focus for several possessions. Losing focus for 4-5 possessions in a 75-possession game is annoying; do that in a 60-possession game, and it is a loss.
So why do teams choose to run against UNC (besides the fact that that is how the game is meant to be played)? For the most part, those that make the choice to do so, do it because that is the way that they play best. But what ever their reason, as last night showed, the odds of that decision turning out in their favor are usually very, very, low.