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UNC basketball is ready for a change

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The last four years were a departure in style from previous UNC teams coached by Roy Williams.

NCAA Men's Final Four - National Championship - Villanova v North Carolina Photo by Pool - Chris Steppig/Getty Images

October is knocking on the door. Football season is almost a quarter of the way through the season. The leaves are changing color. These only mean one thing. College basketball is right around the corner. If you’re a UNC fan, you are more than ready to get this season started in hopes that last year’s finale will be erased from your memory. Pro tip: It won’t. Ever. All we can learn to do is cope.

Personally, I’m pumped to use this year’s team as the ultimate coping mechanism. Some may ask if UNC is truly “back”, (ahem C.L Brown and ESPN). After some down recruiting years, and a Final Four drought that any reasonable fan will agree was all Creighton’s fault, whispers have persisted that UNC has taken a step back.

Truthfully, that answer is yes. UNC is “back”. Just not in the sense that most think. UNC never really left the national scene. They never truly stopped being a competitive foe. The recruiting has seemingly taken a step backwards, but the bottom line is the recruiting landscape has changed drastically, and as I point out here, UNC hasn’t really felt any negative effects from the lack of one and done players.

Instead, when I say that UNC is “back”, I mean that this season’s team may be more representative of a traditional Roy Williams-coached team. The past few years have been an anomaly when compared to previous seasons, both at UNC and at Kansas. Let’s look at a few key components to explain this line of thinking.

Please keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list. Also, I am NOT comparing talent levels of previous teams. I am comparing skill sets and the composition of previous rosters.

Point Guard vs Lead Guard

Specifically speaking, the Marcus Paige years simply provided a different style of ball in Chapel Hill. Never in Roy’s career had a point guard been his leading scorer. Prior to Marcus arriving, that never happened on a Roy coached team at UNC. I couldn’t find the stats to prove it happened at Kansas either. Ever. Yet, Marcus led the team in scoring twice.

By relying so much on a scoring point guard (or “lead” guard), offenses tend to stall. All UNC fans witnessed this numerous times over the last 4 seasons. Initially, in 2012-2014 youth and inexperience were considered the culprit. Brice just needed more time to mature, Kennedy needed to slim down, and Marcus needed to learn how to facilitate when he couldn’t find a rhythm (because taking control was, thankfully, never a problem for him). Unfortunately, the fix wasn’t that simple.

When a point guard consistently becomes the offense, it’s difficult to run the offense. Roy Williams’ system is dictated by the point guard’s ability to facilitate, and his most successful teams have had that key component. For as great as Marcus is and was, he never averaged more than 4.6 assists per game, and he did that as a freshman.

There are many valid reasons why this may have been the case, but simply put, this was a departure from Lawson, Felton, Marshall and even Kirk Heinrich and Ryan Robertson at Kansas. Heck, Larry Drew II averaged 5.9 assists in that forgettable 2010 season.

As discussed here, Joel Berry has the opportunity to step into Paige’s shoes and become the classic UNC point guard most fans are accustomed to seeing. It was no coincidence that last season’s team looked like a completely different UNC later in the year as Berry’s ballhandling duties increased.

He brings an outward display of aggression and decisiveness to the court. Marcus brought a cunning and sly mentality. Paige was smooth and slippery. Berry is a junkyard dog who visibly demands that other players match his intensity. Both are phenomenal leaders, but Berry’s skills just fit better into UNC’s traditional system.

Perimeter Depth

The last few years have also been a departure of past Williams teams when perimeter depth is discussed. Last year Paige, Berry, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, and Theo Pinson formed a very small, tight perimeter line-up. While five guards may seem like a deep line-up, remember that Paige, Berry, and Britt all essentially played the same position. UNC was effectively “deep” at point guard, and thin on the wing.

The year before that, in 2014-2015, just substitute J.P. Tokoto for Pinson, and remember Pinson, Berry, and Jackson were inexperienced freshman. Even back during the 2013-2014 season, the perimeter consisted of Paige, Britt, Tokoto, and Leslie McDonald. Yes. That’s the entire list of guards that played significant playing time.

Compare that to the 2012 squad that had Kendall Marshall, Reggie Bullock, Harrison Barnes, Dexter Strickland, and P.J. Hairston. Yes, five players, but a much more diverse skillset among the guards. This provided more flexibility when matching up with opposing teams.

2005 is another prime example. That team saw Reyshawn Terry, Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, Ray Felton, Rashad McCants, and David Noel lead the charge outside of the paint. Again, very talented, diverse skillset that posed multiple match up problems.

This year’s team looks primed to bring this capability back to UNC. Some of these expectations will depend on needed improvements from Jackson and Pinson. However, any team that can add Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson to a backcourt already consisting of Britt, Berry, Jackson, and Pinson is going to provide match-up problems all year long for opponents.

That’s a very different line-up than last year, with many more potential combinations for Williams to tinker with. Plus, that doesn’t include Kenny Williams’ “3-and-D” potential, if his three-point prowess comes to fruition.

Getting to the line

All of the above leads me to my final point. Foul shot differential between UNC and its opponents used to be a staple of UNC teams. That has not been the case the past few years. UNC simply has not been aggressive getting to the line. Nor have they been successful in preventing opponents from shooting foul shots. See below.

In 2015-16, UNC attempted 825 free throws. Their opponents attempted 726.
In 2014-15, UNC attempted 814 free throws. Their opponent attempted 843.
In 2013-14, UNC attempted 882 free throws. Their opponents attempted 807.
In 2012-13, UNC attempted 655 free throws. Their opponents attempted 581.

Generally, UNC went to the line more than their opponents. This is always a good thing. However, they weren’t really dominant with the disparity. Truthfully, these amounts spread over an entire season don’t make a huge difference from game to game.

Now look at these numbers from 2009-2012.

In 2011-12, UNC attempted 922 free throws. Their opponents attempted 529.
In 2010-11, UNC attempted 878 free throws. Their opponents attempted 580.
In 2009-10, UNC attempted 854 free throws. Their opponents attempted 585.

Obviously, those are quite the disparity, even for the 2010 NIT participants. That’s what an attacking point guard and diverse array of talent on the perimeter bring to the table.

On the offensive end, a guard that can drive the lane forces the defense to shift. As the defense adjusts, they get out of position in an attempt to stop the penetration This usually causes players to reach, slap, or grab at the ball handler as he goes by. Often, a foul is called. Sometimes. Unless you’re Villanova in the NCAA Championship. Whatever.

If there are other match-up advantages, the point guard can exploit those using any variety of plays. Driving and kicking, pick and rolling, or hitting the back door cut are all effectiuve means of facilitating and getting the defense out of position to commit a foul. This year’s UNC team should have that variety of talent on the perimeter.

This also works on the defensive end, and can likely explain the uptick in opponent’s foul shot attempts. With a limited amount of perimeter players, UNC often found itself on the losing end of perimeter match-ups. That is not to say that UNC’s players were necessarily poor defenders. They just didn’t have the depth to sometimes be as successful as they might have been if they had an additional guard.

When these match-ups were exposed, the entire defense was strained. This put additional stress on UNCs big men, and The fouls added up. Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks certainly didn’t help matters, as their individual interior defense could be suspect. But, I’m convinced much of that was caused by the constant need to provide help to the perimeter players.

Regardless, the numbers are pretty sobering. Fortunately, this year’s roster has the talent to erase those trends.

Conclusion

I can’t say whether UNC’s guards will blossom and reach their full potential. There are always questions heading into a new season, and those won’t be answered until the games start. However, based on the final 15 games of last year and the talent that’s arriving in Chapel Hill this fall, all the pieces are in place to bring the traditional UNC-styled offense back to the Dean Dome.

If that happens, and the players stay healthy, UNC could be looking at another deep run in March.