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Reviewing UNC’s secret scrimmage in Memphis

What we can learn from Friday’s scrimmage, and why it doesn’t matter.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night, primitive details about UNC’s scrimmage against the Tigers of Memphis began hitting the internet. By now you probably know the important stats. Joel Berry had 14 points, and hit 4 of 6 three point attempts. Luke Maye followed that with 11 points, and Garrison Brooks led the team in rebounds with 10. The Heels also managed to accumulate 21 turnovers as they held on for a 70-64 “win”. Nod your head in approval. Breathe a sigh of relief. Then move on and don’t overanalyze what all of this “means”.

What’s the Point?

These “secret” scrimmages are common across college basketball, and have been a regular occurrence since at least 2003. (Note: That is when I began working as a student assistant/manager/water boy for a low-major program. After four years of that, I spent one season as Dir. of Operations on a different D-1 staff, followed by two years at the high school level). Before social media took over our lives, teams and coaches did not always know who their conference opponents were playing (if they played anyone at all). Your results sure didn’t become pubic knowledge. Coaches did their best to keep the local beat reporter in the dark.

Coaches tried (and still try) to schedule scrimmages with other coaches they were friendly with. They wanted to ensure they could trust the other coaching staff to stay quiet and not give out free scouting reports to early season opponents. Back then, we didn’t even send the game tape from the scrimmages to other schools.

Programs also prefer to schedule similarly talented programs to adequately challenge the players. North Carolina wouldn’t learn anything valuable about themselves if they scrimmaged Randolph-Macon or Guilford College. My school was in the Big South Conference, and we played a Southern Conference opponent all four years. The purpose of these are for coaches to teach their players and develop their teams in a non-hostile environment.

Typically, these games aren’t a strict simulation of a real game. Referees may be brought in to get some early season rehearsals, but there’s no guarantee they are Division-I refs. They’ll start to enforce whatever that season’s points of emphasis are, such as hand checking, charges, or illegal screens. The crew doesn’t always have three men, and a team’s support staff keeps the “official” book, game clock, and shot clock. Sometimes the penalty/reward for being in the bonus (7 fouls) or double bonus (10 fouls) is modified in various creative ways. It’s not uncommon to reset all the player’s fouls to “zero” at the beginning of the second half.

Usually, the two head coaches discuss some specific strengths or weaknesses they want to focus on. Maybe Coach A wants to see his zone defense in action, and Coach B wants to test out a new zone offense. Suddenly, a pre-determined amount of time or possessions is agreed upon for those particular goals. The same could be done for sideline out of bounds plays (SLOBs) and baseline out of bounds plays (BLOBs). For instance, every non-shooting foul could result in a BLOB, underneath the opposing team’s basket, regardless of where the foul occurred.

Let me be clear. I won’t/can’t proclaim these kind of circumstances played out in Memphis. The Tigers and Tar Heels may have played two 20 minute halves, with an official halftime, foul limits, and the clock stopping only in the final minute of the second half.

However, I would be surprised to hear of any pre-season scrimmage that strictly mimicked a game environment or did not have some sort of modification. Nor does any of this information mean that the players don’t compete, the coaches don’t coach, and the results don’t have some ramifications. So, now that we all have an understanding that the final score doesn’t mean much, what can we take away from Friday night’s scrimmage?

Musical Lineups

It is safe to assume that North Carolina tried numerous lineups against a rebuilding Memphis squad. Why is that a fair assumption? Because Joel Berry only played 21 minutes. (Note: every piece of analysis in this article is based on this fact). If anyone thinks the returning Final Four MOP is going to be restricted to 21 minutes a game this season, please share with all of our readers whatever it is that you are consuming. Berry averaged 30.4 minutes last year, with a senior backup in Nate Britt.

This year he has a sophomore Seventh Woods and a freshman Jalek Felton behind him. This is not rocket science..

Roy Williams knows what Berry brings to the court. He does not know what five new scholarship freshmen, one graduate transfer, and one preferred walk-on add to the mix. That’s seven new players. Those players bring numerous questions and limited time to find solutions. The only way to get answers to is throw them on the court and see what does or does not work. It’s also an educated guess that Jalek Felton and Seventh Woods got plenty of burn at the point guard position in the 19 minutes Berry wasn’t on the floor.

That probably explains....

21 Turnovers and 11 Steals

On the surface this is not an optimal number of turnovers, but context is important. Almost half of the team are still learning the offense and were forced into the most realistic competitive situation most of them have faced at the college level. Considering the inexperience at point guard behind Joel Berry and assuming multiple lineups were used, the high quantity of lost possessions should not be a surprise. Mistakes are going to happen. No reason to panic.

Conversely, the Heels forced 11 steals. It’s easy to use this as a positive to outweigh the negative, but that’s dangerous. If 21 turnovers are a likely by-product from the reasons listed above, the same could be said about Memphis. Maybe both teams were just a little sloppy as they work the kinks out or install some new wrinkles.

If anything, I’m curious how many of those turnovers were guard to post entry passes (both to the block and high post). Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks provided a comfort and knowledge of where to be on the court, and how to get there. Freshmen post players, especially ones as unpolished as Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley, need time to develop their court awareness and timing with the perimeter players. For a system that relies on inside-out ball movement as much as the Heels do, that’ll be a fun development to watch during the season.

Sharing is Still Caring

They may have turned the ball over 21 times, but the Heels continued their championship trend by spreading the wealth on offense. Last season, they led the country in assists with 722. On Friday, 17 of their 24 field goals were a direct result of an assist from a teammate. Whether that is attributed to the level of competition, or any special rules put in place by the coaching staffs, it is still an impressive stat for such a young team.

It’s difficult to attribute the unselfishness to any particular person or reason at the moment. They call it “secret” for a reason. At a minimum, it appears that this team shows the same desire to move the ball.

Also encouraging was Berry’s four assists in his 21 minutes. Last year he averaged 3.6, good for second best on the team. With so many new faces, his ability to facilitate and get everyone involved will be equally important to his scoring abilities.

Interesting, but not fascinating

Some will be encouraged by Brooks’ 10 rebounds, Maye’s 11 points, or the team’s 7 made three pointers. Those are all interesting outcomes, but they aren’t necessarily fascinating. Without knowing the matchups, the actual lineups used, or how realistic this scrimmage was, individual stats are tricky.

They certainly shouldn’t be dismissed, but it’s better to walk away from these events by looking at the overall team stats. Players have a bad day or great day. They get a favorable matchup or take advantage of an opposing defense that’s trying something “new”. Besides, Brooks has reportedly been the best freshman post player, the team is expected to have multiple three point shooters, and Luke Maye is going to score buckets.

As the week goes on, more details will emerge from the scrimmage. Just remember to keep it all in proper persepctive.

Save the real panic for next Friday night when Roy Williams doesn’t use a timeout after Barton College goes on a 4-0 run.