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UNC basketball: A Tale of Two Teams?

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Four out of UNC’s five losses have been away from home. Is this a trend?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

In sports, nothing just happens. Everything that unfolds has a reason why it unfolded the way it did—at least we tell that to ourselves to make us feel better. Picking up the pieces after a loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, there have been several reasons given for the Heels listless performance. It was their second game in three days. The Heels didn’t get to the line enough. Joel Berry II and Luke Maye were forced to shoulder too much off the offensive burden.

Those are all valid reasons why the Heels fell short against the Hokies, but they’re difficult to extrapolate across an entire season in the interest of predicting future performance. How about something a lot simpler that could tell us a lot more about the Heels’ season to date: do the Heels play worse on the road than they do in the Dean Dome?

Four out of UNC’s five losses have been on the road (VT, Virginia, Florida State) or in neutral locations (Michigan State). UNC is 9-1 at home, with its only loss coming to Wofford. In true road games, the Heels are 3-3, while they are 4-1 at neutral locations. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll neatly divide UNC’s performance into home (9-1) and away from home (7-4).

Adjusting the Numbers

In the interest of making sure our data set isn’t muddled, we’re going to adjust for competition. A few of UNC’s home games were against weaker opponents earlier on in the season. Those won’t necessarily tell us useful information, because it’ll inflate UNC’s numbers at home. So for the purposes of this exercise, only games played against teams in the top 160 in SRS will be considered (For the record, UNC is 9th in that statistic). I chose 160 because Wofford ranks 160th in that statistic, and is the lowest-ranked team UNC has played that is still above average.

That excludes UNC’s game against Portland in the PK80 Tournament. This was the only game away from home that UNC has played against competition outside the top 160 in SRS. It also excludes UNC’s home game against Western Carolina. In an interesting coincidence, those are also the only two games this season in which UNC has scored at least 100 points. So using this adjusted data set, UNC is 8-1 at home and 6-4 away from home.

Home Sweet Home

In the nine home games included in this data set, UNC out-scores opponents 86 to 73. They also out-shoot their opponents, both overall (48.5% to 43%) and from deep (35.8% to 35.7%...just barely!). They out-rebound them too, 40 to 26. They also out-shoot their opponents from the charity stripe, attempting 26 free-throws per game at home as compared to 15 free-throws per game from their visitors.

On The Road Again

On first glance, UNC really does appear to be a different team outside of the Dean Dome. They still out-score their opponents, but only by a margin of 74 to 71. But they don’t out-shoot them, neither overall (41.6% to 41.9%) nor from deep (34.4% to 37.4%). It’s not bad across the board, though. UNC still manages to out-rebound their opponents (38 to 31) and even still averages more free-throw attempts per game (17 to 15) and less personal fouls (16 to 17)!

Trends Worth Noting

The fact that UNC’s field goal percentage drops nearly seven percentage points is worth noting, just as the fact that their offensive output drops by 12 points. But that seems to be an outlier; most of UNC’s statistics remain consistent regardless of where the team is playing. In fact, UNC’s free throw percentage is nearly identical both home and away (76.5% to 76.4% respectively), while their opponents shoot 61.1% in the Dean Dome and 71% outside of it! Weirdly, UNC’s opponents actually shoot better from the field in the Dean Dome (43%) than in other arenas (41.9%).

What Does This All Tell Us?

As stated above, UNC’s poor field goal percentage away from home is the thing we should be most concerned about. If that trend continues into tournament season, when every game is played away from home, it could spell disaster. But aside from that, there’s not much to suggest that UNC is fundamentally a different team. If anything, the main takeaway is that UNC has played an incredibly difficult schedule to date. Indeed, UNC ranks #1 in strength of schedule thus far.

In short, the season isn’t over because of a loss to a conference team on the road in January. Now, if the Heels lay an egg at home this Saturday...well, we might need to at least break the glass on the panic button.