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Three Things to Watch: UNC at Wofford

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If the Heels want to get revenge, here are three ways they can do it

NCAA Basketball: Wofford at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Finally. It’s here. The start of the college basketball season. First up for the Heels? Hopefully some revenge against the Wofford Terriers. You may remember that the Terriers came into Chapel Hill last season and earned a stunning upset victory. It was arguably the worst home loss in Roy Williams’ UNC tenure.

Now the new season is just hours away. Let’s kick it off with the season’s first rendition of Three Things to Watch.

Points in the Paint

Everyone is going to drool over Fletcher Magee, Wofford’s deadly three-point assassin. That’s all well and good, but most would be surprised to learn that UNC did not lose to Wofford because of some extraordinary performance from Mr. Magee. He was a pedestrian 4-12 from three, and finished with 27 points on 27 shots. As a team, Wofford was only 7-22 from deep.

UNC lost to the Terriers, in large part, because they could not control the paint. More specifically, they could not contain Cameron Jackson. A fifth-year senior this season, Jackson finished last year’s game with 18 points, 9 rebounds, 6 blocks, and 3 steals. Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Luke Maye have to be better around the basket, both on offense and defense. The rest of the Heels have to help rebound from the perimeter, and attack the basket for high-percentage shots to keep the pressure on the Terrier front line.

The struggles of UNC’s post game were so noticeable, I pointed in out in last year’s Three Things Learned. If you don’t want to read about it, the following two tweets from @dadgumboxscores give a brief synopsis.

Who Steps Up?

Last year, when the Heels needed a basket, Joel Berry took the ball and tried to make a play. Later in the season, Theo Pinson took on some of those responsibilities. They’re both gone, and UNC doesn’t have an established hierarchy quite yet. Against a pesky mid-major, on the road, in the first game of the season, knowing who gets the ball in crunch time is not a small detail.

That is a specifically troubling detail against Wofford. Only Joel Berry and Luke Maye made a basket in the final 14:31 of last year’s game. Part of that was the overdependence on Berry in a close game, and part of that was the rest of the roster shrinking from the moment.

It shouldn’t be a “problem” this year, per se. Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams now have a year playing with each other. That’s a major difference from last year when Maye was still getting used to being a full-time starter and Wofford was Johnson’s first game in Carolina blue.

Nonetheless, if Terriers are still hanging around when the refs stop play at the under-8 media timeout the pressure will be on Coby White and Seventh Woods to get the ball in the hands of the right players.

Get to the Line

This third topic probably requires its own dedicated article, exploring the intricacies of foul shooting, but we’ll keep it brief for today.

In general, when coaches look at the box score, the free throws made and attempted are among the first stats they look at it. There’s a common belief that if a team makes more free throws than their opponent attempts, then that team will usually win. UNC has not accomplished this mark over an entire season since 2011-2012. Below are the differences in the past seven years between UNC’s made free throws and their opponent’s attempts

2017-18: -94
2016-17: -102
2015-2016: -107
2014-2015: -272
2013-2014: -252
2012-2013: -139
2011-2012: +100

There could be numerous reasons for this trend. A transition to a perimeter-oriented game may have put UNC’s more traditional lineup at a disadvantage on the perimeter, thus causing the Heels to foul more often. Scoring points guards Marcus Paige and Joel Berry may have meant a heavier reliance on outside shooting and less opportunities at the rim. The Heels also haven’t had a front court with dual first round NBA Draft picks since Tyler Zeller and John Henson to control the paint (apologies to Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks).

Regardless of the reasons, it’s a noticeable pattern. It will bear watching early in the season.

(In full transparency, this did not work out in the Heels’ favor last year when they were 28-38 from the line and Wofford was 16-18. Whether that was a statistical anomaly, I’m not sure. If anyone has data to refute this conventional thinking, please educate me. I did not find anything definitive)