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A comprehensive guide to the 2018 NCAA Tournament, and what it says about UNC

A Redditor’s monumental effort is making the rounds online, so here’s a look at its insight regarding this year’s Tar Heels

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Four Practice Brian Spurlock -USA TODAY Sports

So often, we see and hear things on the internet that make us despair for humanity. Just as often, though, there are things that remind us of people’s limitless potential, and right now, that thing is this 150-page guide to this year’s NCAA Tournament, which was written and posted to the subreddit r/collegebasketball by the user /u/eise87.

It’s a phenomenal collection of data, both historical and from this year, that distills every team in the tournament into tendencies that might help them win or might make them a candidate to lose early. What it has to say about Roy Williams and UNC, both as a force of recent history and as a tournament contender this year is nothing short of a reminder of how thankful we should be for Roy Williams’ tenure as UNC’s head coach, and the excellent job he’s done particularly this year.

First, the seeding data, which we have already gone over in pieces here at Tar Heel Blog:

  • UNC is favored by 19.5 points over Lipscomb, which is the 3rd biggest margin among #2 seeds (Duke and Purdue are favored by over 20).
  • The average of advanced ranking metrics has UNC as the 7th best team in the country, meaning that they are slightly underseeded based on a strict S-curve.
  • UNC has never lost in the first round.
  • UNC, as a #2 seed, is expected to win 2.33 games in the tournament.

After this, here’s some pretty amazing historical Roy Williams data:

A notable name is missing from this list...

Since 2003, Roy Williams has overperformed seed expectations more than any other coach, and it’s not even particularly close. He wins nearly a game more than he is supposed to per tournament. That is truly remarkable. His closest competition is John Calipari, and Calipari’s record, unlike Williams’, is buoyed by one particular team (2014) that massively overperformed expectations, taking an 8th seed all the way to the championship game as one of the most talented teams in the country finally found a way to gel. Williams hasn’t had anything like that; he’s just consistently been excellent. Even more remarkably, Williams has maintained this record with more tournament appearances than all but one of his contemporaries (Tom Izzo has not missed a tournament in this timeframe, while Williams missed one in 2010), while playing in the toughest tournament in the country. He does this while having easily the highest average seed of this top 15. Again, Williams shows himself as the model of consistent excellence.

The recent numbers paint a similar picture, though Williams doesn’t quite pace the pack like he does over his career at Carolina:

Oh, there he is! Kind of...

While Williams’ 5th place ranking here, in a PASE ranking of the last five years may seem initially less impressive than the more complete ranking above, it is important to note context. Syracuse leads the pack because of their magical 2016, where they made the Final Four as an 11 seed that might not have even belonged in the tournament. Florida’s second-place ranking is entirely determined by one above-average appearance. Calipari, again, is buoyed by 2014. I do not mean to say that Boeheim and Calipari’s achievements during those runs should be minimized. It’s just that those performances are harder to replicate: Note that among the coaches in that top 5 who have been in more than one tournament, only Williams has not significantly underperformed to seed. Again, consistent excellence, even in the face of adversity. He may not have the same Cinderella stories that get people talking, but that’s because when his teams are good, they’re good all year long. It’s things like this that give Williams a legitimate claim to being the best coach in college basketball.

Here’s what the document has to say about this UNC team in particular, as well as the teams who will play alongside it in the West region:

We can see from the first chart that UNC is, by some distance, the best offensive team in the West. They seem to be a tier below several of the teams in the region on defense, though, a detail that we can confirm just from watching. However, they’re still in very good shape thanks to their explosiveness.

The shot chart tells some interesting stories, both on offense and on defense. On offense, we see a very good three-point shooting team, which shoots well from just about everywhere beyond the arc - except for from the right corner. This will frustrate fans of basketball analytics, who will know that the corner 3 is supposed to be the most efficient shot in basketball (though the left corner is slightly more so), but it is what it is, and we have seen Tar Heels struggle from the right corner all year. UNC has also been a very good team around the rim despite not having anybody who consistently plays above the rim, which is a testament to the skill and coaching on display with this team. The midrange area is pretty average, except for the area just inside the left wing. This is one of Joel Berry’s preferred spots on the primary break and one of Luke Maye’s primary shooting spots in spot-up situations, and it is not surprising to see that area of the court yielding positive results for the Heels.

The defensive side is pretty average all around, with a couple of notable points. One big conclusion from the defensive shot chart is that UNC does not fare well around the rim on defense, owing in part to the lack of an above-the-rim presence on the floor. Sterling Manley can provide that, and to a lesser extent Garrison Brooks can as well (Brooks is a stronger defender overall, but doesn’t have the length or timing of Manley as a rim protector), but both will be freshmen in their first NCAA Tournament action and it is difficult to predict how much they can be trusted to play at their best. Both dribble-drive penetration and elite big men have hurt Carolina around the rim this season. Roy Williams will not want to get beat in the paint in this tournament, so look for this to be a point of emphasis. UNC’s perimeter defense has been pretty average, which might surprise some who have decried the team’s woeful three-point defense, but consider that this particular frustration is just as much about volume as it is about efficiency. Funnily enough, the Heels’ midrange defense has been elite. Forcing midrange jumpers is always the best option for a defense short of a turnover, but it seems that for UNC it’s especially so.

There are two things about this final profile that stick out to me, as the raw stats and even the advanced stats are things that we’ve been talking about all season. The first is the efficiency tracker over time, those graphs with the circles and triangles. They very succinctly tell the story of UNC’s season: This team has won games with offense; only once has the team lost when their offensive efficiency was above average. The offense has been pretty consistent all season, with a few stinkers cluttered throughout, although there was a late trend downwards as the team began to feel the wear and tear of the ACC Tournament. Defensively, we see a fairly worrying trend: the team’s defense got steadily worse as the year went on. Fortunately, there’s some reason for optimism, because until the Virginia game, the team put on a series of defensive clinics during the ACC Tournament. Even against UVA, the team’s defense wasn’t bad; UVA just hit a lot of very tough shots. The team’s defensive efficiency, which was once rated lower than 50 by Ken Pomeroy, enters the Big Dance at a more respectable, and more importantly can-win-with-this-able, 34th in the country.

The second is the shot attempts statistics, portrayed by the bar graphs. UNC again acquits itself well on offense, but, in a rare occurrence for a Roy Williams team, struggles in transition, being at the 35th percentile in the nation in transition efficiency. This is particularly worrying given that the team ostensibly fields a lineup where every starter can take the ball up the floor in transition scenarios. The team also doesn’t score at the rim as much as a typical Williams team, though this is more explainable given the team’s guard-heavy makeup. When they do get to the rim, the team is very good because they create open looks, but they aren’t meant to bang around under the basket.

Defensively, the story is rather encouraging: UNC limits attempts around the basket as well as anybody in the country. Cynics might say that this is because of a high volume of attempted (and often open/lightly contested) three-point shots, and while there might be some truth to that, a guard-heavy team not giving quarter on the inside is something to take pride in. All UNC needs to do now is start forcing shooters off their spot instead of over-helping on drives to the basket. UNC has also limited transition opportunities extremely well, which is important because they are awful at transition defense (to be fair, the transition opportunities this team tends to give up tend to be of the live-ball turnover/nobody to beat type, as opposed to the defense has a chance type they often exploit on the other end). The team’s halfcourt defense, however, is generally pretty good, making it even more important for the offense to limit turnovers. This will be tested early against Lipscomb, who employ an active, turnover-hungry defense.

This has been a quick-hit recap of most of the UNC-relevant information in the packet, but if you have the time, I highly suggest combing through everything this document has to offer UNC fans. Some things I left out include records against Vegas and predicted ability to beat the spread, offensive efficiency on different play types, and seed matchup stats. It’s worth the admittedly daunting effort.

Welcome to March, everybody. Go Heels!