As the off-season for UNC basketball begins it’s infancy, most fans have come to terms with the conclusion of the 2017-18 season. It’s not enjoyable and still a little surprising, but most of us have continued with our daily lives. Judging from Theo Pinson’s tweet earlier this week, he and Joel Berry II certainly aren’t dwelling on their final game.
So, now with time to reflect, it’s fair to ask the question. Did UNC overachieve this past season?
It’s a sentiment that has been mentioned on social media, message boards, and in the comments on this website. At a school where Final Four runs are more of a demand than an expectation, a second round exit probably doesn’t feel like overachieving. Certainly not as a #2 seed, and especially under Roy Williams who has overwhelmingly seen his tournament teams play “to seed”. I wasn’t immune and shared some thoughts on twitter, which became the basis for this post.
Entering the season, this team was rife with questions. Who would handle duties in the post? What kind of development could be expected of Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley, and Garrison Brooks? Was there a player to help Berry on the offensive end? Would Joel spend some time as the two guard? Would Cam Johnson’s arrival institute a more guard-oriented lineup? Was Jalek Felton as good as advertised? Could Luke Maye handle an increased workload?
The questions were all valid. The Heels lost over 60% of last year’s offensive production. Four of last season’s top 6 players belong to an NBA team, and three of them (Isaiah Hicks, Justin Jackson, and Tony Bradley) have logged minutes in NBA games. The fourth, Kennedy Meeks, has found consistent success in the G-League for the team that currently is first place the Eastern Conference standings. Two of those players, Jackson and Bradley, were first-round draft picks. Jackson was also a First Team All-American, ACC Player of the Year, and set the single season record for most three-pointers by a Tar Heel in a single season. Injuries to Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson meant that Joel Berry was the only returning player who started for the entire 2016-2017 season.
Take a second and really let all of that sink in. We’ve paid it lip service all year long, but the last time the Heels lost that much talent in an off-season was after 2012’s Elite Eight run. The following season, the 2012-2013 Heels stumbled to an #8 seed. These Heels promptly responded with their best post-championship season under Roy Williams, and the #2 Seed in Charlotte. If you wanted to debate this was Roy’s best coaching job since he returned to Chapel Hill, I’d co-sign that sentiment.
There’s a strong argument that much of this was done with a little smoke and a few mirrors. Roy Williams was forced to trade his preferred traditional system for a perimeter-oriented lineup that too often relied on three point shooting. That lineup then struggled on the defensive end, becoming the worst perimeter defending team in Williams’ career. North Carolina ranked dead last in all of Division-I in three-pointers allowed (940) and three-pointers made (357). Opponents shot 40% or better from three in 12 games. North Carolina lost 6 of those contests. It even necessitated a change in defensive philosophy, and required more opponent-specific scheming. We covered those issues here, and here.
Consistent, experienced, and productive depth was another deficiency. The entire bench was comprised of freshmen and sophomores. With Felton’s withdrawal from school for reasons that have never been made public and Seventh Woods’ mid-season injury that derailed what had begun as an encouraging sophomore campaign, an effective back-up point guard never emerged. Nor was there a viable shooting guard to come off the bench and give Kenny Williams or Cameron Johnson extended rest. Every starter played more than 29 minutes a game, and only two reserves averaged double-digit minutes. Manley finished with a dead even 10.0 mpg and despite starting for half the season, Brooks only reached 14.6.
This roster also didn’t have a true “playmaker”, but instead had players that could “make plays”. There was not an above the rim, athletic player who could take over a game or an inside-outside threat that forced the opposition to focus additional defensive efforts in order to slow him down. These Heels couldn’t consistently break down a defender and get to the rim or create their own shot without a screen or an assist — a stat that is partially supported by the fact that 275 of 304 made three-pointers, 90.5%, came off an assist.
Previous top Carolina teams had the top-end speed of Felton or Lawson, the inside-outside explosiveness of Barnes, Marcus Paige’s surgical dissection of defenses through the lane, and Jackson’s three point/floater combo that forced opponents to pick their poison.
Regardless of Luke Maye and Kenny Williams’ growth and improvement, they fought through limitations that could render them one-dimensional. Cam Johnson continued to develop into a three-level scorer but, more often than not, he exploited holes in the defense instead of creating them.
Not to mention that for all of his talent, determination and propensity to hit big shots, a 6’0” Joel Berry often required high ball screens and a barrage of threes to help UNC remain competitive. Without a constant rotation of big men in the paint to occupy the defense, his shooting efficiency dropped to career-lows at both the rim (51.7%) and behind the arc (34.4%). In turn, his role as go-to scorer led to his lowest assist total since his freshman year. Note: The shooting percentage stats in the previous paragraphs are from hoop-math.com.
To compensate, the coaching staff added another tweak. Theo Pinson became a secondary point guard and primary facilitator. His inconsistent jump shot kept Pinson from truly being a triple-threat this team desperately missed, but his length caused mismatches at the top of the key and his court vision was instrumental in decimating zones. It’s hard ignore that Pinson’s versatility rescued the season the season. He finished with 5.1 assists per game, thanks to an absurd 6.4 apg average over the last 14 games in February and March. Unfortunately, that was all just a Band-Aid to cover a wound that never fully healed.
Throughout the season, these flaws were painfully obvious. The lack of a traditional rim protector wreaked havoc on defensive assignments and rotations. The lack of an interior offensive threat allowed physical and/or longer teams (Michigan State, Florida State, Texas A&M) to extend their defense outside the arc, making UNC uncomfortable and forcing them to put the ball on the ground and/or settle for jump shots. The lack of depth meant North Carolina was literally running on fumes by the end of the season.
Luke Maye saw his production drop off late in his first season as a full-time starter. Battling with men three inches and/or 20 pounds heavier finally took it’s toll. Though he averaged 16.9 ppg for the season, he only scored more than 14 points twice in the final nine games.
Additionally, over the final seven games Berry’s outside shooting dipped to 14-55 from three, a mere 25%. In six post-season games, Kenny Williams only made more than 2 three-pointers once — against Lipscomb. He accomplished that feat 12 times in 31 regular season games.
As UNC fans, we have all truly been spoiled over the last two seasons. When the Heels stepped on the court, you knew it was going to take the other team’s absolute best effort to leave with a victory. Sometimes, even a “C+” game from the Heels would beat some bottom-dwelling ACC team. That was not the case this season.
Instead this team was usually a case of, “If they do this, and this, AND this...they have a chance to win”. That’s how they defeated Duke twice, but struggled at Clemson and against Texas A&M. These Heels could not just flip an on/off switch. Every single game required nothing less than an A effort. That’s a lot to ask of any team, regardless of how we romanticize how the game “should be played” in our Ivory Twitter Towers.
Nonetheless, with all of those flaws, North Carolina still tied for 3rd in the ACC and finished ranked in the Top 10. They earned 26 wins against the nation’s toughest schedule. Their 22 “quadrant 1” games and 14 “quadrant 1” wins were more than anyone in the country. Those accomplishments were all achieved with the “reigning national champions” target on their back. If anything, this season was a testament to their ability to constantly adapt and overcome.
Along the way, Berry and Luke Maye were both named 1st Team All-ACC selections and 3rd Team All-Americans (Berry by the NABC and Maye by Sporting News and USA Today). They averaged 81.6 points per game and had a top-10 offense by every conceivable metric. Not to mention, UNC led the country in total assists with a 6’0 lead guard running the show AND total rebounds, despite not having one starter taller than 6’8.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment of this season, was not that the Heels came up short of a fourth consecutive Sweet 16, but that they made us believe that a third Final Four was even a possibility. Looking back over the flaws and holes in the team, I still don’t know how they did it.
We could not, and should not, have asked for anything more than what they gave us this season.
Did this UNC team overachieve? Yes. Unquestionably.
There is nothing wrong with that.