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UNC vs Alabama: Three Things Learned

Pace of play. Rim protection. Assist problems.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Alabama at North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the Heels earned another sloppy but hard fought victory in the Bahamas against Alabama. As expected, we all learned a few things as UNC slowly gets to as close as full strength as they will be this season. On this Thanksgiving Day, we’ll get right to the right point and dive into three things that stood out in the first game at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Different style of play?

UNC’s fast pace system isn’t in danger of being abandoned. The Heels will try to push the pace, as their philosophy is that more possessions equals more shots, and shot volume is important to scoring points. That logic has proven to be very successful.

However, through five games the Heels have not cracked 80 points while keeping all opponents from reaching the 70 point barrier. It’s been a shock for fans, many of whom are struggling to determine realistic expectations for this season. This is a team that arguably has not displayed the athleticism, experience, and consistent outside shooting necessary to play at the speeds of previous Roy Williams teams. At just 16 seconds per possession, per KenPom, the Heels are playing at slower speeds not seen in Chapel Hill since 2015.

Meanwhile, their defense has not allowed an opponent to average more than 0.89 points per possession. Their current AdjD of 87.5 would be their stingiest defense since Ken Pomeroy began tracking that metric. Averaging 5.6 steals and 4.4 blocks per game, the ability to mix and match different players at multiple positions has led to opponent frustration, scoring droughts, and overall poor shooting (35.5% on the season).

As any UNC fan knows, the offense is unlikely to stay in this kind of rut and we’ll probably address this issue again in the coming weeks, but it may be time to start contemplating a UNC team that is a little slower and a little “uglier” this season.

Rim Protection

Part of the defensive effectiveness can be attributed to the return of a true two-post lineup (and yes, partially due to the level of competition). Through five games, the Heels haven’t recorded fewer than three blocks on any given night/afternoon. They have also only given up more than 30 points in the paint just one time. That was against UNC-Wilmington when Armando Bacot left with concussion-like symptoms in the first half.

We have sung, and will continue to sing, Garrison Brooks’ praises for his defensive abilities, but Bacot has been just as important on the defensive end. Even when they don’t block a shot attempt, both players are constantly altering shots. Brooks discipline to stay on his feet and “wall off” other players should be required viewing for every high school recruit. Bacot complements that with his wing span and timing, like when he forced Bama guard Kira Lewis Jr. to shoot it over the backboard.


Their ability to make life difficult in the paint, has also freed up Cole Anthony and Christian Keeling. That duo has a combined six blocks, usually by helping and recovering after Brooks and Bacot have stymied any momentum.

Assistance Please

Just 15 of UNC’s 29 made field goals came off an assist. That’s a rather paltry assist rate for a program that prides itself on sharing the rock. Sure, there were missed lay-ups, dunks, well-intended passes, drops, and turnovers. Yes, the team is still finding it’s groove and adding Brandon Robinson back into the lineup may take a few games. And, fine, it is just the fifth game.

All of those are reasonable explanations.

However, on the season, UNC has recorded 81 assists on 138 attempts. Averaging 16.2 assists per game with an assist rate of 58.7% may seem “good” but there’s cause for concern. They have not averaged fewer than 18.1 assists per game in the past three years. Of course, pure averages can be deceptive, so it’s worth pointing out that their overall assist rate has fluctuated between 58.8% and 60.9% in that same time. Not bad, right?


Against their two major conference opponents, Notre Dame and Alabama, that rate drops down to just 53.5%. In those two contests, just 30 of 56 field goals were assisted. It’s a situation that is nuanced and probably requires a deeper dive than what this analysis is meant for. For now, just have fun watching this situation evolve in the coming weeks as the team continues to gel.