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How UNC Basketball Got Here: Coaching Philosophy

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Part 4 of our series examining the factors of how UNC’s season reached this point.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Last month, Al Hood and I broke down three major reasons for UNC’s struggles this year. You can find those at the links below:

How UNC Basketball Got Here: Early Departures
How UNC Basketball Got Here: Recruiting
How UNC Basketball Got Here: Injuries

At the time, we played around with another reason for the struggles – Roy Williams’ coaching philosophy. I tabled those thoughts to give the season more time to play out and avoid climbing aboard the Hot Take Train that passes through Chapel Hill every late-December to mid-January. Now just five games away from the end of the regular season, a more complete body of work exists for evaluation.

To keep this civil, (unlike social media, message boards, and this site’s comment sections the past few weeks), we’ll give a brief background digging into the UNC system and then examine how this season might be contributed to some of those factors. Chad, Al, and I also discussed this topic on this site’s podcast Between the Banners. You can listen, download, or subscribe to that specific episode (and others!), by clicking....here.

Tempo and Defense

Roy is, and always has been, a system coach. He has his methods, recruits players to fit his philosophy, and develops them. This style of coaching is not unusual. It provides a foundational structure and sets shared understanding of expectations. Most importantly, his system has worked.

The tenets of that system are no secret and the end-state is simple: Cram as many possessions as possible into a 40-minute game. Thus, it is inherent for his players to play free of multiple set plays and shot-clock draining possession while avoiding constantly looking at the sideline for a call.

Instead, making the correct, quick, and/or timely reads is critical to success, and that takes time to learn. That method has been largely successful, as UNC has ranked in the top-25 in KenPom’s Adjusted Tempo metric in 13 out of 17 years that Williams has been back in Chapel Hill. Interestingly, the four seasons they fell out of the top-25 were 2016 (60th), 2017 (40th), 2018 (46th), and this season (60th).

Theat emphasis on tempo also requires an offense that seems basic, but is more complicated than most realize. Relying on ball-screens, off-ball screens, down screens, slipped screens, dribble hand-offs, big-to-big passing, hi-lo connections, backscreen lobs, backdoor cuts, spacing, high assist rates and transition buckets, the UNC system skews toward rewarding elite-athleticism (Brandan Wright, Harrison Barnes), high basketball IQ (Luke Maye, Cam Johnson), or both (Ty Lawson). Under Roy, that mixture of tempo, athleticism, and basketball IQ has ranked UNC in KenPom’s top-50 of Adjusted Offensive Efficiency 15 times, in the top-20 12 times, and the top-10 nine times. Those top-10 seasons include a four year stretch from 2016-2019.

Part of that success, however, is also due to the increasingly maligned defensive philosophy. North Carolina’s base “22” defense is predicated on defending high in passing lanes, pressuring the ball, and providing help two passes away. They defend ball screens with a mixture of hard and soft hedges that require the point guard to fight through contact at the point of attack so the post can recover quickly on the roll man. The basic premise is to force quick shots or bad passes, and turn those steals or defensive rebounds into quick transition buckets. That helps increase the tempo, creating more shot volume, usually leading to more made shots.

Some argue that kind of defense is too old to be effective, harkening back to a time when most teams played with two-big men, and before the scoring point guard and stretch-fours dominated the landscape. That’s not completely accurate, though. It just requires a combination of tenacious on-the-ball defense, length/athleticism on the wing to deny passing lanes and hit the glass, and a pair of shot-altering bigs in the paint to deter constant penetration (and thus, reduce the number of kick-outs).

Again, using KenPom’s metrics, the Heels have finished in the top-20 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency on nine different occasions. The most recent seasons? Those would be 2017 (#15) and 2019 (#11). This season is the first time that the Heels will likely finish below the top-50 in that metric with Williams at the helm. There goes that narrative.

A downside to that defense is that it can give up easy looks at the basket, both from two and three, but the past 17 seasons say that is largely an overblown criticism. North Carolina has ranked inside the top-100 in three-point defense a mere six times in the Williams era. They’ve ranked in the top-50 just three times. Every defense has a risk-reward factor, and Williams’ has largely been very successful – even in today’s three-point dominant environment.

What does that mean for this season?

Early in the season, it was clear this team was going to take time to learn UNC’s system (at best), or struggle to ever find cohesion due to lack of experience or talent (at worst). For 16 years, we have watched teams struggle in November and December, only to gel from January-April. If you were one to call for patience (I’m guilty), you had history supporting you. The coaching staff seemed to buy into that theory as well.

However, as the injuries piled up and then Cole Anthony tore his meniscus, the coaching staff was arguably slow to react to a new reality. Without personnel to execute the program’s primary tenets, and already lacking the talents of previous teams (as Roy memorably reminded us after the Georgia Tech fiasco), it was difficult to notice any significant adjustments. The results have been borderline unbelievable and adjustments, if made, have been short lived. There are two ways to look at this season’s events.

Either Roy should stick to his guns and let the processes that worked over an entire career stay in place, or Roy should have made significant alterations to the offense and defense to highlight strengths and mitigate weaknesses. The problems with both arguments are that both are easier said than done.

Was Roy outcoached by Brad Brownell, Jeff Capel, Mike Young, Jim Christian, Coach K, and most recently, Mike Brey? Maybe. How else can you explain the inexplicable second-half collapses and surrendered double-digit leads? It’s easy to point to the absurd amount of bad bounces and last-second shots, but the adventures to get to those points are patterns, not anomalies.

Clemson ran circles around UNC in overtime, not to mention the game-tying play design for the three-pointer that tied the game. Somehow, Pittsburgh never allowed UNC to get within striking distance in their second meeting despite only scoring one field goal in the final 15 minutes. The Heels seemed incapable of slowing the game down on offense or defense against Virginia Tech, Duke, and Notre Dame, instead relying on their typical man-to-man defense and fast paced offense that constantly disappears in close situations. Poor shot selection and blown defensive assignments ensued.

Why didn’t K.J. Smith get a little more burn when Cole and Jeremiah Francis were out, allowing Leaky’s defensive and rebounding abilities to slide to the wing? What was the harm throwing in junk zone defenses, or even a version of Dean Smith’s point zone, to wrestle some sort of control on the defensive end? How does Anthony hoist a 25-foot last second prayer against Boston College, despite the Heels owning three timeouts?

Against Duke, isn’t a 24-foot three-point attempt from Tre Jones preferred over multiple drives and fouls at the hoop? How, at this point in the season, is a ball-screen and contested three-point shot still UNC’s go-to move with the shot clock winding down? Why didn’t UNC attack Notre Dame’s Nate Laszewski after he picked up his fourth foul with 5:55 remaining? For the love of God, at what point do they stop leaving a hot and confident shooter alone in the corner? (Looking at you, Tomas Woldetensae).

These are plenty of valid questions. Some have answers. Some do not. Some require context that only the coaching staff has. That’s fine. But what cannot be disputed is that whatever context exists away from our line of sight doesn’t change the fact that the product has suffered.

However, the flip side to that argument is that Roy has made efforts this year to stop the bleeding.

UNC played a zone defense for long stretches against Pittsburgh, forcing the aforementioned scoring drought, but couldn’t score on the other end. Against Virginia Tech, Roy shook his head in disbelief when Francis and Black could not initiate a last-second shot attempt in the first overtime, DESPITE calling a timeout to draw up a play. The coaches didn’t miss four free throws in the final 71 seconds against Duke, or throw the ball away against Clemson’s press. (As we dissected at the time, UNC woefully failed to execute in that collapse).

The truth is, the coaching staff has tried to make subtle changes without overhauling their entire philosophy. The incoming talent infusion will be more suited to Roy’s preferred style. With approximately half of the team returning next season, lessons learned this season will carry over to next season. Overreacting in this season can harm next season’s progress. That continuity is what separates UNC from other short-lived success stories.

Basketball isn’t like football where the staff has 30 seconds to decide on a play. There is a fluidity to basketball that requires some freedom that can’t always be easily fixed with a quick schematic change. Sometimes it’s as simple as players must make plays, and UNC just has not made enough. A few coaching decisions may have changed one or two games, but they would not have altered the trajectory of this season.

What’s Next?

With the evolution of the game, there is an argument to be made that UNC’s overall philosophy could use tweaks. Is their “21” defense better suited to today’s game? Is the 2-post offense the best way to attract eventual NBA talent? That’s fine and well. As players evolve and skillsets change, there is a conversation to be had.

That debate, however, is not the cause of this season. And, as evidenced earlier, the overall defensive and offensive results have been successful. UNC has kept chugging along through the small-ball and hybrid-forward revolution.

Instead, this team lacks overall talent, experience, and/or basketball I.Q. that are required not just in UNC’s system, but in any basketball system. These Heels have the skillset of a senior-laden mid-major team, without the experience of playing together for four years, or the ability to play for a full 40-minutes against anybody. That was before the injuries devastated the rotation. Throw in some questionable officiating and unlucky bounces of the ball, and this season has been a perfect storm of heartbreaking.

At this point, the best-case scenario is the team finds some form of continuity, improve over the final five regular season games, and get hot in the ACC tournament. Is that likely? No. It is not. Nothing we have witnessed should give us any confidence that a surprise run is in this team’s future.

But this is college basketball. If there is a tip-off to be played, anything is possible.