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UNC Basketball: Rebounding Woes

A tough loss to long and athletic Kentucky shines a bright light on UNC’s “short”-comings.

NCAA Basketball: CBS Sports Classic-North Carolina at Kentucky Jordan Godfree-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina has lost three games now this season. The two most recent ones to Connecticut and Kentucky had something in common: double-digit deficits in rebounding.

Rebounding against bigger teams has shown itself to be a problem, one painfully acute to Tar Heel fans raised in the church of Roy Williams. Carolina wins, Carolina loses. But they never get dismantled on the boards.

How to fix it? That’s a problem that will likely come with heavy trade-offs. The offense has gotten much more efficient with RJ Davis and Elliot Cadeau running together, but they’re small. And none of the posts on the bench are good enough to push Harrison Ingram to the three spot. So the sled mushes forward with shorter lead dogs.

I don’t like when Hubert Davis gets asked about improving team rebounding and he says the players have to have more “toughness” or “want to.” It’s a bit of a cop out when they are set up to fail.

HD runs a starting line-up consisting of two small point guards (6’ and 6’1”), a 6’5” wing, a 6’7” point forward, and Armando Bacot. Compare that to last year’s team that had 6’ RJ Davis paired with 6’4” Caleb Love, 6’9” Leaky Black in the swingman role, 6’11” Pete Nance at power forward, and Armando Bacot.

This year’s team can “want to” all they want, but they’re still collectively 11 inches smaller than last year’s team. That’s a pretty big discrepancy when it comes to trying to win a rebounding battle.

Against Kentucky, they went up against a starting line up that featured 6’4” guard D.J. Wagner 6’6” guard Antonio Reeves, 6’8” wing Justin Edwards, 6’9” forward Tre Mitchell, and 7’1” center Aaron Bradshaw. Carolina was outsized at every single position on the floor.

This puts pressure on the team in two different ways. It forces small guys to compete with bigger guys to grab boards and give Carolina more possessions. It also stresses shooters, because when shots aren’t going in, the Heels can quickly find themselves in quicksand.

In the four most recent potential Quad-1 games, there’s a direct correlation between a bad rebounding night and a bad shooting night:

In the overtime loss to Villanova, UNC actually out-rebounded the Wildcats by five, but Villanova shot an outrageous 32/36 free throws (compared to Carolina’s 16/23 performance from the charity strip... should’ve won that game).

Carolina was soundly beaten by UConn, but only lost by four to Kentucky. For Carolina to survive games where they lose the rebounding battle, they simply must shoot better and cannot squander points on the free throw line.

Armando Bacot is greatly improved in that respect, shooting 78.3% so far this season having never eclipsed 70% his previous four years. RJ Davis cruelly had a 41 made free throws streak come to an end in Atlanta:

Cormac Ryan is shooting 92% from the line so far, but probably isn’t getting to the line enough. The most improvement needs to come from Harrison Ingram (61%) and Elliot Cadeau (54.5%).

Simply put, if Carolina shoots a lower percentage like they did against UConn and Kentucky, they have to win the rebounding battle to have more shots than the opposition. If not, expect some more losses due to the size differential.

See ya later, Big Grits.