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UNC Basketball: A historical look at UNC’s fast start

UNC’s fast start feels special. It feels different. That’s because it’s both.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at North Carolina Evan Pike-USA TODAY Sports

Your North Carolina Tar Heels have started the year with 10 wins and 1 loss. Only two UNC teams in the Roy Williams Era have had a better start to a season. The 2008 Final Four participants and the 2009 NCAA champs both raced off to 18-0 and 13-0 records before they endured their first losses.

Two UNC teams have also reached a 10-1 record during Roy’s time. Both the 2005 NCAA champions who started 14-1 (damn you Santa Clara!) and the 2006-07 Elite Eight Squad (15-1) had a similar start.

That’s some serious company to keep at UNC.

The best part is that most people didn’t truly expect this kind of start from these Heels. Questions hounded the team throughout the offseason. Would Justin Jackson find a consistent stroke? Was Tony Bradley really as good as advertised? Can Kenny make the leap? Is Joel Berry one of the best PGs in the country? Theo is coming back, right!? Who can replace Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige? Yet, there were very few definitive answers. Just a lot of hope and slowly healing heartache.

Now, we all have a little bit of clarity. At the very least, we are all breathing a little easier. There hasn’t been a loss to a surprise "lesser" team (Northern Iowa, Santa Clara, UNLV). Dominant performances like Maui, have largely overshadowed shaky, undermanned, moments against Davidson. Every game is a choose your own adventure of who which Tar Heel will grab the spotlight. There isn't a malcontent on the squad. Bodies are sliding across the court. Roy is going 11 deep on the bench.

Shockingly, this year has been really....fun.

However, I was curious how good this year’s start really was. While completely acknowledging that 11 games is a small sample, and the quality of opponents change from year to year, it’s always entertaining to compare past seasons to one another. Below is a table showing the all the records of Roy’s previous UNC teams through 11 games.

2003-04 9-2 2010-11 7-4
2004-05 10-1 2011-12 9-2
2005-06 9-2 2012-13 8-3
2006-07 10-1 2013-14 8-3
2007-08 11-0 2014-15 8-3
2008-09 11-0 2015-16 9-2
2009-10 8-3 2016-17 10-1

Two things stood out immediately.

First, Heels fans are an extremely spoiled fan base. The WORST start in the past 14 seasons was 7-4. That’s comical. Remember that next time UNC loses a close game on the road, like Indiana.

Second, this is the best start, through 11 games, since 2009. That was eye-opening. Sure, a few season of 8-3 and an occasional 9-2 are nothing to sneeze at. But look at that run from 2004 to 2009.

During Roy's first six seasons, the overall record through the first 11 games each season (66 games total), was 60-6. In the eight seasons since that 2009 title run, the overall record through the first 11 games of the season (88 games total) is 67-21. That means using this very specific metric, since Hansbrough and company earned UNC’s 6th collegiate championship, UNC has only won seven more games, despite playing 22 extra times.

However, records are only one small, skewed statistic. Below is another table showing two other data points- average points scored and allowed per game. One major caveat to this: every prior season’s numbers are for that entire season, not just the first 11 games. Still, it’s still interesting to look at some numbers to keep an eye on.

Season Points Scored/Game Points Allowed/Game
2003-04 82.1 74.8
2004-05 88.0 70.3
2005-06 79.4 68.6
2006-07 85.7 68.6
2007-08 88.6 72.5
2008-09 89.8 72.0
2009-10 74.5 71.9
2010-11 77.5 68.8
2011-12 81.3 67.1
2012-13 76.7 69.2
2013-14 76.6 69.8
2014-15 77.7 68.8
2015-16 82.8 70
2016-17 88.0 (thru 11 games) 66.4 (thru 11 games)

Again, a few numbers popped out. Through 11 games, UNC has achieved their third highest points scored per game average since Roy arrived. Only those 2008 and 2009 teams scored more. Barely. With the exception of last year, the Heels are on pace to score 10 more points per game than any other seasons since 2009.

Additionally, the praise the defense has received has been well-deserved. At their current pace, UNC is positioned to allow the fewest points per game in the past 14 years. While these numbers are a little closer throughout the seasons, it’s still a promising development. Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee and even Davidson aren’t exactly cupcakes.

UNC has played challenging competition, though admittedly, the ACC is seriously loaded this season. I’m not naïve enough to expect these numbers will stay at their current levels. However, if past seasons are an indicator, that thought isn’t completely insane. The early signs are encouraging for future success. It's perhaps even more impressive when you consider UNC's point guard missed the last two games. Nor can we truly know the impact that Theo would have had, or what impact he will have when he returns.

With Kentucky looming on Saturday, it’s still too early to truly compare this year’s team to some of the UNC’s best. They could easily leave Sin City with a 10-2 record, and blend in with some of the normal run-of-the-mill starts that UNC has enjoyed the past few years.

But, if they leave Las Vegas with win number 11...this team will be on pace to enter the ACC season on the same level as past great Tar Heel teams.