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The myth of UNC basketball’s relationship with the three-point shot

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We need to stop confusing Roy’s throwback style of play with apathy for the three-point shot

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The joke seemingly never dies: A previously unheralded player, usually a guard, comes into the Dean Dome and absolutely goes off, usually from three. There are variations: Sometimes, an entire team can’t miss. Sometimes, the Heels are on the road instead of at home. But it seems to a lot of Tar Heel fans that opposing teams consistently get open looks behind the arc against Roy Williams’ Heels, more so than they do against other teams. This looked especially evident against Wake Forest on Friday night, as the Demon Deacons battled back from a 19-point deficit to within 1 point before losing by 6 largely on the strength of their three-point shooting. Make no mistake, there were defensive issues against Wake Forest. To blame Roy Williams’ basketball philosophy, however, is simply not supportable.

Let’s get this out of the way first: The usual caveats apply when talking about Roy Williams, or really anybody who gets paid to make the decisions that we can only analyze. He has access to much more data than we do, both through his staff’s unique methods of stat-keeping and through the hours of practice that we only hear about. He has won multiple national championships, is one of the most winningest coaches of all time as well as having one of the highest winning percentages of all time (one of only two coaches in the top 10 for both all-time wins and win percentage), and he went to the national championship just last year. Arguments that he can’t coach, or that he’s out of touch with the modern game, are patently wrong.

That said, it is becoming increasingly apparent that UNC’s style of offense is a dying breed in the NCAA. The concept of a “stretch 4,” a big man who can shoot, is becoming more and more prevalent with each passing year. You may have seen Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni’s rant about analytics a couple of weeks ago, where he tells a reporter that the best shot in basketball is a “corner three” and the next best shot is “any other three.” He cites a lot of statistics taken from the NBA, noting that the two most recent champions, Golden State and Cleveland, get a ton of points from the outside. The notion that taking a lot of jump shots means that the offense is settling is hogwash to coaches and people like D’Antoni, as three-point jump shots have a high value of points per possession. The more shooters you have, according to this philosophy, the better. In addition to this, D’Antoni called the post-up, defined as a tightly guarded, close-to-the-basket shot, “the worst shot in basketball,” as it averages only 0.78 points per possession. It was really good to see analytics being brought up by a coach instead of by an analyst, but it doesn’t really apply to UNC.

The most important thing to note is that those are NBA numbers. D’Antoni believes that they trickle down to the college game, but he’s not totally right about that. There are a lot fewer players in the NBA than in the NCAA, and the interior talent level is correspondingly less disparate between the best team and worst team. In the NBA, where the talent of the post-up offensive player and the post-up defensive player are close to equal, the post-up is a bad shot, just like any other closely guarded shot. In the NCAA, and particularly with UNC, this usually isn’t the case. UNC, a college basketball blue-blood with a history of producing extremely talented post players, is almost always significantly more talented in the interior than its opposition. There aren’t many tandems in the country that can compete with Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley, and Luke Maye (who kind of is a stretch four, but we’ll get to that later) in terms of depth and quality. This significantly increases the expected value of a post possession, especially when you add fouling to the mix, as you often have to when less talented players are guarding more talented ones. Free throws, as D’Antoni notes, are one of the most efficient ways to score in basketball, as long as you have adequate free throw shooters.

Additionally, it’s been abundantly clear that Williams does understand the value of the three-point shot. He has consistently recruited players known primarily for being shooters, going back to players like Wayne Ellington, P.J. Hairston, Kenny Williams, and, coming up in the next class, Andrew Platek. Other than a few recent years where shooters have either left the team or inexplicably slumped, Roy’s teams have consistently been above average in 3-point percentage on offense. Two years ago, the Heels were actually an elite three-point defense team. And this year, the first big man off the bench has often been Luke Maye, who may be a little undersized for his position but has shown the capability to hit the mid-range and outside jump shot. Williams clearly is not averse to using a stretch four, even with the talented Tony Bradley also available off the bench.

Near the end of last year, Marcus Paige brought up an older Kenpom blog post that made and backed up the claim that 3-point defense is essentially random, and that all a team can really control is the number of attempts a team gets. He may have tried to incorporate that into his own defensive game, but this is the data that Williams’ teams try to defy, as they have, for the last two years, been near the very bottom of the country in their opponent’s ratio of three-point shots to total field goal attempts (meaning that three-pointers make up a large proportion of Carolina’s opponents’ field goal attempts). Last year, this harmed the Heels at times, as their opponents hit over 37% of their attempts from beyond the arc (Note: that team was a contested three-pointer away from a national championship, so that “harm” is relative). This year has been more of a regression to the mean, as opponents are hitting less than 33% of their shots from downtown, which translates to an average of less than 1 point per possession on three-point attempts. This season, the numbers say that opponents taking three-pointers has been good for the Heels. Maybe Ol’ Roy does know what he’s doing after all.

With noted Heel-killer Xavier Rathan-Mayes coming to Chapel Hill with his Seminole teammates, already having had a 40-point game this season, let’s find out if our eyes continue to deceive us.