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North Carolina basketball: The value of rebounding

In the age of three pointers, UNC still finds success in crashing the glass.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Two things are Carolina basketball: fast breaks and rebounding. Both play off each other—Kennedy Meeks made a name for himself throwing outlet passes from under the basket—and both have had many an opponent ripping out their hair. It’s simple to stop on paper, right? Just rebound the dadgum basketball. Shouldn’t be that hard. And yet, here we are, with five national championships and 18 Final Fours since 1961.

This was, of course, initially Dean Smith’s philosophy, but Smith’s protege, Roy Williams, has carried on his legacy with tremendous success. These days, hitting the glass (especially the offensive glass) is almost synonymous with Carolina basketball. That’s what they’re known for and that’s what makes them so hard to stop. They couldn’t be stopped in 2017, going down as one of the best rebounding teams in UNC history. The Heels bullied their way to a championship, leading the country in rebounding margin by an absurd 12.3 rebounds per game (Wichita State was second at nine per game).

Still, the emphasis on rebounding seems to be waning across the sport. The percentage of three point attempts relative to total field goal attempts has gone up by over four percent since 2009. Three point attempts overall have gone up by about three per game since 1998. The game has changed—players are simply better shooters these days. New rules now force defenders to guard less physically, opening up driving lanes and allowing kick outs for easy threes. Steph Curry might play a part in this trend, too. You saw it all throughout March Madness. Hero ball—dribbling around in the closing seconds then chucking a long three—cost many teams their seasons.

While overall rebounding has hardly changed over the last 20 years, offensive rebounding is indeed down. Offensive rebounding percentages have dropped nearly seven percent in that time frame. UNC’s offensive rebounding percentage has gone up. One of the last bastions of old school, smash mouth, run and gun basketball might just be in Chapel Hill. And ya know what? It works.

Well, it obviously works. The Tar Heels are national champs, thanks in no small part to an imposing, dominating, soul-crushing front court comprised of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley. They feasted on the offensive glass—it felt like a put back after a quick game of volleyball on the backboards was their best play. And at times, it was—UNC scored at least 20 second chance points in 16 games in 2016-17 and won all 16. It’s a cornerstone of the program; it’s almost a lifestyle. As they say, UNC goes hard in the paint.

It’s not just the put backs and transition hoops that hurt opponents—it’s the trepidation that comes with being this outmatched on the boards. Seriously, if you’ve ever watched Tar Heel basketball, you’ve seen moments where bigs in Carolina blue effortlessly tap the ball against the backboard three, four, five times before finally slapping it in. The other team can’t do anything to stop it. That must be so demoralizing. Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to be an opposing fan in a moment like that or, God forbid, being an Oregon fan in the final seconds of the Final Four. That must be frustrating.

UNC does not dominate simply because they are a big team. There are always a few teams that can compete with the Heels’ size. In 2016-17, Florida State, featuring a host of seven footers, was one of these teams. Perhaps you remember that mid-January game when the ‘Noles came to Chapel Hill. It was a marquee matchup and it delivered. Joel Berry was clutch down the stretch, as was Theo Pinson with that violent tomahawk that spelled doom for FSU, but the unsung hero was one Luke Maye. Now, this was pre-Kentucky Luke Maye—he was unproven and had to play significant minutes with Bradley injured and Meeks in foul trouble. All 21,750 of us in the Smith Center were uneasy. He would need to have the game of his life if the Heels were to pull this one out.

At just six-foot-seven, he grabbed 15 rebounds against one of the biggest teams in the country. While Theo Pinson’s dunk will be the biggest highlight from this game, UNC would’ve lost without Maye. His performance didn’t make sense, not with the likes of Michael Ojo and Jonathan Isaac out there, but all Maye did was box out. He knows how to use his body against bigger players. You’ll never find him with his back to the basket. That’s a result of hours upon hours upon hours of practice. Somehow, Luke Maye finds a way.

Maye is a product of this rebounding machine that’s been churning since 1961. That’s how it should be—that’s how UNC keeps winning. The game has turned to the perimeter, and that doesn’t mean there is no success to be found there. Some school in Durham that wears this ugly shade of blue likes shooting threes, and they’re pretty good sometimes. But there’s something to be said about UNC’s dominance in the paint. Those rebounds, the glorified tip drills, the put back dunks—that’ll break a team, and there’s nothing so beautiful in all of college basketball.