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North Carolina’s rebounding situation isn’t as dire as you might think

What the 2017-2018 Heels will lack in interior presence, they will make up for through their guards.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Chances are that in some extremely early previews for the 2017-2018 college basketball season, you have read something along these lines:

After losing seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks to graduation and freshman Tony Bradley to the NBA Draft, the North Carolina Tar Heels’ frontcourt situation looks dire. Only Luke Maye remains from the interior rotation that helped the Heels lead the nation in rebounding on the way to a National Championship. This is sure to present issues for Roy Williams, whose best teams typically dominate their opponents on the glass.

(not an actual quote)

It’s certainly an easy stance to take. It was obvious that UNC needed to be a great rebounding team, especially a great offensive rebounding team last year, because they were not a great shooting team. Their effective field goal percentage (eFG) was just 52.4%, only a bit above the national average. The Heels made up for a relative lack of offensive efficiency with offensive volume.

If the frontcourt, especially Meeks and Bradley, hadn’t owned the boards like they did, Carolina would almost certainly have not been one of the top teams in the country, and would definitely not have been able to take home the NCAA trophy (this is literally true in the case of the Final Four Oregon game, but even that assumes that a less-than-stellar rebounding team could have made it even that far).

Anybody who watched the Heels’ title run, and even the previous year’s title game appearance on the back of Brice Johnson being the best rebounder in the country, would be forgiven for thinking that UNC relies on a dominating interior rebounding presence in order to be successful.

But I don’t think that’s going to hold for next year. For one thing, UNC is shaping up to be a much better shooting team in 2017 than it was this year, but that’s a topic for another time. What I want to talk about instead is that UNC quietly has the ability to have the best rebounding backcourt in the nation.

North Carolina’s last several point guards have been on the smaller side: Nate Britt, Marcus Paige, Stilman White, and Joel Berry II all stand around six foot, and Seventh Woods is maybe an inch taller than them (Paige does have a 6’6 wingspan, easily the longest of the group). With Roy Williams’ propensity to use two-point guard lineups in recent years, this has limited the size, and therefore rebounding ability, of the 1 and 2 positions in those years.

As evidence, I submit the listed players’ career defensive rebounding percentages, respectively: 7.7, 8.3, 5.9, 8.9, 9.5. All of them grab less than 10% of available defensive rebounds, and this is going against opposing point guards. This is expected of them as smaller point guards, and UNC was never bothered by it because of its paint dominance. Next year, however, things may start to change.

The popular thought has been that next year, UNC will have to use a lot of “small-ball” lineups to compensate for the lack of experienced size in the frontcourt. I’m not sure that term is wholly correct. The 4 spot might be getting downsized for stretches, but the 2 spot is getting a considerable size upgrade, and therefore, there is still going to be a size advantage that UNC can, and likely will, try to exploit.

The combination of Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams, and Brandon Robinson, all of whom stand at six-foot-four or taller and have wingspans of 6’11, 6’6, and 6’10, respectively, at the wing positions shapes up to have the size, length, strength, and athleticism to bully opposing wings on the boards. The three returning players had DRBs of 14.0, 9.1, and 12.3 last year, and that was against most teams’ small forwards. Against shooting guards, those numbers could be even higher; not every team uses the wing positions as interchangeably as Williams’ Heels do.

On the offensive end, the three wings gathered 6, 6, and 4% of available offensive rebounds, which were admittedly hard to find with Meeks and Bradley among the nation’s leaders in that statistic.

Additionally, even when Williams wants to go with two point guards for increased ball movement, UNC will have a couple of slightly bigger point guards than they have had in the past, with Woods hopefully able to play at his full athletic potential, as well as incoming freshman Jalek Felton, listed at 6’3 with a 6’8 wingspan. Both of these players should be able to compete for rebounds more effectively than their Tar Heel predecessors (note that Woods was the Tar Heel point guard among those listed with the highest DRB).

And finally, with the addition (pending confirmation of ability to play immediately) of 6’7 graduate transfer Cameron Johnson (career DRB 12.8), all of this is simply exacerbated. Roy Williams gets even more versatility with his lineups. With Berry at the point guard position and one of Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, and Sterling Manley playing center, there are three spots available for six players, all of whom can make a positive impact on the boards from the wings.

This ability to rotate will allow them to stay fresh and continue relentlessly attacking the way they will need to in order to maintain a positive rebounding margin. The Tar Heels will have to adjust and work hard to keep their rebounding advantage, but the personnel that Williams has assembled definitely has the ability to do it. It just might not be in the way he’s done it before.