For the remainder of the half UNC looked like a team many picked this preseason to win the national title. The squad scored 1.55 points per possession, held the Wolf Pack to a paltry 0.68 PPP, and entered halftime with a five-point lead en route to an 80-68 win. This UNC team has limitless potential, but there have been slip-ups all season that have hamstrung the team’s brilliance — slumps from Justin Jackson and Marcus Paige, a defense that can be downright ineffective, and frigid moments from the perimeter.
Yet, when UNC is clicking, as the team was late against N.C. State, there aren’t many other Division I squads that can maintain the Tar Heels’ scoring pace. We know all about Roy Williams’s vaunted transition offense featuring the secondary breaks the team has run for ages, but what about the other aspects of UNC’s game? Which North Carolina is for real? We’ll start with the positives.
Brice Johnson might just be a national player of the year dark horse
There aren’t many bigs in college basketball this season with Johnson’s skillset. The 6-foot-10 senior is a force on the offensive glass, plucking rebounds high above the hands of opposing bigs. He can also quickly finish putbacks with efficient force — per Synergy Sports, he is scoring 1.42 points around the basket. Throw the ball to him on the low block, and Johnson has an array of post moves, including a right hook and a turn-around jump shot. Johnson might be his best cutting through the paint, an area wherein he scores 1.47 points per cut.
He posted 22 points and 11 rebounds against the Wolfpack, which, by Johnson’s standards, might be considered an off night. Johnson is by far the Tar Heels’ best player this season, and his offensive explosion has been enhanced by his sterling defense, especially in ACC play. According to Ken Pomeroy, he leads the conference in defensive rebounding percentage (nearly 30 percent), and his block (5 percent) and steal (3 percent) rates both rank in the top 10.
He has also set an illustrious Tar Heel record:
The three-point slump is way overblown
For much of this season, much has been made of UNC’s inability to connect from beyond the arc. The numbers, at first glance, certainly support that logic: 31.4 percent on three-point field goals, and a three-point field goal attempt rate of 26.2 percent. South Florida is the only high-major squad other than UNC to score less from three-point range.
However, this argument is slightly inaccurate. Essentially, the wrong Tar Heels are shooting threes. Per Hoop-Math.com, the Tar Heels’ backcourt — Paige, Joel Berry II and Nate Britt — is converting 37 percent of their long-range attempts in the halfcourt. That number slightly jumps (to more than 38 percent) in transition. The squad can shoot, but the percentages have been dragged down by the overall slump of Jackson and Theo Pinson’s struggles (he has the lowest offensive rating — 1.06 — for any Tar Heel that uses 40 percent or more of the team’s minutes).
During the team’s three ACC losses though, a three-point drought was partially to blame (24 percent versus Notre Dame, Duke and Louisville), but the claim UNC just can’t shoot from deep simply isn’t true. UNC shot far fewer threes a year ago (22 percent of their field goals were threes), but were much more accurate overall, so the potential is there for the Tar Heels to get hot from deep if the right players are putting up the shots.
While three-point shooting may not be a cause for concern, the Heels do have some reason to worry, namely a big weakness that threatens their title-contender status.
Other than Johnson, the team struggles to score within the arc
Only two other teams account for more of their points from two-point range than UNC, and much of that is due to the continued success of Williams’s transition tutelage. The Tar Heels love to get out in the open court, and have numerous secondary break plays at their disposal — per Synergy, North Carolina is running a bit more this season (nearly 19 percent of their plays, compared to 17 percent in 2015), and is scoring 1.15 points per fast break (second to Kansas and Iowa State among high-majors).
But when the defense gets back and settles, the efficiency noticeably drops, making just 41 percent of their twos. Their percentage at the rim is considerably boosted because Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks convert more than 70 percent of their attempts around the basket. Nearly a third of Johnson’s halfcourt offense is within a few feet of the bucket, and he connects on 92 percent of those attempts. The backcourt’s production, though, has drastically slipped — converting just nine percent of their shots at the rim, and only 35 percent of their attempts within the arc.
The guards have had trouble this season separating from defenders, and finding space within the halfcourt to score. And it doesn’t improve when they do get to the bucket. This has also affected the team’s ability to generate offense from the free throw stripe: Johnson is the only Tar Heel who has attempted more than 100 free throws, which is a bonkers stat for a team with just three games remaining on the regular season schedule.
Running the open floor is no problem, but 25 seconds into a possession, UNC’s effective field goal percentage dips below 50 percent, and the team often hoists a guarded two-pointer (on which they are shooting 39 percent).
Luckily for Williams, things could change for the better.
Jackson’s slump appears over
The wing is the team’s X-factor. Paige can be brilliant at times, and he certainly needs to play well for UNC to succeed in March, but Jackson is key. During much of ACC play, he had shot nothing but bricks, but since going 1-for-7 in the Notre Dame loss, Jackson has been much more aggressive offensively, and is seeing results: 63 percent on twos, 56 percent on threes, and 22 assists (with just two turnovers. All of that has helped the Heels to a 4-1 record over their last five games.
If Jackson plays well, it keeps defenders from clogging the lane and hampering Johnson and the overall offense flows much smoother.
The Heels will get another strong test to their title-worthiness Saturday against Virginia. Which version of UNC will show up Saturday — and then in the NCAA tournament — is debatable. The team doesn’t inspire the confidence, largely due to their erratic play. But when each player is clicking the pieces are there for a long tourney run. Williams just has to make sure they keep flourishing, which means making sure the right players are shooting from deep and Jackson can continue his renaissance. With the constant of Brice Johnson down low, the Heels have what it takes to cut down the nets.