Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Meet the Tar Heels

UNC comes to town tomorrow night, and while I know they don't generally need much introduction to Duke fans, I'm doing this for every team, so what the heck. UNC under Roy Williams has taken on the rep of an all offense no defense team. In the past, that reputation has been somewhat unfair. This year, however, Carolina has legitimately struggled on the defensive end in conference play. 5 of their 9 opponents, including 3 of the last 4, have scored more than a point per possession. They've been relatively torched by NC State and Maryland, two teams that are otherwise offensively challenged. Overall, Carolina's just 5th in overall defense, 5th in shooting defense, 9th in forcing turnovers, and dead last in steals. About the only thing they do well on defense is avoid fouls - their opponents get a smaller share of their scoring from the line than any team in the ACC.

That said, their offense is exceptionally good. It's the best in ACC play be a healthy margin, and 2nd best in the country overall. They haven't scored less than a point per possession yet, and only FSU and Wake - two teams with a lot of size - have really given them trouble from an offensive point of view. They thrive on offensive rebounding, getting to the line, and (somewhat surprisingly) three point shooting. When free throws are factored in, the Heels are the best shooting team in the ACC, leading the conference in PPWS.

Carolina has 4 exceptional offensive performers - Ellington, Lawson, Green, and Hansbrough. They currently rank 1-4 in offensive rating in the conference and are all in the top 14 in points produced. Ellington has had a terrific conference season, averaging over 21 a game in his last six, and is shooting over 44% from downtown. Ellington hasn't had an offensive rating below 100 since December, and is on quite a mini-streak, going 179, 159, 139 in his last 3. As good as Ellingotn has been from outside, Lawson and Green have been better (if less frequent). Green is hitting 45.1% from 3 in conference play, and Lawson is 48.4%. Green has had surprising struggles from 2 (just over 42%) and is less prolific on the offensive glass than in prior seasons. Lawson, for his part, is back up at 3:1 assist/turnover ratio. After struggling early with turning the ball over, he's put 15 assists and zero turns in his past two games. He's the team's motor and barometer - in the losses to Wake and BC, he combined for just 19 points, 9 assists, and 8 turnovers on 7 of 25 shooting. Since then, his offensive ratings have been ridiculous - 185, 128, 127, 168, 112, 186, and 152.

On the inside, Hansbrough again leads the way, consuming by far the greatest share of the Heels' possessions. He averages just about 21/game in conference play, bolstered largely by his 9.5 trips to the line each contest. He draws 8.6 fouls per 40 minutes of game time, which means that by his lonesome, he almost fouls out 2 guys per. He's struggling more from the field than he has in years past, shooting just 46.5% from 2 in conference play, but is still cleaning up on the offensive glass and getting to the line, keeping his efficiency high.

As good as those four have been, the rest of the Tar Heel team really struggles on offense. Only Ed Davis has an offensive rating above 100, and it's entirely the product of his offensive rebounding. He hasn't been a strong shooter inside at all. He is an imposing presence down low, though, dominating the boards on both ends of the court and currently leading the conference in block rate. Deon Thompson has severely struggled in ACC play. He's just a 36% shooter, and does that even though the defense has to devote so much attention to the other 4 starters. In the backcourt, Bobby Frasor's outside shot has deserted him (he's 1-14 from downtown in the ACC) and he's had a bit of the turnover bug. He's still a solid perimeter defender, but has been a total non-threat on offense thus far this year. No one, however, can compare to Larry Drew for offensive futility. Drew's offensive rating is 62.30, good for last in the ACC. He turns it over nearly 50% of the possessions he uses, good for last in the ACC. And he's just a 33% shooter who has yet to hit from outside in ACC play.

The Tar Heels are going to play fast - they again lead the conference in pace - and from the inside out. Injuries and poor play have essentially turned them into a four man team - Hansbrough, Ellington, Green, and Lawson score a collective 80% of the team's total points (not weighted for time on the court) while playing just 61% of the total minutes. The rest of the time has combined for just 158 points in conference play - that's fewer than Hansbrough (188) and Ellington (174) have on their own. Carolina is not a deep team, and is surprisingly ill equipped to weathering off nights from any of their big 4 (not that they've had to deal with many of those).

I think the key to this game is going to be whether Duke can exploit Carolina's lackadaisical defense. The Heels will produce points - I think the best Duke can hope for is to hold them in the 1.00-1.05 point per possession range. But that's a level of efficiency Duke has produced on offense just once (against UVA) in the past 4 games. The Devils are going to have to win this one with offense. At the very least, this should be a heck of an effort from Duke. Hansbrough and Green are undefeated in Cameron (and Paulus is winless). It's been a long, long, long time since a Tar Heel graduating class has gone 4-0 at Duke, and you can bet this year's Devils are dying to prevent that from happening now.


Anonymous said...

Paul -- I'm a Tar Heel, but I read your column when the big games approach. I find the analysis thorough and unique, and the comments insigthful and fair. (Thank you.) About tonight, I hope the officiating is up to the level of play. And I hope both teams live up to the rivalry...without bloodshed this time.

Pop Culture Lunch Box said...

You might like some of the Duke and UNC musings here: