Wednesday, March 21, 2007

ACC in the Sweet 16 - UNC vs. USC

This was supposed to be the matchup of the tournament (at least pre-final four). The deepest, and potentially most talented and most balanced, team in the country taking on the unstoppable force that is Kevin Durant, the best teenager in the country who doesn't already look 35. But USC and Rick Barnes got in the way - one trotting out a perfect game, the other standing blindly on the sideline watching his team get outplayed and outcoached. So instead, we get the team a year away from being OJ Mayo's team squaring off opposite the Heels. But before people get too glum about not seeing Durant-UNC, I'm here to offer a few reasons why this matchup is still worth watching, and can still produce an upset.

1) Outside shooting
3pt FG defense is the most pedestrian part of UNC's defense, and it's the one area in which USC excels the most. The Trojans hit an astounding 42% of their threes in conference play, and in Nick Young and Lodrick Stewart, they have the Pac-10's two most accurate 3-point shooters. USC was 25 of 51 in the conference tournament from beyond the arc, and stayed hot against Arkansas and Texas. They don't devote a huge percentage of their shots to 3s, but a 6-13, 8-15 kind of shooting performance is well within reach.

2) Usable post depth
Taj Gibson is a stud down low - he shoots 56% from the floor and is USC's best offensive and defensive rebounder and best shot-blocker. He'll play as many minutes as they can give him (likely 35-36, assuming no foul trouble), and probably be matched up with Wright if he's not the only front-court player on the court (going small, like USC did against Texas, may not be the best idea against UNC, who would like nothing better than to post-up Wright and Hansbrough all night). At the center spot, Wilkinson, N'Diaye, and Cromwell provide a very adequate 15 fouls. These three can afford to play very physically with Hansbrough because there's not really a lot of difference among these three - N'diaye is a little better than the other two, and Wilkinson is more capable of stepping outside on offense, but essentially, they're interchangeable parts. This means USC has less to worry about in terms of foul trouble, because they really only need 10-15 minutes out of each guy in the game.

3) The Daniel Hackett factor
I can't adequately describe how completely out of nowhere Hackett's performance was against Texas. He averaged 8 pts/40 minutes in Pac-10 play, and didn't hit double figures against a conference opponent. So of course when he gets a surprise start in the second round of the NCAA tournament he's going to explode for 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting and successfully bait Kevin Durant to take 15-20 foot fadeaways against a defender at least 5 inches shorter. I'm not saying Hackett will reprise this in the Sweet 16. But there's something about getting once-in-a-lifetime performances in March that seem to bode well for a team - a sign that things are falling into place and maybe, just maybe, fate is on your side.

So there are three reasons this might be an upset. Here are three other reasons to watch:

1) Nick Young's hair
It's currently some kind of faux-hawk, but that doesn't mean he won't do something crazy to it for the Sweet 16. Young has that little bit of crazy about him, where he could be the next Gilbert Arenas or the next Ron Artest (remember, Artest was a sweetheart in college) - I hope for the sake of everyone involved it's the former.

2) The presence of Lodrick
Matt Doherty recruited Seattle twins Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart extremely hard, and the shows that the twins would put on in AAU warmups were legendary. Tar Heel Nation fetishized (scroll down to the entry titled "the twins") over seeing these two in the baby blue, and were more than a little disappointed when they opted for USC. Rodrick has since transferred to Kansas, but Lodrick has been money as the number 2 scoring option to Nick Young in his senior season as a Trojan. He's already helped knock off the Heels once (December 2005) and would love to do it again

3) The Daniel Hackett factor
This goes hand-in-hand with the Ryan Francis story. Francis, SC's starting point guard from last year, was shot and killed in the off-season. Gabe Pruitt, PG #2, was either injured or ineligible (I think the latter, but not positive). Last year in June, Hackett was going to his Junior prom. When SC all of a sudden turned up short two point guards, Hackett took summer community college courses and high school courses to graduate high school in three years and join the Trojans a season early. He started his first dozen or so games before taking on a sixth man role during Pac-10 play. Now, he has a chance to help his team reach the Elite 8 one year ahead of schedule.

Finally, some thoughts on Carolina, who, despite everything menitoned above, is still going to win this game. It's been kind of a favorite meme in the TV analyst v. tempo-free blogger conflict this year that the bloggers will pick on analysts who say that Carolina's problem is defense. Not so fast, bloggers say, Carolina is the 4th best defensive team in the country! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it! And the bloggers have a point. Carolina is, in fact, the 4th best defensive team in the country, and can be very imposing on opponents - stellar D Ratings against Kentucky (87.41), Virginia (92.96), Arizona (79.80), Georgia Tech (83.85), and ridiculous numbers against less formidable opponents, like Clemson (70.49), Wake Forest (75.38), Dayton (67.42), and Gardner-Webb (59.29). However, the analysts are right too, because Carolina's D is highly fluctuating, while their offense is steady. The national average this year was 102.1 points per 100 possessions. UNC fell below that line on offense just 3 times, and won 2 of those games (the loss being to Gonzaga, the only game this year that UNC's offense and defense were bad). However, they allowed opponents to best that mark 9 times, and went only 4-5 in those contests. This suggests that the key really is Carolina's defense. You know, going into the game, that UNC's offense will score, and will likely produce about 72-76 points in a 70 possession game. This is almost a given. The problem is, it's not always clear which defense will show up. Will it be the one that held Arizona to 64 points in 80 possessions? Or will it be the one that gave up 163 points (115 ORating) in two games against NC State (at State and in the tournament, not including the game at UNC), 175 points (111 ORating) in two games against Virginia Tech, and let even High Point score better than the national average? The Tar Heels will win if their D shows up. They may win if it doesn't.


Anonymous said...

Paul, Is there any way that we can determine whether an efficiency outcome on any particular date objectively results from "good" defense or "good" offense", or can we only attempt to discern the overall trend?

I ask this because NC State's offense seemed to be functioning beautifully at the end of the season. Brandon Costner simply appeared to be in the zone a few of those games, but maybe my eyes deceived me.

Anonymous said...


I started reading this blog when I was angry after the last Duke-UNC game. I was so impressed by the thoughtful commnetary and analysis that I've read it several times, since.
Of course, I see some Blue Devil bias, in spite of the genuine and mostly successful efforts to be objective. But that's OK. (My blood runs a ligher shade of blue, and I will readily admit to having a bias, myself.)
Yours is still among the best I've read on the 'net. Thanks for making it available for the rest of us!

Richard S.

Paul Rugani said...

1) I don't think it's possible to say, just from a one-game box score, whether it's good/bad defense or good/bad offense without watching the games. And even then, it's tricky to tell. However, I am inclined to agree with you that NC State's end-of-season offensive success was more attributable to their offense. The odds that 5-6 teams in a row had bad defensive games are really low - the odds that NC State had continued offensive execution are better. I guess that's the point of tracking stats over the season - if, say UNC scores 75 points in 70 possessions against Kansas, that's probably the result of good offense. If they score 75 in 70 possessions against Jackson State, that's not really good offense for UNC, even though it's the same result.

2) Thanks - I'll always be a Blue Devil fan first, but I like to think I can be more of an objective fan than an apologist. Glad to have fans of all schools reading (from the comments I get, it almost seems like I have as many UNC readers as Duke readers).

Anonymous said...

That could be true, Paul, because PPP analysis has been stressed by Dean Smith for years, but Roy Williams has been the Apostle Paul of the doctrine.

The other thing is that when we are talking about "stats-heads", we are talking about a group of people who love basketball and are looking for objective ways of collecting and analyzing data in an attempt to discover what leads to victory.

Due to the objective goal of your enterprise, it helps both you and the reader avoid the sorts of petty discussions that are seen on other fan-oriented sites.