When a North Carolina team could last score as effectively as this one, and as often, it won a national championship. The 2008-09 Tar Heels are remembered as the best offensive team of Roy Williams’ tenure at UNC.
And yet his current team is scoring in a way, and with a kind of ease, that is reminiscent of that 2009 team. Not that Williams has spent much time comparing the two. He said Friday, a day before his team’s game against N.C. State, that he doesn’t think about such things.
And yet, Williams said, “It’s human nature to compare things. So I’m not saying there’s anything wrong that.”
And the comparison is favorable between these Tar Heels and the ones from that championship run of 2009. UNC enters its game on Saturday against N.C. State averaging 87.5 points per game – about three points fewer than UNC averaged during the 2008-09 season.
Through 17 games the Tar Heels’ adjusted offensive efficiency rating, according to kenpom.com, is 122.4 – which means that it scores an average of 1.22 points per offensive possession. The 2009 championship team ended the season with exactly the same offensive efficiency.
UNC led the nation in offensive efficiency during the 2008-09 season. Just like UNC’s current team is leading the nation in offensive efficiency now. There are some significant differences, though.
“That team was a little more explosive because it was more explosive from the 3-point line,” Williams said, noting the 2009 team’s superior proficiency from the perimeter. “And I think that statistics will bear that out, and they were probably ... more productive from the free-throw line, because we got fouled so much more.
“And Tyler (Hansbrough) was the biggest guy there.”
No, this UNC team doesn’t have a Hansbrough, who for four years was a first-team All-American. The Tar Heels don’t have a point guard as dominant as Ty Lawson and they likely don’t have three shooters, like the 2009 team had, who will make 41.7 percent of their 3-point attempts this season.
And yet the most important statistics – total points and offensive efficiency – are nearly identical. UNC this season has thrived more inside the 3-point line than outside of it, and it has thrived on balance – on the confidence that any one player is capable of leading the team in scoring on a given night.
During a 84-73 victory at Syracuse Jan. 9, it was Isaiah Hicks, the forward who came off the bench and finished with 21 points. During a Jan. 4 106-90 victory at Florida State, it was Brice Johnson, the senior forward who scored 39 points in one of the more memorable performances in school history.
On Jan. 2, Joel Berry, the sophomore guard, scored a team-high 19 points in UNC’s victory against Georgia Tech. And at the start of conference play on Dec. 30, in a victory against Clemson, Marcus Paige led the Tar Heels with 18 points.
That’s four consecutive games with four different leading scorers. When Hicks led the team in scoring at Syracuse last weekend, he became the seventh player to lead the Tar Heels in scoring in a game this season.
N.C. State, meanwhile, has but only eight healthy scholarship players. Mark Gottfried, the N.C. State coach, speculated earlier this week that UNC might be the deepest team in the country.
Gottfried began listing some of the Tar Heels’ reserves: Hicks and Theo Pinson, Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks, the 6-foot-9 junior who is a regular starter but came off the bench last weekend while he continues to recover from a knee injury.
“That’s a team on the bench that’s probably middle of the pack in this league by themselves,” Gottfried said.
It’s not just the Tar Heels depth, either, that makes them a difficult match-up. Their depth affords Williams the chance to be creative with his lineups.
UNC has excelled at times with smaller lineups with Johnson as the only true big man. The Tar Heels often thrive when they go bigger, too, and Johnson and Hicks, especially, were formidable last weekend against Syracuse, where they effectively executed UNC’s high-low offense.
“It’s more versatile than it’s been the last couple of years, for sure,” Williams said of his offense.
After the win at Syracuse he stood behind a podium looked at the box score and reacted with surprise. His team had scored 84 points against a challenging zone defense while Paige, the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons, had finished with only three points.
If he’d been told that UNC would score so many points with Paige scoring so few, Williams said afterward, he wouldn’t have believed it. And it might have been impossible the past two years for the Tar Heels to do what they did at Syracuse with so little from Paige.
But therein is one of the primary differences between this UNC team and ones that preceded it: Paige can no longer be the sole focal point of a defense. Not with Johnson’s improvement, or Berry’s emergence, or Hicks’ development, at last, into the player many envisioned he’d be years ago.
UNC’s balance has delivered a sense of confidence and calm that if one player is off, like Paige was at Syracuse, then the offense will still go on with limited interruption. Six players are averaging double figures in scoring – one more than the double-figure scorers on the 2009 championship team.
“We’re pretty confident as a team that we’re going to get a decent look almost every time down the court on the offensive end,” Paige said. “The ball doesn’t stick (with one player), no one’s selfish, and everyone knows that if a certain guy has it going that’s just going to be their night. No one has to force anything.”
Nor does anyone have to force anything – not with the kind of shot attempts UNC often generates. The Tar Heels have taken nearly 75 percent of their field goal attempts inside the 3-point line – a testament to their ability to work the ball inside either by pass or penetration.
Then it’s only a matter of making the shot, which UNC does more often than not inside the 3-point line. The Tar Heels have made 56.2 percent of their 2-pointers, which ranks 12th nationally.
Williams said he doesn’t have a preferred ratio of 2-point attempts to ones from behind the 3-point line. The better a team is at making 3s, the more willing he is to allow those attempts.
“(2009) was probably our best shooting team from the 3-point line,” he said. “So I liked it when they shot a lot because they made a lot. But still, at the end of the game I think you’ve got to have good balance.”
Which is perhaps the best way to describe his offense: balanced. The Tar Heels are scoring in a variety of ways, and with a variety of players – and scoring at the same rate, per possession, as the most recent UNC team to win a national championship.