As North Carolina took on Providence for the right to advance to the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels worked to create an advantage: the Friars having to compete without their best players.
“Who were Providence’s two best players?” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They were sitting on the bench at the end of the game.
“At the end of the game, I don’t want to be playing against the other team’s five best players.”
Working the ball inside (and playing up-tempo in general) puts defenders at greater risk of picking up fouls. Providence guard (and future NBA lottery pick) Kris Dunn played just eight first-half minutes after picking up two early fouls. He was limited to 26 minutes total. The Friars’ second-best player, Ben Bentil, fouled out with 7 minutes, 23 seconds left in the game. The Tar Heels cruised to an 85-66 victory.
This is the primary reason Williams prefers to play from the inside-out, getting the ball down low to productive big men in lieu of relying more heavily on 3-point shooting. As time has passed and the game has changed, fewer teams play like the Tar Heels. UNC attempts 17.1 3-pointers per game – 302nd out of 351 Division I teams. In terms of the percentage of total shots that are 3-pointers, the Tar Heels rank 337th.
In contrast, Syracuse, UNC’s opponent in Saturday’s Final Four, attempts 23.6 3s per game (53rd out of 351) and 40th in terms of percentage of total shots that are 3-pointers. The other Final Four teams, Villanova (24.4 3s per game, 39th nationally and 28th in terms of percentage of total shots that are 3-pointers) and Oklahoma (24.4 3s per game, 38th nationally and second in terms of percentage of total shots that are 3-pointers) rely even more heavily on the long-distance shot.
Williams has no intention of playing that style of basketball. The Tar Heels have the most efficient offense in the country anyway, averaging 1.21 points per possession, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy.
“I’ve never seen a team that shot 35 3s win a national championship,” Williams said. “Everyone has always had somebody inside that you could play.”
Just two national championship teams this century – and one program – have attempted more than 19 3s a game in their title season (2001 and 2010 Duke, with 27.1 and 21.01 3s per game, respectively). UNC’s two national championship teams attempted about the same number of 3s per game as the current squad.
In 2005, with the point guard-big man duo Raymond Felton and Sean May, the Tar Heels averaged 18.57 3s per game. In 2009, with Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough, it was 17.95 3s per contest.
“You look traditionally back on his teams,” senior guard Marcus Paige said of Williams, “The Ty Lawsons, Raymond Feltons, Kendall Marshalls, those guys are what drive the teams to success. And then having all those big guys doing the dirty work down low.”
Or as first-team All-America forward Brice Johnson put it: “If you get it 3 feet from the basket, you ought to be able to convert those.”
While Williams’ method might be tried-and-true, it’s becoming less and less popular. The number of 3-pointers attempted per game this season is up 9 percent from last season, according to the Wall Street Journal, and up 10 percent from the average across the past 10 years. The 3-point shot is more popular than ever at the NBA level as well, thanks in part to the success of Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Both Paige and Johnson were asked if, given the fact that college basketball has become more and more of a stepping stone to the NBA, Williams’ decidedly old-school system negatively affects recruiting.
“It just depends on the type of person you are,” Johnson said. “Some kids want to go to Kentucky and do those types of things where they run an NBA-style offense. And other guys know, hey, I’m not a one-and-done guy, I want to be able to develop, and going to Carolina will help me get to that goal. It’s not going to be one year, I’ve got to be able to grind it out.”
Paige, noted for his strong basketball IQ, chimed in as well.
“The college game isn’t really an NBA-style game,” he said. “Teams can run NBA-style offense, but college games are often dictated by a lot more than style of play. We tried to play our style, and look what Notre Dame did to us. They brought the ball up the court, waited at half-court until there were eight seconds on the clock and then ran a ball screen, so we couldn’t play our style.”
Paige also noted the shot clock difference (24 seconds in the NBA, 30 seconds in college) and closed with the idea that “unless there are 70-80 pick-and-rolls in a game, they’re not truly running an NBA-style offense.”
And even in a system that emphasizes the point guard and post players, Williams has recruited a nice collection of wings over the years. This season’s team features sophomore forward guard Justin Jackson, a top-15 recruit when he committed to the Tar Heels. Jackson freely admitted that UNC is a point-guard-and-bigs-driven team, leaving the wings to get defensive rebounds and take advantage of the opportunities they do receive on offense.
Not surprisingly, Williams didn’t sell Jackson on his system during his recruitment.
“Honestly, we didn’t talk much about where I would fit in and what I would need to do or anything like that,” Jackson said. “It was just kind of what we could accomplish as a team. Coach, when he came to the house, he told me there would be days where I wouldn’t like him. There would be days where I would love him. But at the end of the day, he’s just going to coach for the team.”
Jackson took an official visit to one other school – Arizona – and Ohio State, Texas A&M, Virginia and Washington were considered his other finalists. Other schools did try to sell him more on how he fit into their system.
“Yeah,” Jackson said. “But that’s also a reason why we are in the Final Four and some of them aren’t. At the end of the day, it’s all about the team. Everybody could, probably on this team, choose another school that they could go to. But this is where I am, this is where, I think, all of us want to be. And we’re in the Final Four. You can’t really be a lot more happier than that.”
Winning tournament not dependent on attempting 3s
Number of 3s attempted per game for past national champions
2000 Michigan State