Roy Williams is a sentimentalist and not reluctant to admit it. He’s also a realist who knows he cannot coach two teams simultaneously, one on the floor waiting for his direction and another that’s little more than a bittersweet memory. Yet before he moved on at the start of this season, after his North Carolina squad came within a basket of winning the 2016 national championship, he had trouble letting go of what had been, and who had led him there.
So, even when asked about the nucleus of six returning upperclassmen who provide the Tar Heels with unusual seasoning in this era of disruptive player movement, Williams was quick to look back before he looked forward. Let others move on in mind and heart; he defined his current squad by first cataloging the basketball virtues of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, who played their final college game six months earlier.
“Brice and Marcus weren’t just two bodies for us,” Williams said last October, “they were our two best players: the best defender, the best outside shooter, the best inside scorer, the best rebounder, the guy that dominated things inside around the rim on the defensive end.” Everyone else would have to pick up the slack left by their departure.
Five months later, on the eve of the ’17 NCAAs, players defined their squad as a continuation of last year’s, right down to the absence of Johnson and Paige. “I feel like we’ve got the same team, we’re returning a lot of people from the run we had last year,” said junior guard Joel Berry II, who started all but two games over the past two seasons. “The only two people that are missing are Marcus and Brice.”
The statistical profiles of the 2016 and 2017 teams reflect that connection. Still, they are different in significant ways, differences that surprisingly argue this year’s edition is marginally more effective.
Both led the ACC in scoring offense, reflective of Williams’ emphasis on a fast tempo that creates more possessions and open-court opportunities, and keeps opponents off-balance. The ’17 Heels are actually better point producers than their immediate predecessors, pacing the conference with 85.0 points per game compared to 82.8 last season. This year’s scoring average is best at UNC since the 2009 NCAA championship squad notched 89.8
UNC also tops the ACC in scoring margin at plus-14.4 points; the ’16 unit was second to Louisville at plus-12.8. The KenPom offensive efficiency is virtually identical across both years.
This season’s group is not as accurate as the 2016 squad on field goals and free throws, yet averages more shots and more conversions from the floor than any North Carolina club since the 2009 national champs. It also gets more of its scoring from the line (18.8 percent) than last year’s team and, with its old-style emphasis on feeding the post, has attempted more free throws than any UNC squad since 2012.
Three-point shooting has become a notable strength, even if the Tar Heels rely heavily on two players, Justin Jackson and Berry. Confident in its perimeter punch, this squad’s average of 19.7 attempts per game entering the Final Four surpasses all but one unit under Williams (2013). Last season, the Heels took 2.6 fewer bonusphere shots per outing, and converted 32.7 percent, worse than a breakeven clip.
“I feel like we’re getting more production from outside than we were last year,” confirms Berry, who with Jackson combines for more than two-thirds of UNC’s 3s. “It’s more of a balance than it was last year, and I think the inside-out game is better than it was last year too.”
The team’s .361 accuracy from long range is best for a strong Williams club since the ’09 squad hit at a .387 rate behind a trio of current pros – Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Ty Lawson. This year’s 7.1 3s per game were topped only by the 2005 national champs during the Williams era (7.5).
Assists are up slightly this year as well to 18.2 per contest, best in the ACC, accounting for 58.8 percent of the team’s field goals. That compares to 17.8, also best in the ACC, and 57.7 percent in 2016.
A strong focus on rebounding has been a staple at Chapel Hill for more than a half-century. This year’s plus-13.0 rebound margin leads the nation and tops all ACC squads since South Carolina in 1970 (plus-13.1). No team in school history enjoyed so pronounced a rebounding margin as the present unit; next closest under Williams was the plus-11.0 edge enjoyed by the 2008 Final Four squad. The Heels’ ACC-best plus-8.6 margin in 2016 was good for ninth in Division I and virtually identical to the edge compiled by UNC’s 2007 Elite Eight team.
Through the years, opponents have complained about the physical nature of North Carolina’s play – on offense, where less sophisticated observers tend to miss it. The 2017 team leads the nation with 15.74 offensive rebounds per game – best of Williams’ 14-year tenure. As Dean Smith noted in the early 1980s, “If I get two shots to your every one, guess who wins?”
The best previous offensive rebound averages under Williams were amassed in 2008 by a Final Four unit, and in 2012, when injuries felled UNC a game shy of the Final Four. The ’16 Heels did achieve the best ratio of assists to turnovers (1.65:1) among the eight Williams teams that advanced at least as far as an Elite Eight. The ’17 Heels are second at 1.51.
The 2016 and 2017 contingents closely mirror each other defensively, holding opponents to .416 accuracy from the floor and virtually the same scoring average (70.0 in 2016 versus 70.6). This year’s Heels gather more steals (7.1 versus 6.7 in 2016). And while last season’s unit was significantly better at blocking shots – 4.4 per game compared to 3.4 this year – the present team is superior defending 3s. North Carolina is holding opponents to .340 accuracy, seventh-best in the ACC, compared to .362 in ’16, which ranked 12th among league squads.
There’s another, grander scale on which this Carolina team so closely matches last year’s that the differences blur.
Both finished first during the ACC regular season and entered the NCAAs as No. 1 seeds. Last season’s Heels, top-ranked in both polls at the outset, were 15-1 at the Smith Center. This year’s, ranked sixth at season’s beginning and end by the Associated Press, were undefeated at home. The 2016 national finalists won the ACC tournament and entered the Final Four with a 32-6 record. This year’s Tar Heels are 31-7 and lost to Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals.
So just how good is this North Carolina team? Roy Williams insists he doesn’t know. “I’ve had several (people) say, ‘Oh, you’re better this year than you were last year’, and I say, ‘We don’t have one consistent, great defender, we don’t have a rim protector. But we’re making more shots.’ So, which is more important? It depends on the game.”
One thing is clear. For all the numbers that virtually match, or give a slight edge to a 2017 squad whose members so heavily populated the 2016 team, regard for this year’s group falls short of the respect accorded its predecessor. Perhaps going a step farther will change that.