UNC's Coach Williams talks about victory over Duke: 'It was unbelievable'
The Sweet 16 starts on Thursday without North Carolina for the first time since 2014.
The season ended in a disappointment, an 86-65 loss to Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but there was a lot to like about what the Tar Heels did.
UNC (26-11) won six in a row after a 5-5 ACC start and reached the ACC championship game with three wins in Brooklyn.
The Heels extended coach Roy Williams’ remarkable opening-round winning streak in the NCAA tournament to 28 games (without a loss). In a year where the No. 1 overall seed (a team that had just beaten UNC five days earlier) lost in the opening round, that’s no small feat.
A look back at the season that was:
Either the 82-78 home win over Duke on Feb. 8 or the 74-69 win over the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament on March 9.
Duke is the most talented team in college basketball. The Tar Heels took two of three games from them and led by 10 points at halftime of the loss. Given the talent discrepancy on the rosters, UNC had no business doing that.
Duke trying to zone UNC was a mistake but there was more to the win in Brooklyn, in particular, than a poor tactical choice by the opposing coach. UNC just outplayed Duke in Chapel Hill and again in Brooklyn.
As for the Tar Heels’ best performance of the season, they were sensational for about 30 minutes in an 86-71 home win over Michigan (another Sweet 16 team) on Nov. 29 and they flat-out put it all together in a 96-66 home win over Boston College on Jan. 9.
They beat the brakes off Syracuse (78-59) in Brooklyn, too; which apparently Michigan State coach Tom Izzo didn’t bother to scout.
The Heels were terrible on offense in an early loss to Izzo (go figure) and the Spartans back at the PK80 in Portland on Nov. 26.
The home loss to Wofford wasn’t a picnic either, although the Terriers outplayed the Heels. The Miami loss, on Senior Night, was the most painful and clearly a sign that this wasn’t UNC’s year, but the worst loss was actually the last one.
Texas A&M was a bad matchup for UNC, with its size, — and full credit to Billy Kennedy for actually exploiting that advantage (while so many other teams UNC played this season did not) — but in Charlotte, with the crowd behind them, and an early eight-point lead, the Heels should not have lost by 21.
Williams’ preference is to play with two bigs and a traditional post. That was the plan again this season before Tony Bradley left for the NBA. Without Bradley (he was a first-round pick), that really wasn’t an option — or at least not Williams’ best option.
So, once Cam Johnson was healthy, Williams went with the Pitt grad transfer at the “3,” senior Theo Pinson at the “4” and junior Luke Maye at the “5” for the final 21 games.
That lineup struggled to find its footing in January, going 4-5 in the first month of ACC play, but got into a groove in February and peaked in the ACC tournament.
With guard Joel Berry (34.4 percent), guard Kenny Williams (40.2 percent), Johnson (34.1 percent) and Maye (43.1 percent) all adept at shooting 3-pointers, UNC attempted more 3s per game (22.9) than any team in school history.
It was the Heels’ highest percentage of 3-point attempts (35.1) and most 3s made per game (8.2) during Roy Williams’ 15-year tenure.
Despite going “small,” the Heels still averaged 42.4 rebounds per game, which is the most by any team in the country, and ranked third in rebounding margin (plus-9.6).
Maye, in particular, was outstanding on the glass. An undersized “4,” let alone “5,” Maye averaged 10.1 rebounds per game, second-best in the ACC and No. 20 in the NCAA.
Like all of Williams’ teams, the Heels made rebounding a priority at every position.
Letting “Theo be Theo” (and “Luke be Luke”)
Neither Pinson nor Maye played traditional roles in Williams’ offense. Or really Berry as a “point guard,” to be honest.
The offense went through Pinson, either in the high-post or with him as the ballhandler initiating the offense.
Maye, whose strength is his outside shot, took more 3s (116) than all of the previous big men (Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, John Henson, Brice Johnson, etc.) who have starred in the primary scoring role for Williams combined.
Pinson loved to say that Williams “let Theo be Theo” but really he changed the coach thought process with Maye, too.
“But that’s OK,” Williams said before the Lipscomb win. “I think my job is to see guys what they can do and say, ‘OK, can I fit that in to what will help us?’”
Williams did just that and both Pinson and Maye prospered, so did the team.
UNC really poured it on in the defensive end in Brooklyn. The Heels contested every dribble drive and pass. They swarmed. Realistically, with their lack of depth, that wasn’t sustainable for an entire season.
So there were stretches during the regular season where UNC was lax, particularly on the perimeter. The Heels ranked No. 323 (out of 351) in 3-point defense (opponents made 38 percent of their 3s).
There is a nuance to 3-point defense, one better explained here by Ken Pomeroy, but the problem for UNC was it couldn’t regularly force its opponents into mistakes.
The Heels ranked No. 283 in the NCAA in turnovers forced (11.7) and No. 224 in steals per game (5.8). They did, however, despite their lack of size, surprisingly rank No. 67 (with 4.1 per game) in blocked shots.
Williams tried to get the most out of freshmen forwards Sterling Manley (5.4 points per game) and Garrison Brooks (4.5 ppg). They each had their moments: Brooks notably in the ACC tournament win over Duke and Manley stood out in the regular-season win at Syracuse.
But neither was quite ready to consistently help. Note how they struggled against Texas A&M’s talent and size.
Even before his university suspension, and subsequent decision to leave the program, freshman guard Jalek Felton was never quite comfortable in his role as Berry’s backup.
Felton was outstanding in a neutral-site win over Ohio State before Christmas but he had scored a total of eight points in nine ACC games before he left the team.
The Heels needed Felton to spell Berry this season, and add some scoring punch off the bench. They really needed him for the 2018-19 season. Those plans obviously fell apart.
Sophomore guard Seventh Woods dealt with a foot injury, which cost him 17 games, in December and January. Woods was either not healthy enough, or confident enough, to make an impact off the bench as Berry’s primary backup.
With Felton gone, and Berry graduated, Woods will have the opportunity to be UNC’s point guard next season. He will have to make significant progress in the offseason.
Given how Williams, and his staff, have excelled at developing players, that’s certainly possible.
Sophomore Brandon Robinson and freshman Andrew Platek also got minutes in the regular rotation. Williams has a knack for getting the most out of his players. Those two could be more valuable next season with more experience.
UNC already has a top-10 recruiting class signed. Wing Nassir Little and guard Coby White are a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans. Wing Rechon Black is a top-75 recruit.
The Tar Heels are still in contention for forward E.J. Montgomery, one of the top post players in the class, and point guard Ashton Hagans, who would have to reclassify.
Sophomore K.J. Smith, who sat out this season as a transfer from Pacific, has the potential to help at point guard.