UNC’s subtle shift in offensive philosophy paying dividends

North Carolina’s Justin Jackson drives to the basket against Long Beach State.
North Carolina’s Justin Jackson drives to the basket against Long Beach State. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Roy Williams’ philosophy on offense has rarely deviated during his 29 years as a college head coach and it’s a philosophy, more often than not, that has been as successful as it is simple: work the ball inside to a capable post player and reap the benefits.

That was especially true a season ago when Brice Johnson, the departed 6-foot-10 All-ACC forward, realized his potential after years of hard coaching from Williams, in his 14th season at North Carolina. Last year, UNC didn’t often want Johnson drifting away from the free throw lane.

“We would want Brice to get on the block,” Joel Berry, the junior guard, said on Tuesday, “because you throw it down to him, it was pretty much a bucket every time.”

Seven games into a new season, though, and the Tar Heels in stretches have played offensively like they rarely have under Williams: with their post players spread outside the paint, leaving driving lanes available for Berry and others who do most of their work on the perimeter.

The results have been positive for UNC, and difficult to defend for its opposition. The No. 3 Tar Heels, who play at No. 13 Indiana on Wednesday night, have scored at least 93 points in five of their seven games. They scored 100 points in consecutive victories last week in the Maui Invitational.

UNC’s offense hasn’t always been artful, hasn’t always been more free-flowing relative to last season.

“If you watched the Hawaii game, at Hawaii, and you thought that was free-flowing, then I need to sell you something,” coach Roy Williams said on Tuesday. “Because that was the worst frickin’ offense I’d ever seen. And then Wisconsin took us out of a lot of stuff.”

At least, the Badgers did so last Wednesday in the first half of the Maui Invitational championship game. By the second half, the Tar Heels had found their rhythm – and they did so in part because they weren’t so reliant on one player, like Johnson, scoring on the inside.

That was often the case for UNC a season ago, when the success of the offense depended on the success of Johnson on the interior. It was a formula that worked with great success – at least until opposing teams figured a way to limit Johnson’s effectiveness.

Duke did that in the second half of a victory at the Smith Center last February. Villanova did it, too, during the national championship game, when it held Johnson to 14 points.

Through the first seven games this season, UNC hasn’t been as reliant on a singular post presence. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, two senior forwards, have at times done what Johnson did a year ago. Tony Bradley, a 6-11 freshman, has had his moments, too.

But Williams has also asked those players to do something he rarely asked Johnson to do last year: get out of the way. Create space for Berry, wing forward Justin Jackson and others to penetrate.

“Coach does a great job of expressing to our big men, trying to get them out of the block,” Berry said. “Sometimes they’ll sit there a little bit too long and try to post up. So now they know that if they don’t get the ball, either go screen away, or screen on the ball. And I think that helps with attacking, and getting into the paint, which leads to either the big guy rolling (to the basket) or a kick out for a 3.”

The Tar Heels have made a higher percentage of those, too. Entering Wednesday night, UNC has made nearly 40 percent of its 3-point attempts, an improvement of nearly seven percentage points from a season ago.

Berry, who has made nearly half of his 3-point attempts (16-for-34), is the primary reason for the team’s improved perimeter shooting. Kenny Williams, the sophomore guard, already has made eight 3-pointers – seven more than he did all of last season.

Overall, the Tar Heels have only been slightly more reliant on 3-pointers through their first seven games. Twenty-two percent of their points, according to kenpom.com, have come from 3-pointers this season, compared to 20 percent a season ago.

Yet UNC’s attempts inside the 3-point line are coming in different ways, too, with Berry, Jackson and others taking advantage of wider, more available driving lanes.

“Coach just feels that (when) we have a lot of spacing, it’s hard for teams to guard us, compared to if the big guys are just sitting on the block the whole time,” Berry said. “It takes away from the guards to be able to attack the paint.”

The points could come in a hurry, again, against Indiana. Like UNC, the Hoosiers prefer a fast, free-flowing tempo, one possession transitioning into the next.

Wednesday night will be a rematch of a high-scoring NCAA tournament game last March. UNC and Indiana played then in an East Regional semifinal, a 101-86 UNC victory.

That game was only eight months ago, but much has changed. UNC, offensively, isn’t as dependent on any one player as it was Johnson, and the Tar Heels have often thrived amid the space Johnson left behind.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

UNC at Indiana

ACC/Big Ten Challenge

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.