Roy Williams had the number at the ready on Thursday, committed to memory – an indication, perhaps, of how much he paid attention to that sort of statistic and maybe even how much he admired it. The number helped tell the story of how fast Kentucky operates on offense.
“I did get something reading the stats,” Williams said at one point about Kentucky, UNC’s opponent on Saturday in Las Vegas in the CBS Sports Classic. “They take a shot every 13.5 or 6 seconds. That’s second-fastest in the country and I know we don’t take it that fast, but I’d like to.
“I’d like to take it faster than that.”
The line provided some quick insight into, well, Williams’ philosophy on attempting to score quickly. To summarize it: he’s very much in favor, and he dismissed the thought on Thursday that the Tar Heels might try to play at a slower pace in hopes of slowing down the seventh-ranked Wildcats.
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In fact, Williams seemed downright perplexed at the notion. Him, slow things down?
“I think I’d really screw up everybody if I say we’re going to start the four corners and slow it down,” he said.
Williams has always ascribed to an up-tempo philosophy, the idea being to create as many transition scoring chances as possible. The Tar Heels aren’t known for rushing things, necessarily, in their half-court offense but there, too, Williams believes in quick precision.
Work the ball inside. Look for a shot. If it’s not there pass it out. Penetrate. Kick out, shoot.
What UNC most favors on offense is the opposite, say, of Virginia, which prefers a methodical, sometimes plodding, pace. And so when those two teams play, it’s always one of the questions: Which team can force the other to play at its preferred tempo?
Entering Las Vegas, where the Tar Heels arrived on Saturday, a different question awaits: How does UNC adjust, or does it, when it encounters a team that plays at an even faster pace than the Tar Heels?
Through games completed on Thursday, Kentucky’s average possession length of 13.5 seconds ranks fourth nationally, according to kenpom.com. UNC’s possessions last nine-tenths of a second longer, on average, and that ranks 12th nationally.
The Tar Heels are the fastest team in the ACC, based on possession length, and they have yet to play an opponent that operates at a quicker pace. That will change on Saturday. What isn’t likely to change: UNC’s approach, despite playing an even faster opponent.
“I think they’d all drop dead if I started in the delay game,” Williams said during a moment of levity on Thursday, “so it’d be bad for their five players to still be alive and my five to be dead. So I really don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The deciding factor between teams that both like to run often isn’t which team is faster on offense. It’s which is quicker retreating on defense in attempt to limit transition scoring. That creates an especially interesting challenge for the Tar Heels, one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams.
Do they hang around on their end of the court, positioning themselves as usual for shots that might bounce awry? Or do they surrender some of their chances for offensive rebounds to give themselves a better chance of being in sound defensive position on the other end?
One thing is clear enough, at least: UNC isn’t going to try to slow it down. Asked if he could remember a time when he ever tried to play at a deliberately slower pace than he prefers, Williams said he couldn’t. Not in his years at Kansas. Not in his years at UNC. Not in 29 years as a college head coach.
That’s not going to change on Saturday, he said, and, if it does, he surmised that a Roy Williams body double might be coaching instead of the real thing.
“Coaching at Kansas and North Carolina, I’ve never told anybody we’re going to walk it down,” Williams said. “I’ve told you guys this: you’ve got to understand it ain’t going to change. If you see me walking it down and holding it to the last second, then I saw something I should not have seen.
“And they’ve got me in a witness protection program somewhere and somebody else is coaching that team. It ain’t me. That’s the only way, guys. I’m telling you. If we go out there and we walk the dadgum thing up the court, you’ll say, ‘God, I wonder where they’ve got him stashed.’”