Why UNC’s historically good rebounding isn’t enough for Roy Williams

UNC's Roy Williams: We can significantly get better (in rebounding)

VIDEO: North Carolina head men's basketball coach Roy Williams talks Weds., Jan. 25, during a press conference before the Tar Heels' game against Virginia Tech.
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VIDEO: North Carolina head men's basketball coach Roy Williams talks Weds., Jan. 25, during a press conference before the Tar Heels' game against Virginia Tech.

During his weekly radio show on Monday night, Roy Williams said the numbers made him “sick.” If a listener had only caught part of the comment, if the context had been lost, it would have been easy to assume that Williams, the North Carolina coach, was talking about some area of the game in which his team has been somewhat deficient.

Like maybe free throw shooting, for instance. The Tar Heels have made a good-but-not-great 71.6 percent of their free throws. Or maybe shooting, period. After all in ACC play the Tar Heels are 12th in the conference, according to kenpom.com, in effective field goal percentage – a metric that combines a team’s efficiency in making both two-point and 3-point attempts.

Williams, though, was talking about none of those things. What made him “sick,” to use his word, was that the numbers suggest UNC is the best rebounding team in the country, and that these Tar Heels are among the best rebounding teams in school history. Such data might be a welcome sight to most coaches, if not all of them.

But Williams isn’t most coaches, and his emphasis on rebounding borders on the maniacal.

“I emphasize it so much,” he said on Wednesday. “You’ve heard me say that a prospect came in one time and said, ‘I didn’t realize there was an 11th commandment: Thou shalt box out.’ But that’s the way I treat the game.”

Through 21 games, UNC, which hosts Virginia Tech on Thursday, has rebounded 42.7 percent of its missed shots. That ranks first nationally, according to kenpom.com. On average, they finish games with 14.2 more rebounds than their opponents. That also leads the nation.

The Tar Heels lead the ACC in rebounding margin, rebounds per game (45.9) and offensive rebounds per game (16.5). The average rebounding margin of 14.2 is also the widest in school history, and the second-highest for any team in the country since 1980. Only Michigan State in 2001, with its rebounding margin of 15.4, finished a season with one greater.

The numbers say this is UNC’s best rebounding team ever, and that it’s among the greatest rebounding teams college basketball has seen during the past 36 years. Williams, though, isn’t as interested in the numbers as much as he is with what he sees. And he sees a team that can be better at rebounding, regardless of what the numbers say.

“I think that we can significantly get better than we are right now,” he said.

And how so, exactly?

“Boxing out,” he said. “You’ve got to go make some contact. You know, you can’t wave at the guy and put a wrist into him, or a little finger into him, and think he’s going to stop, if he’s a good rebounder.”

Williams makes another argument, too, and this one does have a basis in statistics: His team, at times, hasn’t been particularly efficient at making shots.

Overall, the Tar Heels rank among the top 55 teams nationally in field goal percentage (47.5 percent). It’s not a bad place to be, given there are 347 NCAA Division I basketball teams, but at times UNC goes through cold stretches -- ones in which shots, even close ones, bounce awry more often than not.

Williams on Wednesday referred to some of those moments, describing them as “volleyball times.” He was referencing his team’s proclivity for missing close shots, rebounding those misses, missing another shot, rebounding that miss and so on.

“We’d lay it up and get it and lay it up and get it and lay it up and get it, lay it up and get it – ‘Well, God, they’re a great rebounding team,’” Williams said. “Well, dang, we’re 1-for-4. So it’s a little bit inflated by that, but I think it’s one of the things I’m proud of but not nearly satisfied.”

The question, then, is what needs to happen for Williams to become satisfied – or even if that’s a possibility, given the standard he tries to set for rebounding. Individually, nearly every player who returned from last season is rebounding more effectively.

Kennedy Meeks, a senior forward, has experienced the greatest improvement. He is averaging 9.6 rebounds per game – nearly four more rebounds than he averaged a year ago. Williams and his staff, though, are still trying to mold Isaiah Hicks, another senior forward, into a better rebounder.

It’s the one aspect of his game, Hicks said on Wednesday, that commands the most attention from coaches. Hicks is averaging 5.4 rebounds, which is an increase of nearly 1 per game from a season ago. Yet he’s also starting now and playing about five more minutes per game. More is expected.

“All of them, they look at me (and say), ‘Man, you should be getting 10 rebounds a game,’ ” Hicks said, repeating what he’s often heard from his coaches. “It’s just me. You’ve just got to to out there and get it.”

The Tar Heels have done that more often, and more efficiently, than any team in the country. At least that’s what the numbers say. Williams, though, trusts his eyes, and they tell him UNC should be an even more formidable rebounding team than it appears to be.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

Virginia Tech at UNC

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill