Who is "The Real" Number One?

The talk on ESPN this week has been who is the "Real Number One" team in the country, Illinois or North Carolina? Many of the ESPN's pundits have claimed that Illinois has been playing the best so far this season, while North Carolina is the best team in the country. Brumby decided to look at both North Carolina and Illinois and once and for all find out who is the "Real Number One" team in the country, Illinois or North Carolina?

Despite their spot at Number Three in the polls, North Carolina has been getting a lot of recent attention as maybe the best team in the country. This could have a lot to do with North Carolina's last two victories when they dismantled Maryland 109-75 and Georgia Tech 91-69. These two wins over two quality opponents have vaulted the North Carolina Tar Heels into the minds of the national media when they are trying to create controversy to sell segments on Sports Center and minutes on College Hoops Tonight. The question that has been asked for the last two nights on these shows simply is: Are the North Carolina Tar Heels (despite their loss to Santa Clara) better than the Number One team in both the polls, Illinois?

I decided I would try to answer that question by combining things I have witnessed in games and then by breaking down some of the numbers put up by each team. My initial hypothesis is simple, Illinois and North Carolina are the two best teams in the country this season, and either team can beat the other on any given night, but in a seven game series, I would have to lean towards the Tar Heels in a seven game series based on their overall talent level, and their strength inside compared to Illinois'.

Now that I have stated my hypothesis, it is time to break down some numbers to see where Illinois and Carolina stand when placed side-by-side each other on a piece of paper.

  Illinois North Carolina
Points Scored Per Game 82.10 93.70
Points Allowed Per Game 61.90 68.70
Field Goal Percentage 50.80 52.10
Field Goal Percentage (Against) 41.30 40.10
3-Point Percentage 41.10 44.10
3-Point Percentage (Against) 37.70 32.20
Free Throw Percentage 71.40 72.80
Free Throw Percentage (Against) 64.60 67.90

The first things that stand out in these statistics are that North Carolina is scoring about 11 points more per game than the Illini, which would make the casual eye declare the Tar Heels the better offensive team. Just like the Illini are holding teams to about 7 points per game less than North Carolina, making the casual eye declare the Illini to be a better defensive team than the Tar Heels. But are these assumptions the case? What happens when you factor in the speed at which both teams play the game? Does Carolina's speed allow them to score more points? Does Illinois' relative slowness when compared to North Carolina account for the fewer points allowed per game?

  Illinois North Carolina
Pace 66.50 79.49
Offensive Efficiency 123.49 117.84
Defensive Efficiency 93.15 86.47
Points per Shot Adjusted 1.22 1.26
Adjusted Shots per Possession 1.02 0.94
Defensive Rebounding % 67.70 70.39
Offensive Rebounding % 37.27 39.44

Looking at these advanced statistics (they are called advanced because they are created through mathematical manipulation of the standard box score statistics), one thing is extremely obvious, North Carolina plays at an extremely fast pace, averaging almost two possessions per minute. (The only other team in the country that plays at a faster pace according to Ken Pomeroy is Maryland).

The effect of pace on both team's numbers is pretty obvious, but when you factor in pace, some of the common beliefs about both Illinois and North Carolina are proved to be wrong. The better offensive team between Illinois and North Carolina is not located in Chapel Hill, it is located in Champaign, IL (the only team in the country with a better offensive efficiency according to Pomeroy is Michigan State). The better defensive team is not located in the rough and tumble, grind it out Big Ten conference, they play in the wide-open finesse conference of the ACC.

These numbers were not too shocking to me, but while knowing how efficient Illinois has been on offense, I was not expecting to see them scoring 6 more points than North Carolina for every 100 possessions, but that is what has happened so far this season. Defensively, I have been extremely impressed with the way Carolina has played, so I was not shocked to see them ahead of Illinois when it came to their defensive efficiency, but the 7 point per 100 possession differential did surprise me.

The most shocking number on these advanced statistics had nothing to do with comparing Illinois and North Carolina, but on the number of shots Illinois has gotten per possession. By taking into account free throws (because just under half of all free throws taken spread across the season were a result of a shooting foul) to get an adjusted number of shots on the season, I discovered that Illinois is taking just over one shot per offensive possession. This does go along with the extremely high offensive efficiency number, but I would have to assume it is rare that a team takes more than one shot per possession, especially one whose weakness is supposed to be their inside game.

This is how the teams stack up against each other on paper, but one of the main reasons every one is saying Illinois is not as good as Carolina is the apparent level of talent on the Carolina roster compared to the Fighting Illini roster. So how do the Illini and Carolina players that play more than twenty minutes per game stack up against each other on the stat sheet?

Luther Head 15.8 4.1 3.04 1.34 59.89
Deron Williams 13.8 3.8 2.29 1.06 45.69
Dee Brown 13.4 2.7 2.56 1.44 60.81
Roger Powell, Jr. 12.8 5.1 0.64 1.31 15.49
James Augustine 9.9 7.4 1.28 1.34 0.00
Jawad Williams 16.9 4.1 1.08 1.46 24.14
Rashad McCants 16.5 3.3 1.23 1.32 50.00
Sean May 15.7 8.9 1.09 1.26 0.71
Raymond Felton 10.6 3.7 1.88 1.31 53.61
Jackie Manuel 5.7 2.7 1.37 0.95 10.81
Marvin Williams 10.3 6.5 0.48 1.25 12.77

Illinois' back court trio of Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams is as good as any backcourt in the country, and the stat sheet shows this. All three guards are scoring more than 13 points a game while having an assist to turnover ratio of over 2.25:1, and only Deron Williams is averaging less than 1.3 adjusted points per shot attempt. Comparing this to Carolina's two man back court of Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants, you see that while Felton and McCants are averaging 1.32 and 1.31 PPSA, respectively, they both are less efficient with their shooting than Illinois' Brown and Head. The other number that stands out is their low assist to turnover ration as compared to the Illini back court.

When it comes to the inside game, North Carolina has the more heralded inside players in Sean May, Jawad Williams, and freshman Marvin Williams. Illinois comes to the fold with Roger Powell, Jr. and James Augustine, who are solid players, but they are not heralded, nor are they as respected as May and the Williams duo. The Carolina duo scores more in total, and rebounds the ball better (both as individual and as a team), while the Illinois duo averages more points per shot attempt and rebounds the ball adequately.

So what did I discover by doing this little exercise?

Basically I discovered that every one can have an opinion between the two teams on which one is better, and if you say "Illinois is better" or "North Carolina is better" you have a valid opinion and could easily be right. I don't think there is a clear cut better team right now between the Illini and the Tar Heels, but Carolina's one loss (despite it being without Raymond Felton) looms large over their head when you compare the two teams.

If you forced me to rank the two teams, I would call Illinois 1a, and name North Carolina 1b. The joy of college basketball is that it does not matter what we say about the teams in January, this is all just filler talk until the NCAA Tournament in March ultimately decides who was the best team in college basketball this season.

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