Long Range Efficiency

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While North Carolina may not be known for its 3-point shooting, the Tar Heels have become rather proficient in converting their limited opportunities from beyond the arc.

Only one ACC team – Virginia - attempted fewer 3-pointers over the course of the season than UNC (449-460), and the Cavaliers averaged 12 fewer possessions per game than the Tar Heels. In conference play, UNC attempted just 219 3-pointers, good for 15th overall and 32 fewer than Pittsburgh.

Through 37 games, UNC ranks 313th in 3-point field goals made per game (4.8) and 135th in 3-point field goal percentage (35.1), so it’s obvious the long ball hasn’t been a key part of Roy Williams’s offensive game plan.

Over the last month, however, the Tar Heels have caught fire from deep and provided an unexpected boost to the perimeter portion of their inside-out attack. Since Feb. 21, UNC is shooting 41.7 percent (60-of-144) from 3-point range and has increased its made treys per game by more than 20 percent (4.5 to 5.5).

As a result, UNC finished the regular season ranked third in ACC play in 3-point field goal percentage (37.0).

The improved shooting percentage coincides with an emphasis by Williams for his team to be more methodical and patient on offense. About that time, according to freshman wing Justin Jackson, the 12th-year UNC head coach started writing one particular bullet point on the locker room whiteboard before games: “Get the shot that we all want.”

Williams credits the jump in 3-point field goal percentage to more selective shooting.

“I think that comes with good ball movement, sharing the ball and not holding it,” Jackson said. “Whenever you get an open shot, take advantage of it and shoot it with confidence. I think we’re definitely getting a lot better shots.”

Junior guard Marcus Paige has been UNC’s primary 3-point shooter – his 41.5 shooting percentage ranked third in ACC play – but he has received plenty of help over this 11-game stretch. Jackson is shooting 40 percent (14-of-35) after making 20.4 percent (11-of-54) of his 3-point attempts during the first 26 games of the year, while fellow freshman Joel Berry is shooting 44.4 percent (8-of-18) after a 25.9 percent (7-of-27) start.

“For pretty much the whole season, everybody said Marcus was our only 3-point threat, and by the numbers, it looked like it,” Jackson said. “I think now that we’re all hitting threes, it takes the pressure off him and it opens up things more for the big guys. I think it definitely helps our offense.”

With more shots falling from the perimeter, opponents have been forced to extend their defense to account for the improved shooting, which has thereby benefitted UNC’s post players.

“It opens up the defense for us,” junior forward Brice Johnson said. “Teams usually try to go zone on us, so when those guys are knocking down outside shots, it really opens it up for the post players down low, and it gets the other teams out of the zone and back to man-to-man, and then we're really dominant when we can get it down low.”

If there’s one potential drawback to improved shooting from deep, it’s the lure of fool’s gold. Better efficiency of late doesn’t change the makeup of UNC’s offense.

“We're not a team that shoots a lot of threes or does a lot of attacking from the perimeter, but we can't fall in love with the jump shot if we make a couple early,” Paige said. “We've got to understand that our bread and butter is getting the ball inside, either throwing it in off an entry pass or driving the ball to the basket.

“Obviously, it's important to knock down some shots to keep some balance, but we've got to know, especially myself as the point guard, that just because we hit a couple outside shots does not mean that we need to deviate from going inside early and often and trying to dominate the paint.”

The 3-point shot is the great equalizer in college basketball, and although the Tar Heels won’t lean on their perimeter shooting against No. 1 seed Wisconsin on Thursday, it’s an effective scoring option to have available.

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