CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 2 North Carolina is pushing tempo this season as much as a Roy Williams team ever has, yet has placed an unparalleled premium on taking care of the ball while converting its opponents' miscues into scoring opportunities.
The Tar Heels rank 19th nationally in turnovers per game (10.5) despite residing in the top-fourth of teams in possessions per game (74.0). UNC ranks sixth in turnover percentage (14.5), according to kenpom.com.
The 10.5 turnovers per game is currently the lowest average of any UNC team since turnovers were first recorded in 1981-82, according to UNC’s sports information office.
Williams, the bastion of superstition that he is, bristled when asked about the historically low average on Friday, suggesting that an abundance of turnovers in Saturday’s game against Boston College might result in a certain reporter’s tires being slashed shortly thereafter. After the joking ceased, he offered his insight into the reduction of errors.
“Our personnel probably has a lot to do with it because we have two point guards,” Williams said. “We play a third point guard, and at times, we’ve played three point guards together. We don’t necessarily have some risk-takers in the other guys. We have some carelessness. Theo [Pinson] will get careless with it at times. We don’t have the risk-takers, the high-reward, gray hairs on the top of coach’s head kind of plays that J.P. [Tokoto] would make. And so when you look at the personnel, that has a lot to do with it.”
Tokoto led the 2014-15 team in turnovers with 85, committing one every 13 minutes. Sophomore point guard Joel Berry leads the current team with 37 turnovers, committing one every 16.4 minutes.
Williams has been known to walk out to midcourt during practice and attempt shots underhanded. He said he can eventually make one or two, thereby illustrating his point on the value of possession.
“If I get a shot, I’ve got a chance to win,” Williams said. “If you turn the ball over, you have no chance.”
UNC leads the ACC in turnover margin (plus-3.40) and has been even better in league, stretching that differential to plus-3.71. The Tar Heels also lead the conference in assist-turnover ratio (1.8).
“We’ve been taking care of the ball better this year,” senior guard Marcus Paige said earlier this month. “We’re averaging around 11, so that’s better than we’ve been in the past. Also, our defense hasn’t been as fundamentally sound this year, but with the athletes we have, we’ve been creating more turnovers. It ignites our break. Our team has done a better job running. Joel’s done a great job pushing the ball, so we’re getting more out of those turnovers than we have in the past.”
UNC has been equally as effective in forcing turnovers. Williams and his staff decided before the start of the season to take a more aggressive approach to creating turnovers, utilizing its halfcourt trap at random times to disrupt its opponents’ offensive rhythm and accelerating tempo.
As a result, the Tar Heels are forcing 13.9 turnovers per game and nearly doubling up its opponents in the points off turnovers statistical category, which is where the true value lies. Not only is UNC forcing more turnovers than its committing, but its scoring more efficiently off the errors.
The Tar Heels are averaging 1.3 points per every turnover they force, while their opponents are managing 0.9 points per UNC turnover since Paige returned to the lineup against Maryland on Dec. 1.
Part of that discrepancy is UNC’s ability to recovery, but it’s more about limiting those opportunities. There’s another explanation as well.
“Since we’re taking care of the ball better and our offense flows better, a lot of our turnovers are dead ball turnovers, so you will see an illegal screen or somebody throw the ball out of bounds,” Paige said. “Those are harder to convert off of because our defense is set. There are not a lot of live ball turnovers where we’re giving up advantages on the break.”
The value in such statistics has been apparent during UNC’s current three-game shooting slump. The Tar Heels have outscored their opponents, 57-26, in points off turnovers during that stretch.