CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As No. 7 North Carolina enters postseason play at the ACC Tournament on Thursday, it's in position to set a handful of records, both good and bad, and finish atop the league standings in other categories.
Taking Care of the Ball
The Tar Heels rank fourth nationally in assist-turnover ratio (1.66), which is currently the best of any UNC team since turnovers were first recorded in 1981-82. The current record holder is the 1985-86 season (1.53) while the best ratio during the Roy Williams era is 1.45, held by both the 2008-09 and 2011-12 teams.
In those latter two seasons, however, UNC dominated the assist-turnover category with an abundance of assists. The current team leads the ACC by pairing 18.3 assists per game with 11.0 turnovers per game, the lowest by a UNC team since turnovers were first recorded in 1981-82. The current record holder is the 2013-14 team (11.94).
“I think it’s just having value for the ball,” sophomore point guard Joel Berry said. “We know that if we can keep possession of it without having a turnover, we can get a shot. That’s the biggest thing. You never want to go down on the offensive end and just turn the ball over and not have the chance to be able to get a shot.”
UNC has three players ranked in the top-10 of the ACC in assist-turnover ratio – Marcus Paige (3.07, 3rd), Justin Jackson (3.03, 4th) and Berry (2.22, 8th).
“I think the biggest thing is just making the easy play,” Jackson said. “Sometimes, I know for me, I get caught up in trying to make that play that I think maybe will get us a basket, but at the end of the day, there’s more opportunities to get points than trying to force things in there. I think we’ve done a lot better job of just valuing the ball a lot more and realizing that we don’t always have to score off an amazing play. We just have so many guys that can score that we can make the easy play a lot more.”
UNC is shooting a woeful 31.0 percent from 3-point range, which is on pace to be the lowest in school history. The current record is held by the 2010-11 team, which managed 32.8 percent from long range.
And it’s not as though the Tar Heels are taking a bunch of ill-advised shots. The coaching staff hasn’t harped on poor shot selection, according to Berry.
“The majority of the time they’re pretty good shots,” Berry said. “Some of them are probably quick in the shot clock. We could probably make a couple of extra passes and take more time off the clock and get a better shot. But from the shots that I’ve seen, between me, Marcus and Justin, I think we’ve had pretty good opportunities at the rim. They just didn’t fall. All of them aren’t going to fall. I think they’re pretty good shots that we’ve taken. We just haven’t knocked them in like we wanted to.”
This season is not an outlier, either. UNC has shot 34.0 percent (1,330-3,907) from 3-point range over the past seven seasons and has converted 33.6 percent or worse of its 3-point attempts in five of those seven seasons.
As for stats of irrelevance, UNC is 10-0 this season when it has attempted 20 or more 3-pointers.
It should not come as a surprise that UNC leads the ACC in rebounding margin (plus-7.3) or assists (17.2) in league play. What may catch the casual observer off guard is that the Tar Heels also lead the ACC in field goal percentage defense (40.5), outdistancing defensive-minded No. 14 Louisville (41.3) and No. 4 Virginia (41.7).
UNC has held 20 consecutive opponents to under 45 percent shooting, while No. 18 Maryland is its lone opponent to shoot over 50 percent this season.
“There’s no question we’ve gotten better defensively,” Williams said.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, according to the Hall of Fame head coach, especially with regard to consistency staying in front of the ball and boxing out. He also noted that he “goes wacko” when a player doesn’t get a hand up on a shot.
UNC ranks 29th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (95.6), according to kenpom.com, which trails Williams’s three previous Final Four teams in Chapel Hill, as well as the 2011-12 team that fell short due Kendall Marshall’s broken wrist. All four of those teams ranked in the top-25 nationally with efficiency ratings of 92.9 or better.
Without a lockdown defender, various Tar Heels are pitching in as five players have earned defensive player of the game honors at least four times. Berry leads the group with eight selections, followed by Isaiah Hicks with seven nods.
One reason Williams is hesitant to praise his team’s defensive effort due to its inability to grasp the minutiae involved, whether it be getting a hand up or even running the correct play.
“I go over [to Duke] the other night with the idea that we’re going to change up the defense to keep them off balance a little bit,” Williams said. “The first three times we ran a scramble somebody screwed it up every time, so I said, ‘We’re not doing that anymore.’
“And I really thought – I spent some time thinking, ‘That will be really good,’ and we did it three times in a row. I mean, one time, Joel called it. He’s the point guard. He called it and then he forgot it. You’ve got to understand they’re kids. If you give a signal, that means you’re the guy calling the defense and he forgot what defense we were running by the time the guy took five more dribbles into the halfcourt.”