PHILADELPHIA – Marcus Paige was just being Marcus Paige earlier this week when he questioned the validity of grading North Carolina’s 3-point percentage defense solely on its opponents’ 3-point field goal percentage.
The senior combo guard referenced a 2012 article by noted statistician Ken Pomeroy that suggested the best measure of 3-point defense is a team’s ability to keep opponents from taking 3-pointers, not the percentage of those attempts.
When told that their 3-point field goal percentage defense was significantly higher this year than last year – 35.4 compared to 30.0 – the Tar Heels were at a loss in explaining the differential.
“That’s weird because our defense is better this year than it was last year,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said on Tuesday.
A deeper look into Friday’s matchup indicates that UNC’s opponents this season were elite offensively while Indiana’s opponents were average defensively, according to kenpom.com. The average adjusted offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) of UNC’s opponents was 109.1, good for 11th nationally. The average adjusted defensive efficiency of Indiana’s opponents was 102.3, good for 93rd nationally.
Of the 15 power conference teams that reached the Sweet 16, Indiana’s opponents' average adjusted defensive efficiency ranks dead last. Texas A&M is 14th with a 101.1 OppD rating (53rd nationally).
In short, it’s possible that Indiana’s shooting percentages have been inflated due to the quality of its defensive competition, while the opposite holds true for the Tar Heels.
While those details help explain how these teams crafted their stat sheets to this point, they have little to do with Friday’s matchup. Indiana still ranks fifth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (41.6) and UNC still has to find a way to defend those perimeter looks.
“We’re going to try to stop them from penetrating so they won’t be able to suck us in and then pass it out for a wide open three,” sophomore guard Joel Berry said on Thursday. “That’s the big thing. They’re going to hit some threes throughout the game, but as long as we’re making those threes tough for them, that’s what we want to do.”
When asked what makes a perimeter look tough, Berry said it’s about closing out, getting a hand up on the shot and even yelling, a tactic employed by youth teams and YMCA lunch leagues around the country.
“I think if we limit the number of open looks they get, then we’re happy,” Paige said. “It’s hard to do anything about a made shot over a hand. We always say no open looks on our scouting report. If there’s a guy we want no open looks for or sense of urgency closeouts to, if we get those and he makes them, you have to live with that.”
Paige offered the example of Louisville’s Damion Lee, who shot 34.1 percent from long range this season. Lee made 4-of-7 3-pointers in the Cardinals’ win over the Tar Heels on Feb. 1, due in part to UNC failing to account for his shooting preferences.
UNC’s scouting report stressed not allowing Lee open looks from beyond the arc in transition. The Tar Heels gave him two, and Lee knocked both of them down. Those types of plays are correctable. If Lee had made those attempts over an outstretched hand, tip your hat and move on.
“I think for each guy it’s different,” Paige said. “Some guys like to shoot behind ball screens or off the dribble, so we’ll try to take those away. Other guys are catch-and-shoot guys, so we don’t want to give them any catch-and-shoot opportunities. It depends on personnel.”
That’s a critical distinction in defending Indiana. The Hoosiers are scoring 1.4 points per Spot Up possession in the NCAA Tournament, according to Synergy Sports. UNC has defended well in Spot Up situations during the NCAA Tournament, allowing 0.656 points per possession.