CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It wasn’t that long ago that tempo often determined North Carolina’s win probability. Teams that dared run with the Tar Heels rarely could keep up, while teams that grinded every second out of the shot clock had a clear advantage.
In 2013-14 and 2014-15, UNC was a combined 5-8 in games with 65 or fewer possessions. The Tar Heels were bounced in the Sweet 16 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament by top seed Wisconsin in game of 60 possessions. Since then, however, UNC’s roster has matured and is now thriving against slower-paced teams.
Not only are the Tar Heels pushing the tempo more effectively of late – UNC played eight games with 65 or fewer possessions in 2014-15 and has played that same number combined over the past two seasons – but they are winning more when forced to play at a slower pace. Roy Williams’s squad has won six of its last seven in games with 65 or fewer possessions, including all three this season. The lone loss came in the national championship game against Villanova last season (64 possessions).
“I’ve always said I like to win in the 80s and 90s, but to be a really good team you’ve got to win in the 50s and 60s as well,” Williams said last week. “If you can only play one way, I don’t think you can make a consistent run through this league, for sure, but even nationally, I think you’ve got to be able to play more than one way because you’re not in charge.”
UNC has proved its versatility against two of the best programs in the country at slowing the pace. At the Maui Invitational in November, the Tar Heels handed No. 11 Wisconsin its second-worst loss since March 2013 with a 71-56 victory. And on Saturday, the 65-41 win over No. 14 Virginia was the Cavaliers’ worst loss since December 2013. Wisconsin ranks 329th nationally in possessions per game, while Virginia is 350th.
“Coach said we obviously like to score high, they like to score low,” junior wing Justin Jackson said following UNC’s win over Virginia. “And he said to be a great team you’ve got to be able to do both. For us, we tried to focus on still being able to push the ball, still getting to the offensive glass and still just trying to push it at them as much as we possibly could. With them missing so many threes, it led to some run-outs and it led to us getting out in our secondary break quicker than they probably would like and not necessarily going against a set defense every time.”
Junior wing Theo Pinson, who along with five other members of UNC’s core rotation was on the 2014-15 team that struggled in low-possession games, attributes the turnaround to maturity and first-hand knowledge.
“We had an experience team last year and have an experienced team this year,” Pinson said. “The starting five has been through it before. It’s a grind-it-out game. We’re playing 30 seconds; it’s going to come down to the end of the shot clock. Can you stay focused the whole 30 seconds and play?”
It’s also a matter of understanding what to expect against each opponent. While possessions come at a premium against teams like Virginia and Wisconsin, it’s efficiency in bulk against teams willing to run like Kentucky and UNC’s next opponent, No. 8 Louisville.
“You’ve just got to know the game,” Meeks said. “You’ve got to know your pace. You’ve got to know when you have to slow it down, and you’ve got to know when you have to pick it up.”
In past years, UNC may have rushed a shot against a team like Virginia or Wisconsin, only to miss and be tasked with playing defense on the other end for 30 seconds. Not only were the Tar Heels more patient offensively on Saturday – their average length of possession was 18 seconds, two seconds higher than their standard – but they were also able to get defensive stops, which allowed them to get out in transition and score eight fast break points.
Instead of forcing tempo and too often failing, UNC has learned to push the pace when the opportunity arises, whether it be off a defensive rebound or a turnover. Every possession against a defense that’s not set is a bonus, and when paired with patience and efficiency during the other possessions, it’s an approach that has been successful for the Tar Heels over the past two seasons.