CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Villanova forward Kris Jenkins’s 25-footer has been a basket of motivation for the top-seeded Tar Heels ever since they packed their bags and left their NRG Stadium locker room in Houston last April. Four wins separate North Carolina from a return trip to the Final Four, this time in Phoenix, although there are three primary factors that will determine the likelihood of such a journey.
Consistent Post Production
In Friday’s loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals, UNC built a 13-point lead by feeding the post, time and time again. Kennedy Meeks had 19 points with 13:53 to play, and then Duke started sagging off the perimeter to help inside, and the Tar Heels’ strength was shut down. Meeks failed to score again, while Isaiah Hicks’s lone field goal in the final 12 minutes was a dunk with 41 seconds to play and his team trailing by 12.
The postgame interviews offered similar explanations to ones provided after previous games, highlighting a lack of movement by the bigs combined with poor rotations and a quick trigger on the perimeter that limited entry pass options.
When UNC is at its best, post production is plentiful and efficient. When quality defensive teams make things difficult inside, and the Tar Heels don’t adjust, the entire offense bogs down. In UNC’s 77-62 loss at Miami on Jan. 28, Meeks and Hicks combined to score 12 points on nine field goal attempts. Duke fronted Meeks in its win at Cameron on Feb. 9 and effectively took away the Tar Heels’ interior advantage with Hicks sidelined with a hamstring injury.
The starting post duo combined for eight points on 10 field goal attempts in the loss at Virginia and then dominated Duke early in Brooklyn with 26 points before halftime. The Blue Devils’ adjustments, namely doubling the post with a delay, paired with less assertive play in the paint, limited the pair to six points in the final 12 minutes.
It’s not just about zone defenses. Meeks and Hicks combined to score 35 points on 23 field goal attempts in the 17-point win over Syracuse on Jan. 16. Both bigs are solid interior passers, and when the offense is flowing, they are effective in attacking the zone from either the high post or the short corner.
On Tuesday, Meeks suggested the troubles were oftentimes more mindset than strategy.
“Isaiah and me just have to continue being aggressive in those situations,” Meeks said. “I think we were kind of passive [against Duke]. We definitely passed the ball more than we should have when we had open shots. That’s just a part of trying to get Joel [Berry] and Justin [Jackson] into the game, which is what we need. If we could go back, I think we definitely would have done a better job of attacking the basket even more in the second half.
While UNC is more of a perimeter-oriented team than it has been since the 2012-13 season, Roy Williams’s system is built on an inside-out approach, and without consistent post production, the Tar Heels are vulnerable to physical defensive and rebounding teams.
Berry on Point
It’s rare for a freshman point guard to step into UNC’s lineup and thrive immediately, as evidenced by Seventh Woods’s slow but gradual improvement this season. The reason why is Williams places intense demands on his point guards, pairing a halfcourt scheme with a transition game that relies on playing fast while making snap decisions that cannot be wrong.
Berry has grown into his role as UNC’s point guard, one that’s a bit different than his predecessors. Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson both averaged more than 5.2 assists per game in each of their three seasons, while Berry’s career average is 3.1 assists per game. The junior point guard has been a scoring guard first and foremost, and it’s an element that’s been critical to the Tar Heels’ success in 2016-17.
In UNC’s 27 wins, Berry is averaging 15.9 points on 48.9 percent shooting, including a 45.8 percent mark from 3-point range. He’s dished out 93 assists to 46 turnovers, good for 2:1 assist-error ratio, and shot 85.2 percent from the free throw line.
In the Tar Heels’ seven losses, Berry is averaging 11.1 points on 33.8 percent shooting, including a 25.6 percent effort from 3-point range. His assist-error ratio dropped to 1.6:1 (26 assists, 16 turnovers) and even his free throw percentage decreased to 73.7.
As Berry goes, so goes the Tar Heels.
“There’s no question the point guard is extremely important,” Williams said recently. “Different points guards have different styles. Joel’s ability to shoot the ball from the 3-point line has been extremely important to how other people label his success. Kendall Marshall didn’t have any of those five 3-point games, but his ability to pass and get shots for everybody else probably wouldn’t show up as much as it does with Joel’s 3-point shots going in…
“I’ve never coached a game in my life that I felt comfortable unless our point guard was really playing well.”
UNC’s seven losses all occurred away from the Smith Center (five true road and two neutral site games).
Defense, Defense, Defense
The Tar Heels made a strong case as the top team in the country after the first month of the season, largely by a stingy defensive effort through their first seven games. UNC held those opponents to a combined 37.0 percent shooting while forcing 15.4 turnovers per game.
Then something happened on the flight back from Maui. The Tar Heels have largely been unable to recapture that defensive determination outside of pockets of strong play along the way. UNC’s adjusted defensive efficiency of 94.1, according to kenpom.com, is higher than any of the six Tar Heel teams that advanced to the Elight Eight or beyond in the Williams era.
UNC has allowed 11 halves of 48 percent shooting or higher in its last 27 halves against ACC competition. Last season, the Tar Heels allowed just four halves of 48 percent shooting or higher in their final 27 halves of ACC play.
UNC showed promise of a late-season turnaround, holding seven straight opponents below 45 percent shooting and turning in arguably its best defensive half of the season against Miami in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. That goodwill absorbed a significant blow on Friday when Duke shot lights out after halftime (59.1 percent) to turn a 13-point deficit into a 10-point win.
For all of the miscues and breakdowns, Berry believes there’s been a gradual defensive improvement by his team in the final weeks of the season.
“You’re going to make mistakes on the defensive end, but I think we’ve done a better job of covering up with our effort and flying around the court,” Berry said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, and that’s what we have to realize. We’re not going to always be in the right spots, we’re not going to always get the defensive rebounds, but if we can just cover that up by hustling and trying to do our best at it… but I’ve definitely seen an improvement.”
Williams, however, was more inclined to highlight his team’s defensive inconsistencies than any potential improvement on Tuesday.
“We’ve had some good moments, but we’ve had some bad moments,” the 14th-year UNC head coach said. “The inconsistency we’ve had all year. This is irritating to me as a coach because in Maui we were really good defensively a couple of times. We haven’t been consistent with it and haven’t shown those things like we did then.”
If the Tar Heels need any perspective regarding the need for solid defensive play in the NCAA Tournament, look no further than UNC’s national championship squads under Williams. The ’05 title team held its NCAA Tournament opponents to a combined 39.3 percent shooting, while the ’09 title team limited its tournament opponents to 38.5 percent shooting.