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After going 4-5 in January, North Carolina has found its form in February, winning its fifth straight on Saturday with a 93-76 win at Louisville — the first time UNC has ever beaten the Cardinals on the road.
By this point in a season, a team has mostly become what it’s going to be, and although head coach Roy Williams again pointed out that he was unhappy with his team’s defensive performance, it does appear that the Tar Heels have found a formula that will make them a difficult out in March.
THE FIVE FACTORS
That formula can be boiled down to five separate factors that have correlated highly with Carolina’s wins and losses all season.
First, February’s win streak has seen the ball in Theo Pinson’s hands more often, giving the senior swingman more opportunities to attack the basket and facilitate for his teammates, who are benefiting with more open looks from outside. After his 19-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance on Saturday, Carolina is 14-1 when Pinson has five or more assists and only 7-6 when he falls short of that number.
The second, and perhaps most important, factor is rebounding. Carolina dominated Louisville on the boards 44-32 and outscored the Cardinals 22-6 in second-chance points. At present, Carolina is the top rebounding team in the country — a remarkable feat for a team mostly playing a small lineup. Its losses have come when teams have managed to close or reverse that gap. The Heels were outscored in second-chance points in all three losses in January’s losing streak.
The third factor is Luke Maye’s efficiency. Maye is shooting a torrid 51.4 percent from the field and is on pace to become the only player in NCAA history to shoot over 46 percent from 3-point range while also averaging double-digit rebounds (Kevin Durant is the only other player to average over 40 percent from beyond the arc and over 10 rebounds per game), but on the few occasions Maye has gone cold, it has been disastrous for Carolina. Maye has shot at or below 25 percent from the field on four occasions in 2018. All four have been losses.
That correlation may say as much about how much help Maye has had and what kinds of shots he’s able to get in those games as anything, however.
Which leads into the fourth factor: third and fourth scoring options.
Kenny Williams, for example, scored in single digits in three of those four games, and it’s probably no coincidence that Williams has scored in double-figures in each game of the current five-game win streak.
Defending the outside shot is the fifth factor, as best illustrated by the double-digit 3-pointers made by Carolina’s opponents in all three January losses, while opponents’ 3-point percentage has dropped over the past five contests. That difference is almost certainly tied to improvements contesting shots. Per Adrian Atkinson, director of data engineering at Automated Insights, Carolina’s rate of contested shots on defense has improved from 34.8 percent in the first nine games of ACC play to 42.8 percent over the past six games.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Carolina has had more success when it has contested shots, gotten rebounds, spread the scoring load, and put the ball more in its best facilitator’s hands, but such things are easier said than done. Over the past two weeks, UNC’s chemistry seems to have finally hit the right balance, and these things are now getting done.
One less-conventional way to know Carolina has hit its stride over the past two weeks: Williams managed to go over 250 minutes — over four games combined — without calling a timeout, a streak finally broken in the final minutes of the Louisville game.
“Well, now it’s gotten to be a personal thing now and I’ll do it just to tick everybody else off,” Williams laughed in a press conference before that contest.
On a more serious note, Williams emphasized that he wants to give his players room to flourish without his micromanaging every in-game decision, even when the momentum has slipped away, such as when NC State went on a 19-0 run to take a lead in the first half of that contest.
“I was so mad then, I wasn’t going to call timeout,” Williams explained. Whatever the reason, Williams’ players rewarded his patience then and have done so throughout the current five-game winning streak, perhaps indicating improving maturity as the season winds down.
2018 FOOTBALL STAFF COMPLETE
With last week’s hire of Henry Baker as the new cornerbacks coach, the UNC football coaching staff is now complete, featuring three new faces for the 2018 season.
Baker was the defensive backs coach at Rutgers in 2017 and was in the same role at Delaware from 2011–16 (including coaching against UNC in 2015).
Thanks to the move to 10-man assistant coaching staffs in 2018, UNC will now have two secondary coaches, with Tommy Thigpen, who was hired in January after the departure of prior secondary coach Terry Joseph to Notre Dame, coaching the safeties.
The combination should reap recruiting benefits, as Thigpen was the linebackers coach on Butch Davis’ 2005–2008 UNC teams and is regarded as an ace recruiter and talent evaluator, while Baker has a reputation as an outstanding young recruiter.
The third new addition for 2018 is running backs/special teams coach Luke Paschall, whose hire was announced on Thursday. He replaces 2017 running backs coach DeAndre Smith, who was not retained. Paschall worked closely with Carolina’s special teams as a graduate assistant under Fedora from 2012–2013 before spending the next four seasons at Arkansas State.