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Tar Heels continue to tinker as ACC looms

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Roy Williams is not interested in winning November or December. His focus in early months is to prepare his North Carolina basketball team for the long slog of Atlantic Coast Conference play and to learn which combinations give him the best options for March and (potentially) April. To that end, the North Carolina head coach has experimented with numerous lineup options and a deep rotation — 10 players average more than nine minutes per game — while facing the nation’s most difficult nonconference slate. 

To that end, it’s always interesting to see which lineups Williams begins to favor as he ends the experimental phase of the season and eases into conference play. Of particular note in that regard: The lineup combination of Coby White, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, Nassir Little and Luke Maye played a season-high 7 minutes, 27 seconds in Saturday’s 82–60 win over Davidson, with that group outscoring the Wildcats 17–4.

Obviously that unit can’t be relied upon for long stretches against teams with outstanding big men, but exactly how Williams employs his best lineups as the bench shortens during conference play is something to keep an eye on.

UNC will host Harvard on Wednesday night before tipping off its ACC schedule at Pittsburgh on Saturday.

DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT?

While his offense has been plenty explosive the past two seasons, Williams’ attention has consistently been on the defensive end, as he has regularly expressed his frustration that his has not met his expectations in that regard.

There was little to complain about in that regard against Davidson, as the Tar Heels held Davidson to 30 percent shooting from the field, a season low for a Carolina opponent. That said, Davidson lacked a strong interior presence to attack Carolina’s primary defensive weakness, so it remains to be seen how well that improvement will carry over to conference play.

In any case, it’s certainly not a bad sign that Carolina was able to turn up the defensive pressure on a team that typically shoots the ball well. UNC currently ranks 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com.

DEEPER LOOK AT TURNOVERS

In his comments after the Davidson game, Williams made an important point about turnovers, noting that although Carolina ranks 236th in the nation in average turnovers per game (14.3), that ranking is skewed because of how many extra possessions Carolina tends to play.

“I can live with some turnovers because we play at such a fast pace,” Wiliams explained, “but the percentage of turnovers we have is way, way up there and that’s what we’ve got to stop.” 

Indeed, Carolina’s per-possession turnover percentage (.178) ranks 125th, significantly better than the raw turnover number, it’s still not good enough for a team that wants to play deep into March.

To put things in perspective by comparison with ACC peers, slow-paced Virginia turns the ball over on 12.7 percent of its possessions (second nationally) and Duke on 16.3 percent (46th). The 2017 UNC team that won the national title was at 15.9 percent. 

An improvement of just a couple turnovers per game (translating to about 3 percent improvement) would get Carolina into that range, though Carolina’s weaker interior play would almost certainly require a larger improvement for the Tar Heels to contend for a title this season.

The nature of the turnovers also matters — a backcourt turnover that leads to an easy dunk is worse than a turnover deep in the frontcourt. To that end, the number that really needs to come down is the number of points off turnovers — Davidson’s 18 points off Carolina turnovers is still way too many.

STAT OF THE WEEK

28.5 percent — that’s the combined 3-point percentage of Maye (13 of 40) and Williams III (13 of 51) so far this season. The two combined to shoot 41.4 percent last season. Some reversion to the mean should be expected, which would obviously help Carolina’s offensive efficiency going into a very difficult conference slate.

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.

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