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Texas A&M comes up bigger than Tar Heels

UNC Notebook

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This time, the gigantic shoe was on the other foot. Roy Williams’ North Carolina basketball teams have traditionally been characterized by big, physical, athletic forwards capable of dominating the interior on offense and changing shots on defense.

But in this year’s NCAA Tournament second-round matchup, the roles were reversed, with Williams suggesting in a pregame press conference that Texas A&M was perhaps the “biggest team I’ve ever looked at.”

All that size turned out to be a terrible matchup for this Carolina team, which little resembled a typical Williams squad after the departures of all three of the top big men from last year’s national title season meant heavy dependence on perimeter-heavy small-ball lineups.

Nevertheless, despite playing a small lineup most of the season, North Carolina entered the second round of the NCAA Tournament rebounding 36.4 percent of its own misses, the third-best mark in the country. Carolina depended on that tenacity on the boards all season, with the Tar Heels’ success and failure closely correlated with their ability to win the rebounding battles.

It is no coincidence that Carolina struggled most with the biggest teams on its schedule. Losses to Michigan State, Florida State, N.C. State, Clemson, Miami, and Duke were all characterized by struggles handling those teams’ length.

Texas A&M’s interior dominance was therefore not entirely surprising, though the Aggies took things to another level by limiting Carolina to a season-low 17 percent (9/52) offensive rebounding percentage, blocking eight shots and altering numerous others.

This season-ending loss was thus no fluke; Carolina simply faced a team perfectly built to expose the flaws that had periodically reared their heads all season — and once Carolina went ice cold from outside (19 percent from 3-point range), the Heels simply had no answers left.

ONE OF WILLIAMS’ BEST JOBS

Sunday’s early exit from the NCAA Tournament notwithstanding, Williams and his staff deserve credit for their creativity and the coaching job they did all season with a roster that looked little like a typical Williams squad after the departures of the top three big men — all of whom are now playing professionally — from last year’s title team.

Rather than forcing his own ideals up on a team not suited for them, Williams got creative, playing small-ball lineups in which Luke Maye (listed at 6-foot-9 but closer to 6-8) was often the biggest player on the floor.

And when Carolina struggled defensively — due at least in part because of the lack of rim protection afforded by a smaller lineup — Williams adjusted his team’s defensive principles to accommodate his roster.

“We’ve changed a lot of things,” Williams said earlier this season on his radio show. “We’ve backed off on our pressure on the deny position and tried to get more in the help positions so you don’t have to go from deny to help and then back out to challenge the 3-point shot.”

That is, rather than stubbornly sticking to his beloved high-pressure “21” approach in which perimeter defenders aggressively attempt to deny passes to the wing, Williams implemented more “22” defense, with perimeter defenders sagging more off the ball to protect the interior while emphasizing solid close-outs once a player catches the ball.

Virginia’s Pack Line defense is an extreme example of the latter approach, which tends to lead to a slower pace —q uite a departure from Williams’ proclivities.

Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to advance into the second week of the NCAA Tournament, but winning the season series against rival Duke, a trip to the ACC Tournament championship game, and earning a No. 2 seed with this season’s roster — and after losing so much talent from the prior year— should be regarded as one of Williams’ best coaching efforts.

FAREWELL BERRY AND PINSON

Sunday’s loss also marked the final game for Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, who finish their careers with 14 NCAA Tournament victories, two appearances in the Final Four, and last year’s national championship.

Pinson, whose versatility is what allowed Carolina such lineup flexibility throughout the 2017–18 season, is the first UNC player to post over 500 rebounds (536) and 410 assists (417) in a career. His career ratio of 2.24 assists for every turnover is fourth best in school history.

Pinson also finished his UNC career 4th all-time in A:TO at 2.24 (punctuated by today's 12:2). Among Tar Heels with at least 100 career assists, he trailed only Kendall Marshall, Ty Lawson, and Wes Miller.

— Adrian Atkinson (@FreeportKid) March 18, 2018

Berry ends his career with the second-most three-pointers in school history (266) and in the top 15 in school history in seven different categories.

Joel Berry finished his fantastic UNC career in the program's top-15 in 7 statistical categories:

Minutes: 9th with 3973 (tied with Daugherty)
Points: 13th with 1813
3-pointers: 2nd with 266
Assists: 13th with 450
A:TO: 12th at 2.02
FT%: 11th at 83.3%
Steals: 15th with 165

— Adrian Atkinson (@FreeportKid) March 18, 2018

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Seniors Kenny Williams, Maye, and Cameron Johnson (if he returns) should provide solid leadership for next year’s team, but given the voids left by Pinson and Berry and the weaknesses of this year’s team, two primary question marks linger going into next season.

The first pertains to the interior weakness again exposed in Sunday’s loss: Will Carolina’s young big men sufficiently develop into the kind of interior presence that Williams’ teams traditionally featured?

Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks each flashed talent and improved throughout their freshman seasons, but each needs to have an outstanding offseason in order for Williams to be able to employ the more traditional lineups he prefers in 2018-19. Brandon Huffman remains more of a project, but he also needs to become a reliable depth player as a sophomore.

The second big question concerns the primary ball-handler. Pinson functioned as a point-forward through much of his senior year, and Berry was a multi-year starter as a point guard. Given the midseason departure of Jalek Felton, Carolina’s point guard situation is quite thin, with only junior Seventh Woods returning at that spot.

Incoming freshman Coby White (who averaged 31 point per game for Greenfield School) seems like the most likely option to grow into that role, but even with White’s talent, that role is a lot to ask from a true freshman.

JOHNSON’S FUTURE UNCERTAIN

One other question remains unsettled at this point. Cam Johnson is the lone possible early departure on the roster and was noncommittal about his plans after Sunday’s game. As a graduate transfer who will turn 23 next March, it makes sense that Johnson would want to weigh his options and perhaps test the NBA waters this offseason. If Johnson departs, his spot will likely be manned by top recruit Nassir Little.

STAT OF THE WEEK

After to Sunday’s loss, Carolina falls to 12-1 in NCAA Tournament games played in Charlotte.

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