Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: North Carolina

OPPONENT #18 (#48 KenPom) North Carolina
(18-11 in 2020-21, Round of 64 appearance)
LOCATION Mohegan Sun Barstool WynnBET MGM Caesars Made an App Yall Arena
Uncasville, CT
Fran Fraschilla (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -4.5
KenPom: Tennessee -5

Torvik: Tennessee -3.1

Tennessee lost a game yesterday. The sky is falling. It is three games in and there are 30 or so more to go, but the season is over. Hate to inform you of this!

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Oh my! Let’s fix this up.

Tennessee lost a game yesterday, but it’s a long season. Games like the Villanova loss are discouraging in the moment, but you can use those as learning lessons, and it seems particularly helpful for a roster that’s led by a true freshman with precisely one senior in the starting lineup. It wasn’t ugly, but Tennessee did do some good things. Villanova really didn’t have a great offensive day; Tennessee has continued the trend of improving their shot selection from the first six seasons of the Rick Barnes era; Santiago Vescovi apparently re-discovered his ability to drive the basketball.

The good thing about silly tournaments like these is that you get multiple tries at a win. Tennessee gets to draw North Carolina, which is in a coaching transition and has featured a very good offense and a horrible defense. The defense is so horrible, that

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Oh my! I don’t think this one will be fixed. 

The defense through four games ranks 333rd on Torvik when you remove all preseason baselines. That’s bad! Villanova’s defense had holes in it, but they played what might be their best game all year while Tennessee had an outlier of a three-point shooting affair happen. Both optimists and pessimists must remember: it’s a long season.

North Carolina’s offense

All numbers are via KenPom and Hoop-Math. These are 2021-22 numbers through four games, so SMALL SAMPLE SIZE.

After the first game of the season, in which North Carolina defeated Loyola (Maryland), everyone rushed to the Twitter dot com to speak on the New Era of UNC basketball. Gone was the focus on pounding the boards at every turn (the sixth-lowest OREB% UNC has posted in the last 20 years came in game one). There were more ball screens, more threes, fewer midrange twos, etc. Hubert Davis was bringing North Carolina into the modern era, or something. Interestingly, UNC went right back to pounding the boards against Brown, but that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

To be fair to Twitterers, this is a different-looking Carolina, but with some of the same elements you already know and somewhat tolerate. The Tar Heels play fast, try to keep possessions under 15 seconds, and want to run and gun with the best of them. Traditionally, this has meant pounding the rim and the boards at all costs, but now, it means kicking it back out for a three a bit more often than most UNC fans had experienced in the last 18 years.

Anyway: a lot of what UNC is doing offensively is flowing through a guy who was there last year (Caleb Love) and a guy who wasn’t (Brady Manek, formerly of Oklahoma). Love is a 2-guard that spends some time at the 1, but he’s been the main ball-handler more often than not. As mentioned, North Carolina seems more interested in running ball screens with Davis than they did with Williams while simultaneously attempting to retain the post-first identity they’ve had for forever. Love’s shooting skills are giving UNC a familiar dimension to retain in the midrange:

He’s also been decent at getting to the rim and scoring, but it’s not his first preference; he is a shooting guard, after all. The Tennessee Twittersphere seemed to feel quite hopeless about Tennessee defending Love during the game yesterday, but 3-5 Rim/2-4 Mid/2-7 3PT is…not that scary?

Manek is the 4 in this offense, a guy that takes almost as many threes as he does twos and is completely unafraid to let it fly. This is where the post-first identity comes in. Manek loves posting up, yes, but he’s been pretty good in a variety of roles so far. A unique thing here is that, per Synergy, Manek does not have one pass out of a post-up so far; if he gets it in the post, he’s going to put it on the floor and work for his two points.

Beyond Love and Manek is a wider range of shooting options than in past years, at least to some extent. The Tar Heels had a total of five players with more than one three-point attempt per game last season (my very basic metric of “is this person a serious shooting option”); so far this year, they are…also sitting at five. Well, [REDACTED]. The key difference is that these shooters appear more eager to take a three in the first place. Spot-ups represent 4% more of Carolina’s offense this year, while shooters are encouraged to pop one up out of the pick-and-roll if they want to. Or, better, the ball-handler can kick it out to an open shooter for a calming three points.

Really, this should give you the gist. North Carolina is still the same team that’s wanted to run all these years; they just use more ball-screens now, focus on offensive rebounding less, and take a hair more threes. They also have the long-haired lad from Oklahoma on their team now and he’s pretty good. It’s sort of hard to make this offense seem interesting even when it is good; the better shot selection helps, certainly, but it isn’t everything. Still very rim-oriented, still going to beat its way to the free throw line.

North Carolina’s defense

All numbers are via KenPom and Hoop-Math. These are 2021-22 numbers through three games, so SMALL SAMPLE SIZE.

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So, four games in and all, but look at that metrics graphic above. Does that not look really freaking bad? Bart Torvik adjusts defensive performances by opponent to give out context-friendly PPPs and North Carolina’s are quite bad defensively: 0.995 (Loyola (MD)), 1.382 (Brown), 1.003 (College of Charleston), and 1.053 (Purdue). That’s four games, none of which has featured a defensive performance better than that of, say, 2020-21 Georgia, which is a team the dying embers of Tennessee scored 89 on.

Observers with more knowledge than I seem to believe UNC has a serious communication problem on defense:

Which seems pretty believable when every other UNC defensive possession features either a mostly-uninterrupted drive to the rim or a kickout to an open shooter for three. I would be more willing to be kinder to North Carolina’s defense if it was a Villanova situation where they played a white-hot midrange opponent (UCLA) or someone who randomly got really hot from deep (Howard), but that’s…very much not the case? Purdue tossed up 1.214 PPP against this defense, and while I think it’s pretty realistic Purdue ends up with a top-three offense at season’s end (precisely why I preferred Tennessee didn’t play them), it wasn’t an ‘opponent gets hot’ scenario at all. Purdue hit 63.2% of twos and went 13-for-17 at the rim, with only seven of those attempts being from Williams or Edey.

For the defense to work, it starts with Armando Bacot being an eraser down low. For all of UNC’s struggles, Bacot has blocked a ton of shots, and it was his work that ended up saving North Carolina from entering this weekend at 2-1 with a loss to Charleston instead of 3-0.

The Bacot Problem is that he’s consistently averaged 4-5 fouls per 40 minutes for his entire career at Carolina, which is a huge issue when you’re the only quality rim protector on the team. Bacot only played 17 minutes against Purdue because of foul trouble, and while the team did end up blocking a few shots along the way, they had absolutely nothing to compete with Purdue’s driving ability and post abilities. I know people are going to be down on Tennessee because of one game, but when the only thing the opponent has frequently ends up in foul trouble, it’s a decent sign for your offense to have a bounce-back night.

Even Bacot cannot erase the issues this perimeter defense has, though. The high and low ends of the Carolina defense don’t seem to know what the other is doing; this has led to a lot of uninterrupted drives to the rim:

Or kickouts to wide-open shooters that have somehow shaken their man despite being clearly identified in a scouting report as shooters.

Some of this can eventually be fixed over the course of a 30-game season. North Carolina’s backcourt will eventually be able to get in front of a driver, and North Carolina’s frontcourt will be able to compensate for any missed rotations by forcing these drivers into 6-8 foot runners instead of kickouts or layups. It gets said a lot, but North Carolina really does seem like the type of team that will be much better defensively in February and March than they are now.

This being said, “much better defensively” is like “finishes within the top 90 of KenPom’s defensive rankings.” This group seems allergic to forcing turnovers, which is a huge problem if you’re not forcing bad shots. They aren’t allowing a lot of total attempts at the rim, which is good, but they’re giving up a lot of paint pressure, which is bad. Think about it this way: if you’re giving up those efforts to Brown and Charleston, what happens when you play Duke or Notre Dame?

How Tennessee matches up

The great thing about fandom, particularly of the college sports variety, is that seemingly everyone who participates is hyper-reactionary to the point that it would make Kanye West blush. As such, I firmly expect both fanbases to be in the Cool Zone today, so whatever.

In theory, Tennessee’s offense should present North Carolina with several significant problems. Charleston’s backcourt made several early drives to the rim that opened up a bunch of outside shooting that kept them in the game. Brown – again, the Brown Bears of the Ivy League – converted 16 of 25 attempts at the rim and genuinely may have won with better officiating. Villanova did the College Basketball Thing yesterday by producing their first good defensive outing of the season, but at least by watching Villanova, you could see where a good game might come from.

North Carolina’s defense is a disaster to the point that it’s going to take several weeks if not the entire season to get it fixed. I legitimately do not understand what they’re doing at times; it’s like they’ve hired Will Wade as defensive coordinator. This is a long way of saying North Carolina, even though they can block shots and force you to take some floaters or mid-range jumpers, is not going to get many stops on quick, fast players at the rim. Kennedy Chandler needs to be aggressive from tip in this game.

If Chandler is aggressive (and really, Powell or Vescovi should be, too) and forces North Carolina to make split-second decisions, it’s either going to open up that drive to the rim or free up a shooter on the perimeter. I would really like to see Tennessee insert more ball screens today, as UNC’s ball-screen defense currently ranks in the 6th-percentile nationally. If you’re able to force them to come out to 20+ feet, you can almost do whatever you want. North Carolina’s been one of the less switch-heavy teams I’ve watched; the correct play here could actually be a pull-up off the screen, but I think regardless of what you do, you can get open looks pretty easily in this game. Villanova did an absolutely terrific job covering the perimeter yesterday, guarding 28 of Tennessee’s 30 catch-and-shoot threes and making life miserable; I would be stunned if the same happened here.

The defensive side of this does not need as much work. Villanova only scored 1.038 PPP against Tennessee yesterday and put up a 43.3% eFG%; neither number is very good for that offense at all. (Torvik’s opponent-adjusted PPP allowed is 0.912, which roughly equates to a top-30ish defense. Not bad.) UNC will look to use ball screens of their own to force either a switch or create an open look if you hedge; Tennessee’s been very good in forcing opponents to take tough shots in these looks, and they’ll need to do the same today. You have to be primed and ready for these to be threes, but they’re more likely to be twos if you funnel them inside.

Lastly, this will be another test of how well Tennessee can defend in the post. Purdue did a very good job of defending the rim yesterday, but they have a 7’4″ giant and a 6’11” bowling ball as their center options. Tennessee…does not have that. However, I do believe Olivier Nkamhoua is quite the agile defender when needed and likely Tennessee’s best option at the 5 by season’s end.

Both Bacot and Manek will look to post up early and often, and with Manek, the idea of placing JJJ on him for stretches of time is quite interesting. JJJ is pretty stout for his size, and while he’s giving up three inches, he’s only giving up a few pounds. Fulkerson will get his run as well here; this is mostly just a thing of “can you force them to take hook shots and fadeaways instead of layups.” Of the two, Bacot is much more likely to bulldoze or drop-step his way to the rim (75% of his post-up attempts) and has only attempted two jumpers at all this season. Manek also likes to get to the rim, but he’s taken more jumpers than anything else this year. Force a jumper, please.

I think this is another tough defensive test, which every team obviously needs. However: I feel confident this is a somewhat less difficult test than Villanova was, and in all honesty, Tennessee held up fairly well on defense against Villanova. Follow your strengths, funnel them into bad shots, and escape Connecticut with one win out of two. And please stop playing John Fulkerson and Uros Plavsic together. It’s stupid and it’s proven to be stupid.

Expected starters

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • How many attempts can Tennessee get at the rim? Synergy says UNC’s only allowing 27% of half-court attempts to be taken within four feet of the rim, which does imply that UNC can influence you to not get there, but if you do get there, they’re doing very little to stop you. I would love to see Tennessee get 20+ attempts within four feet in this one.
  • Can Tennessee get more open threes? It felt in real time like Villanova had a sixth player on the floor; Synergy saying they guarded 28 of 30 catch-and-shoot attempts backed that up. That’s an outlier game, and Tennessee should not let it discourage themselves from shooting threes instead of 15-footers. That’s what everyone supposedly wanted two weeks ago, yes?
  • What’s Tennessee’s strategy for defending Caleb Love? Love did have a pretty good game yesterday and is the lone true three-level scorer on UNC’s roster. I think pretty much everyone would be okay with forcing him to shoot over the top, as he’s a career 27.2% 3PT shooter.

Key matchups

Caleb Love vs. Santiago Vescovi. Depending on what time you tune in, it could be Chandler who’s matched up in man-to-man instead, but Vescovi’s a more size-appropriate matchup. Also, I thought Vescovi did a very good job on defense yesterday, so there. Tennessee is going to have to devise a plan to keep Love out of the paint as long as possible; that should start with Vescovi bodying him up and forcing him to stay 10+ feet out.

Brady Manek vs. John Fulkerson. It actually seems like Fulkerson will be the matchup draw here, though I’m not totally sure. Nkamhoua on Bacot could provide useful simply because Nkamhoua is a little more difficult to back down; Fulk, meanwhile, has done a better job with stretch-4 types that don’t play for Alabama than you’d guess. I think Fulkerson in a screen-and-roll situation could find his way into a mismatch as well. Not giving up here.

Armando Bacot vs. Olivier Nkamhoua. You also could just call this Foul Trouble vs. Foul Trouble. Can Nkamhoua or Bacot stay out of it more often?

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 4 or more;
  2. Tennessee gets several easy baskets in transition that are explained away as “UNC isn’t communicating with each other”;
  3. Tennessee 77, North Carolina 72.

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