UNC Basketball: Tar Heels' 5 Keys to a Successful Postseason
On the precipice of the North Carolina Tar Heels' first game in the ACC tournament and their seeding in the NCAA tournament, there are a number of factors at play that will determine just how far this team can go.
A 12-game winning streak during the regular season went a long way towards proving how good this team can be. So did those huge wins against out-of-conference powerhouses early in the season. Yet this team still has doubters.
The reason being, there are very clear weaknesses to UNC; things it does awfully poorly that opponents may be able to exploit. However, if these five keys come into focus, Carolina can beat anyone on any given night.
The strength of this team all season has been on the offensive boards. North Carolina ranks 10th in the country in offensive rebounds per game, grabbing more than 14 per.
All those second chances helped spur UNC on to the conference's second-ranked offense.
However, in the team's latest game, a loss to Duke to finish out the regular season, the rebounding numbers were not in the Heels' favor. Quite a few things didn't go North Carolina's way in this contest, but the most alarming area was the rebounding margin.
Normally the strength of Carolina, Duke outrebounded UNC 34 to 20 overall. The Blue Devils also grabbed 16 offensive rebounds compared to Carolina's six. Amile Jefferson by himself grabbed as many offensive boards as the entire Carolina roster. It was a sorry display.
Since UNC struggles shooting the ball from outside the paint, UNC is going to live up to its postseason seeding if the team is active on the offensive glass.
The struggles by North Carolina from the free-throw line this season are well documented. However, shooting a poor percentage from the line is no reason to stop attacking.
While Carolina is last in the ACC and 340th nationally in free-throw percentage, it still ranks a respectable fourth in the conference in makes thanks to its conference-leading 822 attempts.
It is often frustrating to watch a team constantly miss free throws. However, it is much worse if a team quits attacking and drawing fouls. A possession where a Tar Heel misses the front end of a one-and-one or even misses two free throws is still a better possession than a turnover or a missed jumper.
And besides, there are games where UNC is serviceable from the foul line. February wins over Notre Dame and Wake Forest saw the Heels go 16-of-21 and 24-of-29 respectively from the line. In fact, they were even pretty good in the loss to Duke to finish out the season, hitting 14-of-19.
With an elite shooter like Marcus Paige (87.6 percent) and a very good one in Nate Britt (79.0 percent), at least UNC has ball-handlers at the end of games who aren't afraid to go to the line.
During the team's extended winning streak, Carolina was hanging its hat on its defense. The team's win over Duke on February 20 was an especially masterful display.
The normally potent Blue Devils missed 17 of their 22 three-point attempts in the contest, as well as hit just 42.9 percent of their field goals in the game.
The three-point defense is key for Carolina. Because of the team's extended depth in the frontcourt, it is able to compete with just about anybody in the paint and on the boards. However, with limited depth at the guard position, limiting opponent's three pointers is essential.
Carolina fans will remember early on in the season when the effort seemed to be lacking on the defensive end and UNC took a couple disappointing losses. While the free-throw shooting rightfully took a lot of the blame, the three-point defense was also at fault.
As the year progressed, the exterior defense improved dramatically. UNC closed as the second-best team in the ACC as far as three-point defense in conference games, allowing opponents to make just 31.2 percent of their shots.
When that figure falters, the team usually suffers.
While North Carolina forces opponents into making mistakes (opponents have turned the ball over 223 times against UNC in conference games—best mark in the ACC), the team has just a mediocre turnover margin on the year. This is because it ranks 10th in turnovers per game out of 15 conference teams, as the Heels give it up themselves 12 times per ballgame.
Turnovers or, more accurately, limiting turnovers is important to every team. However, it is especially important for North Carolina. By turning the ball over, UNC is not only removing its chance at a made basket. It is also forgoing an opportunity at two of the very best things it does: grabbing offensive rebounds and getting fouled.
With so much of UNC's offense predicated on easy scores either in the paint or at the line, a turnover doesn't even give the players a chance to play to their strengths.
A turnover is obviously still a bad play for other teams. However, for a team who rarely grabs an offensive board or who makes a large percentage of its shots, turning the ball over is just another outcome. Sure it has missed out on scoring, but no more so than if someone simply shot and missed.
Carolina has stayed relatively consistent with its turnover rate this season. Players like Nate Britt need to make sure that remains the case in the postseason, when defensive intensity is often ramped up.
In an article from a couple weeks back, I argued that Leslie McDonald is the biggest X-factor for this team for the postseason. That still remains the case today, heading into the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
While McDonald has been rather dreadful for much of the season, his skill (shooting from the outside) is something no one on the roster outside of Marcus Paige has the capability of doing. So while other players are certainly more important and contribute more, no one swings the ceiling of UNC like McDonald does.
We have seen this season that, when he is on, the team appears unbeatable. It hasn't happened very often, but when he gets going, the rest of the team can relax. In the three games where McDonald has played very well, the team is 3-0 and have won each contest rather easily. In fact, McDonald's success is even able to cover up poorer performances by the likes of Paige and James Michael McAdoo.
McDonald hasn't brought his A-game much this season. Nevertheless, an A-performance from him could swing the ceiling that this team has going into the tournaments.