UNC Basketball: Why Half-Court Offense Is Tar Heels' Key to Success in 2014-15

Thad NovakCorrespondent IAugust 7, 2014

Mar 21, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson (11) dunks against the Providence Friars in the second half of a men's college basketball game during the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment Roy Williams took over as head coach, UNC basketball has featured one of the best fast-break offenses in college hoops. Next year’s Tar Heels will be no exception. But if they’re going to live up to their preseason hopes of a trip to the Final Four, they’ll need more than a great transition game.

In 2013-14, despite its prowess at running the floor, North Carolina scored a pedestrian 76.3 points per game, 49th in the country. The culprit was a sputtering half-court attack, one that must (and should) improve next season.

The distinction between a fast-paced offense and an efficient one is precisely the focus of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. By his metrics, last year’s Tar Heels were 19th nationally in tempo (marking the success of Williams’ fast break) but just 48th in adjusted offense (a measure of how likely they were to score on any given possession).

Sean May dominated the paint during 2005's national title run.
Sean May dominated the paint during 2005's national title run.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

That’s not an uncommon disparity for Williams’ UNC squads. Indeed, the factor that’s distinguished his most successful teams in Chapel Hill has been extraordinary efficiency: When his teams can control the half court, they tend to win big. His three Final Four appearances in his current job—2005, 2008 and 2009—have come in seasons when the Heels placed second, first and first (respectively) in adjusted offense.

Cliches aside, the same isn’t true of the adjusted UNC defense, which ranked 12th, 21st and 19th in those same seasons. Obviously, those are respectable performances, but what's carried the best North Carolina squads of this century has proven to be the ability to pile up points against a set defense.

The struggles of the 2013-14 team in that department sprang from two obvious causes: poor three-point shooting and iffy low-post scorers. Both should be improved next year, but the Heels must follow through on that potential.

Last season’s perimeter game, to an extraordinary extent, was Marcus Paige or bust. The then-sophomore point guard accounted—by himself—for 58.9 percent of the team’s successful three-pointers. Fortunately, he should have some help next season.

In addition to backup Nate Britt, who’s radically retooled his shot, Paige will be joined in the backcourt by freshmen Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry. All three have shown potential as long-range shooters, with Jackson being the likeliest to start immediately precisely because he has the smoothest jumper.

The more success that group enjoys, the less pressure there will be on jump shot-deprived J.P. Tokoto to put up points outside of transition situations, and that’s all to the benefit of UNC.

As for the low-post situation, the departure of second-leading scorer James McAdoo may do more good than harm. The agile junior was short on raw power, leading him to rely heavily on jump shots and fadeaways, with a resulting field-goal percentage of just .458.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

In contrast, projected replacement Brice Johnson hit 56.6 percent of his shots from the floor, a big factor in his averaging 10.3 points in only 19.4 minutes per game. He and rising sophomore Kennedy Meeks will both get their share of touches on the low block, and both are more at home there than McAdoo was. Meeks, who didn't crack the starting lineup until midseason, also stands to be among the most-improved players on Williams' roster.

Even if UNC doesn’t show any growth in its half-court attack, the Tar Heels’ depth and athleticism will keep them in the hunt for the ACC title. For Carolina to cut down the nets in March, though, it’ll need to play offense more like the Tyler Hansbrough- or Sean May-led teams of the past and less like the squad that finished 75th in the country in field-goal percentage in 2013-14.