banner
Bob Holliday

ACC teams slowing things down to find success

Posted January 23

Marcus Paige (5) looks to make a pass during action at the Dean E. Smith Center between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Boston College Eagles on January 18, 2014 in Chapel Hill, NC. UNC won the contest over Boston College 82-71. (Will Bratton/WRAL contributor)

The numbers are compelling. Clemson is No. 351 (that’s last in the country); Miami is No. 349; Syracuse ranks No. 346; Virginia falls in at No. 342; Pittsburgh  sits at No. 330.

In fact, 11 of the ACC’s 15 schools rank in the lower-half of the NCAA’s Division-I teams in possessions per game, the ultimate statistic for measuring pace of play. Only Maryland, UNC, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest rank among the nation’s top 175 “up-tempo” teams.

Surprisingly Duke, which likes to run, averages just 68 possessions per game, putting them No. 185 in the country. The Blue Devils, however, are still averaging 80-plus points per game because they are scoring a phenomenal 1.2 points per possession.

My purpose here is not to cast aspersions on teams that prefer a deliberate style. Far from it. I’ve seen many compelling basketball games with scores in the 50’s and 60’s, just as I’ve seen sloppy games in the 70’s and 80’s. My point is, that this season ACC teams as a whole are playing more deliberately, in part because that’s how newcomers Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame play.

For teams that like to play faster, adjusting to these slower half court-oriented opponents can be a challenge. State, Duke, and North Carolina, three schools which historically like the up-tempo game, have had their difficulties adapting.

What’s It Like to Play a Slower Paced Team?

Think about it. You are a team that likes to get up and down the court and now you are playing an opponent that wants to run its offense deep into the shot clock. You can defend for 15 seconds, but can you defend for 25? Or 30?

Often the longer a possession runs, the more likely we are to see a defensive mistake. So the opponent runs 30 seconds off the clock, and scores. Then how do you respond? You want to play fast. What do you do on offense? Do you put up a quick shot to try and establish your tempo? What if the opportunity runs empty? Then the other guys will grab the rebound and make you play defense for another 30-35 seconds.

What’s that you say? When they miss, you can grab the rebound and get your fast break going? Wrong. Teams like Virginia usually only send two or at most three guys to the offensive glass. They’ll always have at least two defenders back to make sure you DON’T get your running game going.

As the game goes along, the “three f’s” often appear -- fatigue, frustration and fouling. It takes patience and discipline to play against this slower style. When a team plays a game with 75 or 80 possessions, the occasional bad shot or turnover can be overcome. But in the slower 60 possession games, every offensive touch is critical.

NC State was having a really good year -- and then the Pack had to play Pittsburgh. The Panthers may be the most difficult team of all to play because they have a precision half court offense, with inside-outside balance, and they have a dynamite transition game. NC State played well for a half, but Pitt grabbed control of the tempo in the second half and State lost patience on the offensive end. State did win at Notre Dame, a fairly deliberate team, but the game was played before a small crowd with few students.

State was pummeled by Virginia, a controlled-offense team, but the Wolfpack defeated Maryland, a team that ranks in the top third in possessions per game. State almost beat Wake Forest, another up-tempo team, but ironically could not stop the Wake Forest transition game, especially Cody Miller-McIntyre.

Unlike State, Duke of course, did lose at Notre Dame,  No. 206 in the possession rankings (the student section was full and boisterous that day). A week later, the Blue Devils lost at Clemson, No. 351. Soon-after Mike Krzyzewski made a couple of big changes, that I believe in large part were designed to help the Blue Devils better compete with the ACC’s more deliberate styles of play.

Coach K Goes to His Bench

Former Duke star and ESPN analyst Jay Williams says Coach K has had a seven-man rotation for as long as he can remember. Not anymore. Duke is now rotating 10 and 11 players into the game. A couple of announcers have likened the Blue Devils’ new substitution pattern to a hockey line change.

Whatever, Duke is using its depth to keep fresh bodies on the court. The other change Krzyzewski has made is to turn up the heat defensively, which is more effective using 10 or 11 players rather than seven.

Duke used these changes to great effect in beating Virginia, the only loss the Cavaliers have suffered in ACC play. Granted, Duke needed a great offensive rebound by Amile Jefferson (who to me is one of the five or six most important players in the ACC right now) to allow for the possibility of Rasheed Sulaimon’s winning shot. But Duke’s defensive pressure and newfound energy on the boards kept Virginia at bay until the Cavaliers rallied late in the game. Duke then torched NC State in an up-tempo game, exploiting the Wolfpack’s defensive weaknesses, along with State’s youth and impatience on offense.

Then came the big meeting with Miami.

I actually charted Duke’s game with Miami, to see how the Blue Devils would handle a team that has tormented several ACC opponents. With Coach K again making liberal use of his bench, Duke took control of the game late in the first half and won going away.

Miami averages 61 possessions per game and Duke checks in at around 68. But thanks to tremendous offensive rebounding (remember each offensive rebound counts as a new possession) , Duke logged 73 possessions, above its average. And Miami, which had to play faster in the second half in an effort to overcome the Devils’ big lead, got 67 possessions.

So, even though Duke wasn’t able to run up and down the floor and get fast break baskets, the Devils were able to speed up the game. Duke was comfortable and Miami was not.

They Can Beat the Top Ranked Teams but not Virginia?

That brings us to North Carolina. Everyone wonders how the Tar Heels can beat Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky, and can’t beat UAB, Miami, or Virginia. I think there’s a pretty simple answer. The three big name schools are all transition teams, and Roy Williams’ team is built to play up-tempo basketball. The Tar Heels do not fare as well when they have to defend for 30-35 seconds and then score from their half court offense.

Look at the numbers. North Carolina recorded 12 fast break points against Michigan State and 14 against Kentucky. But against UAB the Tar Heels scored only two fast break points. Against Miami, the Heels got just four fast break points and just eight against the Canes. Obviously there wasn’t a lot of running up and down the floor in Charlottesville either.

Carolina has players like Marcus Paige, Nate Britt, J.P. Tokoto, and James Michael McAdoo who excel at scoring in transition, but sometimes get lost when the only offense comes in the half court. This team just looks more comfortable when the pace of the game is faster.

Roy Williams’ options for speeding up a team that wants to run the shot clock are limited. The Tar Heels have little backcourt depth, so they can’t press for long segments of the game like Duke can. As it has been well-documented, they lack perimeter shooting, which makes them easier to defend in the half court.

The Tar Heels rank among the ACC’s leaders in steals, so they can get some transition baskets that way. And the improvement of Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks gives them much needed inside scoring along with McAdoo. But until someone like Leslie McDonald or Tokoto becomes a consistent outside shooting threat to ease the pressure on the top scorer, Paige, North Carolina will likely find itself in a great many close low-scoring games. Or, maybe Roy can talk the other coaches into playing faster?

UNC, by the way, averages 71.6 possessions per game -- 59th in the country.

One More Note-About Clemson

Clemson earlier this week was subjected to a beat down at Pitt of 30-plus points. Pitt’s ability to defend Clemson for the entire shot clock at one end, and then go methodically make eight of its first 11 shots at the other end called to mind Ohio State’s masterful manhandling of the Cal Bears at the Cow Palace in the 1960 Championship Game. Clemson has the No. 1 field goal percentage defense in the ACC, but the Tigers couldn’t defend Pitt.

Now Clemson comes to Chapel Hill, where the Tigers of course have never won. Think about it, these teams have played in the Old Tin Can, Woolen Gym, Carmichael Auditorium, and the Smith Center, and Carolina has won every time.

My colleague Caulton Tudor, in his recent column, has done an excellent job of recounting the Tigers’ near misses. I would like to add one more.

They Called Palming!

In 1974, Clemson trailed the Tar Heels by one with 15 seconds left. Clemson had the ball and was setting up to take the final shot. Could this be the night for the Tigers? Nope. The whistle blew. The officials called palming on Jo Jo Bethea. Game over. Palming is rarely called in the ACC, and I can still hear Tates Locke wrapping up his post game press conference that night 40 years ago, angrily yelling one word: “Palming!”

Sunday

No streak lasts forever and Sunday Clemson has a solid shot of winning in Chapel Hill, if the Tigers can dictate the style of play. If Carolina can run up and down the floor as it did in November and December, Clemson has no chance. But I’m pretty sure Brad Brownell’s team will have plenty of long 30 or 35 second possessions, and dare the Tar Heels to take quick shots against the Tigers’ vaunted half court defense.

8 Comments

This blogpost is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • GunnyGoesArrrgh Jan 24, 5:47 p.m.

    "Against Miami, the Heels got just four fast break points and just eight against the Canes. "
    So... View More

    — Posted by jdpridg

    Maybe they only got eight points against the Carolina Canes:)

  • jdpridg Jan 24, 2:39 p.m.

    "Against Miami, the Heels got just four fast break points and just eight against the Canes. "
    So not only did they play Miami, but apparently they played Miami too?

  • vt94hokies Jan 24, 1:11 p.m.

    I meant to say playing 10-11 guys....

  • vt94hokies Jan 24, 1:09 p.m.

    Interesting article and well written. Duke is going to get even stronger by play 10-11 guys by tourney time.

  • 4tarheels Jan 24, 11:17 a.m.

    Great piece, Bob. Carolina has had trouble with the half court game for as long as I can... View More

    — Posted by GunnyGoesArrrgh

    UNC really hasn't played good half-court offensive ball since the days of Bill Guthridge/Dean Smith.

  • GunnyGoesArrrgh Jan 24, 7:56 a.m.

    Great piece, Bob. Carolina has had trouble with the half court game for as long as I can remember. I hope Roy can find a way to force other teams to speed up, instead of teams forcing Carolina to slow down.

    This may be the year The Streak ends, but I hope that isn't the case.

  • dooksucks3 Jan 24, 7:55 a.m.

    Right on the money.

  • jmcdow2792 Jan 24, 5:48 a.m.

    Good article.

  • NFL: Chicago at Detroit

    Tomorrow at 12:30 pm on WRAL-TV

  • NFL: Philadelphia at Dallas

    Tomorrow at 4:00 pm on FOX50

  • SEC: Arkansas at Missouri

    Friday at 2:30 pm on WRAL-TV

  • HSFB: Football Friday with Tom Suiter

    Friday at 11:35 pm on WRAL-TV

  • NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions

    Tomorrow at 12:30 pm on 99.9 The Fan

Scoreboard
Local
Final
UNC 66
BUT 74
Final
ECU 73
HAW 75
Final
DUKE 93
FUR 54
3rd
CHA 69
POR 74
 
2nd
NCSU 66
RICH 63
 
2nd
FLA 1
CAR 0
 
3rd
PHI 60
BRK 67
 
3rd
ORL 61
GSW 82
 
3rd
CHA 69
POR 74
 
3rd
CLE 68
WAS 52
 
2nd
DET 49
LAC 46
 
2nd
DAL 44
NYK 42
 
2nd
ATL 58
TOR 64
 
2nd
MIN 24
MIL 26
 
1st
HOU 34
SAC 19
 
2nd
OKC 31
UTA 29
 
8:30pm Tonight
SAN
IND
9:00pm Tonight
PHO
DEN
10:30pm Tonight
LAL
MEM
Final
UNC 66
BUT 74
Final
FRES 64
MAR 68
Final
CHAT 61
RMU 46
Final
EMICH 68
ROCH 35
 
Final
MRGST 51
LIB 50
 
Final
HAMP 60
AMER 64
 
Final
BEL 78
DEN 57
Final
UMASS 79
NE 54
Final
JMU 79
SHU 72
 
Final
KNST 84
SAMF 71
 
Final
ECU 73
HAW 75
Final
CHAM 60
MIZZ 74
Final
CCAR 61
LAMON 48
Final
OKLA 75
UCLA 65
Final
ELON 65
UNF 72
 
Final
UWMIL 66
ORU 69
Final
WCU 66
CHIST 61
Final
DUKE 93
FUR 54
Final
BYU 85
PURD 87
 
Final
EVAN 79
USF 72
 
2nd
COL 57
GTDNS 60
 
2nd
VERM 58
BRY 31
 
2nd
OSU 73
CAMP 51
 
2nd
LOU 35
CLST 29
 
2nd
UCF 60
DAVID 86
 
2nd
IONA 103
DELST 63
 
2nd
OU 65
UGST 76
 
2nd
TOWS 79
GOUCHER 36
 
2nd
ND 77
GRAM 52
 
2nd
YALE 68
LAF 50
 
2nd
GWU 55
LONG 41
 
2nd
VT 60
UMO 35
 
2nd
WAKE 66
MNTER 28
 
2nd
NAVY 54
PSUHARRIS 40
 
2nd
NCSU 66
RICH 63
 
2nd
MINN 55
STJ 51
 
2nd
JVU 60
TRINBAPT 53
 
2nd
YOUNG 50
UMKC 45
 
2nd
UAB 30
WISC 58
 
2nd
CORN 42
CAN 34
 
Half
WVU 53
VMI 35
 
1st
DEP 20
LEH 31
 
1st
UNT 28
MVSU 25
 
1st
MARS 21
MORE 32
 
1st
TCU 23
RAD 18
 
1st
SELA 30
TENT 39
 
1st
SMU 24
TXSOU 15
 
1st
UTAH 32
TXPA 17
 
1st
LMU 12
UCR 22
 
1st
SCAR 32
UNCA 25
 
1st
SD 32
WAYNEST 22
 
1st
PITT 17
KYST 16
 
8:30pm Tonight
UWGB
FLGC
1st
IOWA 4
NILL 6
 
9:00pm Tonight
ORST
AUB
9:00pm Tonight
MONT
CARROLLMT
 
9:00pm Tonight
SUTAH
EKENT
9:00pm Tonight
NMST
FAM
 
9:00pm Tonight
WYO
STET
 
9:05pm Tonight
EWASH
NKENTUCKY
 
9:05pm Tonight
IDST
WLVRN
 
9:30pm Tonight
GEOR
UF
9:30pm Tonight
GONZ
UGA
9:30pm Tonight
NIOWA
NW
10:00pm Tonight
SDST
ARZ
10:00pm Tonight
CAL
CPSL
10:00pm Tonight
UCD
UTST
10:30pm Tonight
NDAK
ALAST
11:00pm Tonight
CSNO
PORST
11:30pm Tonight
AKAN
PAC
11:30pm Tonight
OKST
TULSA
2nd
NYI 2
WAS 2
 
2nd Intermission
BUF 0
WIN 2
 
2nd
FLA 1
CAR 0
 
2nd
TAM 2
NYR 2
 
2nd
DET 1
PHI 0
 
2nd
PIT 2
TOR 0
 
1st
MIN 0
LOS 2
 
9:00pm Tonight
COL
CHI
10:30pm Tonight
SJS
CAL