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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

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  • jmcdow2792 Jan 24, 5:48 a.m.

    Good article.

  • dooksucks3 Jan 24, 7:55 a.m.

    Right on the money.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • vt94hokies Jan 24, 1:11 p.m.

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

  • 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?

  • 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:)

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Scoreboard
Local
Final
UNC 66
BUT 74
Final
ECU 73
HAW 75
Final
DUKE 93
FUR 54
Final
CHA 97
POR 105
Final
NCSU 84
RICH 72
Final
FLA 1
CAR 0
Final
PHI 91
BRK 99
Final
ORL 96
GSW 111
Final
CHA 97
POR 105
Final
CLE 113
WAS 87
Final
DET 98
LAC 104
Final
DAL 109
NYK 102
 
Final
ATL 115
TOR 126
Final
MIN 86
MIL 103
 
Final
HOU 102
SAC 89
 
Final
OKC 97
UTA 82
 
Final
SAN 106
IND 100
 
Final
PHO 120
DEN 112
 
Half
LAL 51
MEM 46
 
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
Final
COL 71
GTDNS 75
 
Final
VERM 73
BRY 47
 
Final
OSU 91
CAMP 64
Final
LOU 45
CLST 33
Final
UCF 69
DAVID 95
Final
IONA 126
DELST 76
 
Final
OU 78
UGST 83
Final
TOWS 97
GOUCHER 43
 
Final
ND 81
GRAM 54
 
Final
YALE 82
LAF 60
 
Final
GWU 91
LONG 66
 
Final
VT 78
UMO 63
 
Final
WAKE 83
MNTER 49
 
Final
NAVY 67
PSUHARRIS 42
 
Final
NCSU 84
RICH 72
Final
MINN 61
STJ 70
Final
JVU 69
TRINBAPT 57
 
Final
YOUNG 66
UMKC 63
 
Final
UAB 43
WISC 72
Final
CORN 67
CAN 60
 
Final
WVU 103
VMI 72
Final
DEP 74
LEH 86
 
Final
UNT 67
MVSU 52
 
Final
MARS 68
MORE 77
 
Final
TCU 74
RAD 50
 
Final
SELA 86
TENT 65
 
Final
SMU 72
TXSOU 59
 
Final
UTAH 85
TXPA 48
Final
LMU 66
UCR 62
 
Final
SCAR 89
UNCA 75
 
Final
SD 86
WAYNEST 69
 
Final
PITT 70
KYST 47
Final
UWGB 59
FLGC 45
 
Final
IOWA 70
NILL 49
 
Final
ORST 69
AUB 71
 
Final
MONT 75
CARROLLMT 52
 
Final
SUTAH 64
EKENT 73
 
Final
NMST 78
FAM 33
 
Final
WYO 65
STET 41
 
Final
EWASH 81
NKENTUCKY 60
 
Final
IDST 57
WLVRN 60
 
1st OT
GEOR 61
UF 62
 
2nd
GONZ 83
UGA 71
 
Final
NIOWA 61
NW 42
 
2nd
CAL 63
CPSL 47
 
1st OT
UCD 70
UTST 64
 
2nd
SDST 39
ARZ 38
 
2nd
NDAK 51
ALAST 33
 
Half
CSNO 22
PORST 33
 
1st
AKAN 4
PAC 5
 
1st
OKST 4
TULSA 4
 
Final
NYI 3
WAS 2
Final
BUF 1
WIN 2
Final
FLA 1
CAR 0
Final
TAM 4
NYR 3
Final
DET 5
PHI 2
 
Final
PIT 4
TOR 3
Final
MIN 0
LOS 4
 
Final
COL 2
CHI 3
 
2nd
SJS 0
CAL 0