UNC (14-7, 4-4 ACC) opened as an 11.5-point favorite over N.C. State (14-8, 4-5 ACC) on Friday night before the line dropped within the hour to its final position at 9.5. There was a level of surprise at the substantial line margin, given the “Nitty Gritty” statistical comparisons.
UNC entered the 225th edition of this rivalry ranked 43rd in the RPI; N.C. State stood at No. 58. The Tar Heels’ strength of schedule (31st) was noticeably higher than the Wolfpack’s quality of competition (67th), although their overall and conference records were on par.
The final score, however, proved the line makers’ ability to judge public sentiment right again. After all, N.C. State was willing to run with UNC on Saturday and that hasn’t been the preferred method in emerging victorious against the Tar Heels.
UNC’s resume-building nonconference wins came against teams that all average over 70 possessions per game – Louisville (70.8, 107th), Michigan State (71.2, 90th) and Kentucky (71.0, 98th). The Tar Heels averaged 84.7 points in those victories, shooting 48.9 percent and totaling 44 fast break points.
Three of UNC’s four ACC losses have come against teams that average 65 or fewer possessions per game – Miami (62.2, 350th), Syracuse (63.1, 347th) and Virginia (64.8, 339th). In those losses, the Tar Heels averaged 54 points on 36.9 percent shooting while scoring a total of 16 points in transition.
There are exceptions in the pace trend – UNC forced tempo against plodding Clemson by holding the Tigers to 23.1 percent shooting in the first half yet lost to up-tempo teams Belmont and Texas by missing a combined 49 free throws – but the results have been rather consistent. The more you can slow the pace against the Tar Heels, the better your chance of winning.
Which brings us back to N.C. State. The Wolfpack averages 69.3 possessions per game (184th) and was more than willing to run with the Tar Heels. That willingness proved fatal as UNC took a 40-23 lead into halftime.
“We’re not the most gifted offensive team,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “We can’t just get an automatic bucket. We don’t have a Harrison Barnes that we can just throw it to on the wing and say give us a bucket or a Tyler Zeller in the post that can shoot a jump hook over anybody. So to get the tempo in our favor helps take pressure off our halfcourt offense and I think it helps us defensively as well.”
In the first half, UNC totaled 39 possessions, scoring 21 times with a 1.026 points-per-possession average. N.C. State had the ball for 37 possessions, but only scored on 11 of them, good for a .622 points-per-possession average.
Possession length provided some insight. UNC’s ability to push the tempo – despite forcing a handful of shots and missing numerous point-blank attempts – allowed for a 12-seconds-per-possession average. N.C. State had to work out of its halfcourt set more often, as evidenced by its 20-seconds-per-possession average.
UNC shot 42.4 percent (14-of-33) in the first half compared to N.C. State’s 25.0 percent effort (10-of-40).
The Tar Heels finished 84 points on 78 possessions, although defensive breakdowns served as a balance for UNC’s desire to run clock late in the game. The Wolfpack cut its deficit to 13 points midway through the second half, but UNC delivered an efficiently flurry of offense – scoring 13 points in less than three minutes – to push the lead back to 22 points.
“I think a lot of that starts on the defensive end, just getting stops and getting out in transition where we’re really good,” junior forward James Michael McAdoo said. “I feel like that’s what Coach wants us to do and that’s what our offense is built for. When we’re out there running and getting stops, everything just runs more smoothly and when we’re getting stops, I feel like that weathers other teams’ runs a lot better.”
High tempo is a staple of Williams’s system, but for a team lacking the ability to overwhelm its opponents with immense talent, it’s absolutely critical.
Look no further than the point differential between UNC’s wins and losses in ACC play. The Tar Heels are averaging 57.5 points per game in their four losses, compared to a 81.0 points-per-game average in their four wins.