Balance Elevating Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried recently described Wednesday's contest with No. 19 North Carolina as a "classic David and Goliath" matchup. That analogy may be appropriate considering NCSU's heavy reliance on T.J. Warren against UNC's balanced offensive approach.

There's an obscure Voltron reference available for those who actually remember watching Michael Jordan and James Worthy during their college years in Chapel Hill.

The point, however, is that the Tar Heels have run out to a nine-game winning streak because their random parts have found cohesion, which in turn has increased productivity across the board.

Two months ago, there was a case to be made that UNC and N.C. State were similar in that each program relied heavily –too heavily, in fact – on the contributions of one player. Marcus Paige for the Tar Heels; Warren for the Wolfpack.

While Paige still serves as UNC's primary weapon, its success can be found in the elevated play of his teammates. James Michael McAdoo spurred the current streak – UNC's longest since winning 10 in a row during the 2008-09 national championship season – with an obvious intensity boost, Leslie McDonald rediscovered his shot and Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks have found consistency underneath.

Over the last nine games, four different Tar Heels have led the team in scoring. Paige accounts for just two of those, neither of which have occurred during the past five contests.

Four Tar Heels are averaging 10.7 points or more during this winning streak – Paige tops out at 17.1 ppg – and Meeks (9.1 ppg) and J.P. Tokoto (7.9 ppg) are just behind.

"It's just not only one guy," McDonald said on Tuesday. "Everybody is doing their job to help out this team. One night you might have McAdoo and Marcus, another night you might have Kennedy, J.P or myself. It just depends…

"Our team is not just centered around one person. All of our players can score at will."

Take Thursday night's upset over No. 5 Duke as an example. Paige and McAdoo combined to score four points on 2-of-7 shooting in the first half, but UNC only trailed by seven at the break due to McDonald's 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting.

Duke placed an emphasis on limiting Paige's effectiveness, which provided opportunities for McDonald to attack the rim.

"I think [the balance] has been good for us because people still load up on either Marcus or James Michael more than anybody else, but the other guys have kept us in the game if things were going poorly," UNC head coach Roy Williams said.

Basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistics provide insight into UNC's offensive balance. His percentage of possessions used stat assigns responsibility of a play that ends due to a made field goal, a missed field goal or a turnover to a specific player.

McAdoo leads this category for UNC at 25.7 percent, while Johnson (24.0), Meeks (23.8) and Paige (21.6) all rank above 20 percent. McAdoo ranks 307th nationally, which provides perspective into UNC's willingness to share the ball.

Johnson leads the team in percentage of shots taken while on the court at 26.3 percent, good for 316th nationally.

By contrast, N.C. State's Warren ranks 24th nationally in percentage of possessions used (32.0) and sixth in percentage of shots taken (35.7).

In the Wolfpack's six games in February, Warren accounted for 34 percent or more of the possessions used in all but one game – the 84-70 loss at UNC on Feb. 1. The Tar Heels limited the ACC's leading scorer's touches in the first half - Warren attempted four shots in the opening 12 minutes and one was off an offensive rebound – and built a 40-23 halftime lead.

North Carolina's ability to support Paige and McAdoo with scoring by other means limits how effective opposing defenses can actually be. If the 2009 title team was the ultimate example of offensive balance, this year's squad is providing a more human comparison.

"We talk all of the time about when you come in the game, give us something," Williams said. "And really, we talk about giving us something positive. I think that those other guys have done that whether it's Brice off the bench or Leslie starting to make some shots or Kennedy getting the ball inside and taking it to the basket.

"That in itself has given those other guys a feeling that it doesn't have to be on them, the whole load is not on them. And I think that's been good, particularly for Marcus."

The story of David and Goliath has been shared for centuries because of its underdog underpinnings. Warren can provide enough firepower for N.C. State to pull the upset over UNC, although the odds will favor the Tar Heels' ever-developing balanced approach.

 

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