This is our first men's basketball installment of Film Review, where we break down a particular aspect of the action to help you better understand what's happening on the court. Here's where to find our previous pieces from the football season.
Despite how fans may be feeling after a bad loss and a close win, the Tar Heels are not in crisis mode. In fact, they are far from it. Even if you are willing to concede that the loss against Georgia Tech (ranked No. 141 in the KenPom ratings) was a bad loss, you must then agree that a win on the road against Clemson (ranked No. 23 in KenPom) was a good win.
Maybe it’s how North Carolina has been playing the last two times out that is the source of turmoil within the fan base. UNC did not play or shoot well against Georgia Tech, and the Tar Heels shot and played only a little better against Clemson. What's frustrating are the turnovers: 20 cough-ups against Georgia Tech and 18 more against Clemson.
North Carolina’s turnover percentage (turnovers/possessions) now sits at 18 percent on the season, per kenpom.com. The NCAA average is a tick higher, at 19 percent. As frustrating as those turnovers are, they aren’t the primary concern for the Tar Heels.
When I went back and watched the tape of the Clemson game, I found the lack of ball movement and player movement to be far more concerning. I think those are the areas where the Tar Heels need to grow the most before getting into the meat of the conference schedule.
Ball movement, in plain terms, is just passing the ball. It can be measured in assists, and the past two games, UNC has been below its nonconference assist average of 18.6 per game — the Tar Heels had 13 assists against the Yellow Jackets and 17 against Clemson. But ball movement is also how the ball moves. Good ball movement is swinging the ball from one side of the court to the other, making the extra pass to a teammate to turn a good shot into a great shot and throwing good entry passes into the post.
North Carolina is lacking in its ball movement. UNC’s countless transition buckets and excellent offensive rebounding mask a lot of these deficiencies, but in the halfcourt, it often manifests itself in empty possessions.
The most visible example of bad ball movement against Clemson was Joel Berry’s turnover with seven seconds left, on a bad entry pass to Kennedy Meeks.
Berry attempted an entry pass from the top of the key — one of the big no-nos of basketball. The clock was bearing down on the Tar Heels, and the Clemson fans were roaring, but it wasn't a good pass or decision.
The Tar Heels also could use better player movement in the halfcourt. This is harder to define without SportVU data telling us how many miles each player ran per game. But player movement is cutting to the basket, setting good on- and off-ball screens and finding open pockets of space behind the 3-point line.
Bad player movement manifests itself in bad spacing: UNC’s players bunched too close together on the court, siphoning off driving lanes for the guards and eliminating real estate for big men to post up in.
This was a real problem in the Georgia Tech game against the 1-3-1 zone — a defense designed to force turnovers and prey on poor passing and spacing. UNC was entirely too stagnant against the zone, settling for shots on the baseline instead of attacking the zone with the dribble drive and screening to open up the defense.
Here’s an example of bad spacing from the Clemson game.
North Carolina starts off this possession fine. Both Isaiah Hicks and Meeks set screens, hoping to free up either Berry or Nate Britt.
Berry curls around the screen, but Clemson’s Elijah Thomas (circled) is playing center field and is ready to challenge the shot.
Nearly every Clemson defender is zeroed in on Berry’s shot. He makes it, but the spacing didn’t help him.
These aren’t new problems, either. Here’s two examples of bad spacing from the Indiana game, UNC's first loss of the year.
And on the next possession:
North Carolina has a few tricks up its sleeve to counter some of the bad spacing. The Tar Heels like to go small with just one big man and Justin Jackson, or Theo Pinson when he comes back, at the four. That helps free up space inside because there is one less big defender in the paint, playing center field. Instead, in theory, that defender is posted up at the 3-point line, drawn by the threat of a Jackson or Pinson three.
UNC also has a lot of different plays with weakside action built in that alleviate the pains of poor spacing. Weakside screening or movement draws the attention of help defenders away from the main action on the ball. North Carolina is a veteran and well-coached team with these kinds of plays to lean on to get clean looks from deep or on the block.
But in the past two games, these plays haven't been enough. The Tar Heels’ ball movement and the player movement are two of the major reasons why UNC's offense has been spinning in the sand as of late. They are also two areas where the players do understand they need to get better.
“(Our passing) could be better because we were just standing around most of the time,” Hicks said after the Georgia Tech game. “A little more movement, a little more working together — it will be better.”
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