Saturday, April 5, 2008

UNC Season Survey and Final Four Prospects

It is Final Four Saturday, I am just looking at the numbers and thought that I would point out a few things about the 2008 Tar Heels that might be of interest to UNC fans.

Ty Lawson's numbers on offense are going through the roof. He has almost tied Tyler Hansbrough as Carolina's most efficient offensive player. Hansbrough is rated 20th and Lawson 31st, although Tyler does use more possessions, which makes him more valuable at the margin.

Lawson also improved his foul shooting from 69 percent to 83% which is a huge facet of the game for a point guard. I think the numbers show that Lawson has surpassed former Tar Heel Ray Felton on the offensive end, with the exception of minutes played and three point shots, where the current Bobcat point guard still holds a big edge.

In this decade, Felton seems to have had by far the best 3-point shooting season, in 2005, hitting 44%. Wes Miller hit that one year, but shot slightly fewer and they tended to be easier shots.

Marcus Ginyard is puzzling. His overall offensive numbers are down this year. His free throw shooting has fallen from 79% last year to under 65% this year. His rebounding numbers are down also. His effective field goal percentage is down, in spite of his improvement from the 3-point line. Carolina fans would love to see the old Marcus back this weekend.

Pomeroy said this weekend that he was wrong about Carolina needing Brandan Wright. I guess he means needing Wright if they were to win it all, if I remember his earlier comment, but there is no doubt that Wright was a monster player last year. If you look at his numbers 2007, it was like having 2 Hansbroughs down low. Wright had almost identical offensive rating numbers, a better field goal percentage than Tyler Hansbrough, plus he blocked shots. Even his free throw shooting was improving at the end of the year.

I think that the Tar Heels might have gone undefeated if he had stayed in school.

Wayne Ellington and Danny Green both made significant improvements in their offense. With slightly more shots, Wayne's 3-point percentage went from .371 to .414, making him almost identical to sharp-shooter Rashad McCants in 2005 in numbers and percentage, who is currently starring for the Timberwolves. This is very nice improvement.

Danny Green improved even more from 3-point land, going from .296 to .376, while taking 60 more such shots. Danny Green really made himself into a star this year.

Deon Thompson essentially stayed at about the same efficiency on offense, although he is using more possessions, which implies tougher shots at the margin. His free throw percentage dropped from 65% to 59%, although he shot almost twice as many. Lately, Thompson has been doing better on the offensive end, but it is his defense and rebounding that make his so valuable. He is Carolina's top shotblocker and his offensive rebounding has been very good.

Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson are almost twins out there. Alex is slightly taller. Neither is great offensively at this point but they both still seem to have much more unshown potential. They are about equal at shotblocking and free throw percentage (not so good). Alex is more of a demon on the boards, with per minute numbers that are actually better than Hansbrough's.

Who would you guess is the most offensively improved player on the UNC squad? Yes, it is Q!. Way to go, Quentin Thomas. Q made it to an offensive rating of 1, up from a miserable .83 last year. He doesn't shoot much, but when he does, he makes over 58% of them and over 78% from the line.

Along with Q, my vote for most pleasant surprise this year for Carolina goes to redshirt freshman, Will Graves. He is tall for a wing man and can provide instant offense, with an offensive rating that is fourth on the team, given his minutes. He is hitting over 45% of his three's and has taken more than Ginyard and about half as many as Lawson. Of course, Carolina doesn't shoot all that many three-point shots, which looks good for next year, when they move the line back. Graves has only taken 12 free throws and only made seven. Maybe he should step back and take them from the 3 point line.

So, we can really see how UNC took a step forward this year. They lost a great player in Brandan Wright and several excellent defenders and role players in Wes Miller, Reyshawn Terry and Bobby Frasor, none of whom was particularly good offensively last year, but the loss of Wright and Terry probably accounts for last year's team being better on the defensive end.

But Tyler, Ty, Wayne, Danny, and Q all made real improvements in their performances, with Deon and Alex making lesser improvements. Marcus certainly has the talent to be performing at a higher level and I wonder if injuries have hampered him all year.

With the exception of assists and blocks, where he went down slightly, Hansbrough improved his game significantly in almost every category. Over 3 years, his free throw percentage has improved from 74% to 77% to 81%, a subtle and steady improvement that makes a huge difference when you shoot them as much as he does. His minutes have gone up significantly this year without Wright. He is playing even more minutes than Felton did on the title team, which shows just how important he is. Like Felton in 2005, Hansbrough is someone they don't really have a replacement for this year.

Here are the keys the way I see them. This team is steady. With the exception of the first Duke game, and the VPI game in the tournament, UNC has been above a 100 offensive rating every game since December 1. There are really only three guys who seem to vary much in performance, and they are Ginyard, Thompson and Stepheson and I see them as key in terms of "guaranteeing" a title. All four of the teams remaining are excellent and all four can defeat each other when they play their game.

However, Carolina fans have seen a handful of games the past couple of years that appeared to be tough going in, like playing at Arizona last year without two starters, or the game against the athletic Razorbacks in this year's tournament, but that turned into laughers when Thompson and Stepheson had big offensive games. If Thompson is hitting his bank shots and ten footers, there simply are too many guys to defend, especially when you are talking about a team that is already the top offensive squad in the country. If Thompson and Stepheson don't step up, it could be a real grind for Carolina, as all of these teams are excellent defensively and have significant post presences.

I think it is still a real question whether this year's team is better than last year's team. There is no question that that team was more talented and better offensively, while this team is more seasoned and better offensively. The 2007 Heels lost virtually every close game they had all season. Pomeroy still has the 2007 Heels rated higher, although I am not sure if you can compare across seasons.

I think the big difference is that this 2008 team is far better from three point territory and from the free throw line and that makes it much more difficult for teams to pack it in down low.

In terms of playing against good defenses, here is a list of top defending teams that have bitten the dust against Carolina in the last month: Louisville, ranked fourth nationally; Washington State, ranked 7th defensively; Duke, ranked 9th defensively, Clemson, ranked 12th defensively, and VPI, ranked 8th defensively, and the games have actually gotten less close against Louisville and WSU, who were supposed to be superior to the ACC opposition.

UNC and Memphis have played by far the superior teams in the first four rounds of the tournament. I won't count the first round since all those games are easy, but since then UNC has beaten a 37, a 10 and a 6 in Pomeroy's rankings, while Memphis has beaten a 33, a 15, and a 9. Kansas and UCLA both faced mediocre competition in their brackets.

Pomeroy has Kansas and UCLA in the Finals. Like all games in the NCAA tourney, it is one and done, and maybe Tyler trips and falls on the way into the arena or maybe Kansas pulls a Tyrese Rice and hits ten 3's in the first half, or maybe they channel all of that anti-Roy fury into an amazing win, but under most scenario's, I think UNC is just a little too good for this opponent and look for them in the final against Memphis, which is what Vegas is predicting as well.

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