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.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Kansas and Roy Williams

Journalists love stories that can easily be pegged to headlines in a way that is not complicated. In the week-end NCAA Regionals, most were hoping to see Davidson end up playing in-state rival, UNC, so that they could write Davidson versus Goliath stories all week. Davidson fell just short, so the journalists are making due with their next best story, which is the match-up between Roy Williams and the team that he led for well over a decade, the Kansas Jawhawks in the National Semi-final.

So, why should I be any different?

The two schools, North Carolina and Kansas have a fairly long history of trading favorite sons as coaches back and forth. Originally, UNC's Frank McGuire, fresh off an undefeated championship in which his team defeated Kansas, 54-53 in triple overtime, hired Kansas grad Dean Smith to be his top assistant back in the late 1950s. Kansas would later attempt to lure Smith back home, but would settle for one of his former assistants and players, Larry Brown, who took Kansas to its only championship since Smith had been a player at Kansas.

The peripatetic Brown decided to quit at the top, and Kansas then hired Roy Williams, another Smith assistant and J.V. player, who had been expected to take the top job at George Mason(that certainly might have changed history). Smith, himself, during this period, requested that his former Kansas coach, Dick Harp take a position as UNC assistant coach. After Williams returned to Carolina, his coaching staff was made up of, you guessed it, primarily Kansas grads.

The two universities rarely play, due to the lack of inclination by Smith and Williams to face their alma maters, but have played 3 times in the Final Four previously, with UNC getting the better of it and defeating Kansas twice on the way to national titles in 1957 and 1993. Williams and Kansas defeated Smith and UNC in 1991 but then lost to Duke in that year's title game, something that was hard for both Kansas, as well as Carolina fans to swallow.

Roy Williams took Kansas to the greatest sustained period of excellence in its last 50 years, but could not quite win the championship. After spurning one attempt by UNC to hire him in the wake of Dean Smith's retirement, Williams then finally decided to return home to North Carolina.

To put it mildly, many of his former idolizing fans in Kansas were not happy with this development. I don't want to paint all Kansas fans with this brush. Some continue to be both Kansas fans first, and Roy Williams fans, second; and they are almost certainly the happiest and most psychologically well-adjusted among those interested in the outcome next week-end.

I am assuming that anyone reading this has a bit of background already, but even though coaches change jobs and universities all the time, for those disaffected Kansas fans, this was of a different order. Williams is known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve and this unusual vulnerability, together with the incredible triumphs and a few devastating defeats, had apparently resulted in a bond between coach, team and fans, almost unparalleled in college sports history.

While fans generally harbor some resentment when a coach leaves, I personally, have never seen bitterness to this extent. Some have mentioned Rick Pitino who left Kentucky and then took the job with Kentucky's chief rival as a parallel, but that is a bit different. Pitino seemed to be looking to deliberately antagonize his former school, as might have been the case with Frank McGuire taking the South Carolina job after leaving North Carolina.

Roy Williams, on the other hand, refused to schedule his former school and continues to profess his devoted affection to Kansas and its fans. To little effect--at least with respect to many of them. Virtually every Kansas newspaper that prints a story about UNC playing in the NCAA tournament every year since he left, carries the requisite quote from some unhinged Kansan with words to the effect of, "well I sure hope Kansas can win, but if not, at least, please God don't let North Carolina win."

Kansas basketball site and newspaper forums bristle with the interaction among those who still admire Williams and those who simply cannot get over his leaving. Try as I might to avoid them I am mesmerized by the depth of feeling on all sides.

See generally, comments at the bottom:, ("Get some therapy!")

and another about Kansans for Roy, well, sort of:

The psychological issues present here are fascinating. Mack Brown, UNC's former football coach, and Bill Self, Kansas's current basketball coach, left programs that they never made any great pretense of loving, and although not particularly popular in the places they left , UNC and Illinois fans don't seem to have anywhere close to the animus that Kansas fans have.

My own feeling as a UNC grad is that Texas's Mack Brown is basically someone over whom it is not worth wasting much in the way of emotional resources, not to mention probably the most likely current coach to join the guy from Miami as a national title-winner on the unemployment lines since he can't seem to beat Oklahoma consistently, but I digress.

And of course, one thing, if the only thing, that North Carolinians and Kansans can agree about, even in those few and far between seasons of football success--Kansas just had one--is that there are exceedingly few football coaches worth crying over.

Roy Williams, on the other hand, had essentially told the Kansas fans that "I will always love you and never leave you," and then did. I guess part of the moral of the story is never to make promises you cannot keep.

I think the other thing that is apparent, is that Roy Williams is worth crying over.

Unlike Mack Brown, Roy Williams is a truly remarkable coach and human being and not being wanted by him hurts and perhaps implies that Kansas wasn't good enough to keep such a stellar person, not to mention having him leave for the "younger, more attractive trophy wife. "

Kansas and Roy had enjoyed the years of unparalleled success and suffered the agony of coming so close so many times, and Kansans had grown affectionate of Williams' not inconsiderable idiosyncricities. Kansas wanted to win a title with Roy Williams, not some other guy, and Kansas definitely did not want to see Roy's new bride carry away the ultimate spoils of his success as he moved into the peak of his coaching prowess with one national title winner in his name, finally, at UNC, and top five finishes in three of his first five years. It also didn't help that UNC seemed to be on television virtually every time Kansans turned on their sets. Kansas, on the other hand, was in another time zone and while certainly featured more than most basketball programs, many of its games were only regionally televised.

Bill Self, the new coach, who has pretty much equalled Williams' success at Kansas, has certainly had his own share of coming close and not quite getting over the hump, but it will never quite be the same with him and Kansas. He hasn't shown the same vulnerability as Williams, the kind of uncomfortable and yet, endearing vulnerability that most of us only share with our closest friends and relatives.

Roy Williams is basketball's version of Sally Field, shouting to the Academy, "you like me! You actually like me." Field has been laughed at and lampooned for years for basically losing control over her emotions in front of her professional peers upon receipt of her Oscar. And yet, I would submit that she may very well be the most popular actress of her generation, precisely because once people get over their discomfort from having someone let down their guard in front of them, many of these people will form a psychological attachment due to the shared intimacy of such unguarded actions.

Williams made no secret during his tenure at Kansas of his less than affluent upbringing and his generally absent, alcoholic father. Like many such children, he doesn't drink alcohol at all and some may see classic, pattern attributes in him as a child of an alcoholic.

Unlike so many coaches who strive to be seen as generals, both on the floor and off, Williams, always the general on the floor, was known for crying in public after some of basketball's tough knocks. You've probably never seen Bobby Knight cry in public, but then again, Bobby Knight, owner of the most wins in history, has a winning percentage that is mediocre compared to Williams' career winning percentage. There is probably no fiercer competitor in basketball among coaches than Roy Williams.

He was also a known "mama's boy." Williams never denied the truth of the Coca-Cola story published in Sports Illustrated in 1997, and even later did an advertisement which kiddingly reflected upon his deep devotion to his mother who ironed shirts so that he could drink a Coca-Cola after school with his friends, spending the few extra dimes she earned doing so.

Just to make the point crystal clear, friends says that Williams is known for always having cases and cases of Coca-Cola in his home, lest he run out at an inopportune time.

That story might even have been enough to embarrass Sally Field, but for Williams and Kansans, it just bound them even closer together, as did the crushing defeat to Arizona, just a few weeks after the SI article.

Williams, who had been on the way to a season, even his mentor Dean Smith had never quite had, seemed destined for both a national title and a new record for wins, becoming the first team to win more than 40 in one year. Unfortunately, 37-1 Kansas ran into eventual National Champion and highly underrated Arizona, which went out to a double digit lead in the last minutes. Probably most teams would have been done at this point, but Kansas put together a remarkable comeback, erasing ten points off the deficit and possessed the ball with just seconds to go, in a position to tie.

It was not to be and in some ways, the valiant comeback just made it worse--just that much more of a tease and obsession for Williams and the Kansas fans who wanted that to be his year. What had gone wrong? What could Williams have possibly done differently to prevent the upset? Ultimately, Williams took refuge in the notion that there wasn't a single thing he would change.

The NCAA tournament's one and done format is a harsh mistress and a beguiling mistress, but most of all, she is a mysterious mistress, often favoring the less worthy and the weak as she spurns the Sampsons and Chamberlains who would seek to enjoy her whims, while extending her favor to the Lorenzo Charles's and Harold Jensen's of the world.

There would go on to be two more such disappointments as Kansas would lose in the Final Four in 2002 and then in the National Final in 2003, when his team uncharacteristically could not make any free throws, resulting in a bitter loss to Syracuse, after once again another great comeback that fell just short.

But maybe even more agonizing to the Kansas fans was the rumor that Roy had been in renewed discussions to take the UNC job. This was after previously turning down his alma-mater in 2000, in another of his almost patented public displays of insecurity during which he wavered back and forth between going and leaving and then ended up turning down UNC during a nationally-televised "I'm Staying!" pep rally that seemed to cement his fortunes in Kansas, while kicking dirt in the faces of his North Carolinian suitors and particularly angering his former colleague Bill Guthridge, Dean Smith's successor.

But people in North Carolina, apparently, are are quite forgiving, especially when it comes to basketball, and in 2003, on the eve of the Final Four, with the once hallowed UNC basketball program in almost total chaos, UNC came again bidding for Williams' services. Torn between two sick family members back in North Carolina and his love for his alma mater, and his "oath" to Kansas, Williams opted this time to take the job, leaving Kansas in the immediate wake of a defeat, perhaps almost as painful as the loss to Arizona back in 1997.

Kansas continued in its basketball tradition with almost no change after Williams' departure. Kansas has been in the top ten virtually every week since Williams left and has also suffered the same crushing losses that have been a state tradition going back to the loss by Wilt Chamberlain and the Jayhawks in triple-overtime to UNC in 1957.

Unique among the so-called five top programs in college basketball, which include UNC, Duke, Kentucky, UCLA and Kansas, only Kansas has not won multiple championships since the demise of the UCLA dynasty in 1974, winning only as an upset winner in 1988, when little was expected of them. Each time that Kansas has been touted as the best team in the nation, or at least, arguably the best, the Jayhawks have gone down in smoldering flames, since Dean Smith played 29 seconds for them when they won the title in 1952.

Now, Kansas is, arguably, the best team in the country this year, and Kansans have a shot at Williams in a competitive game for the first time since he left five years ago. With a win, Kansas might win a title for the first time in 20 years and perhaps finally put to rest the demons of its former beloved son's infidelity. But I don't think so. Sure, it would be fun for some to stick it to the wayward son and even more fun to finally garner another title.

But this thing goes too deep. For many, I believe that what these "haters" unknowingly hope for is that UNC will once again thwart their Jayhawks, allowing them to continue to brandish their anger against the Prodigal Son who this time is never destined to return, because they actually get more emotional return this way, and Williams is more than happy to accomodate them, because as much as he might have wanted them to "like me," there is only one thing that Roy Williams hungers for more than acceptance, and that is victory.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Still More March Madness Math

Let's go through the four Final Four teams and see how they play, because the media and announcers routinely mess this up:

From Slowest to Fastest in Terms of Possessions Averaged per Game:

1. UCLA -- 65 possessions
2. Kansas -- 68 possessions
3. Memphis --70 possessions
4. UNC -- 75 possessions

Because of the way that normal distributions fall, the rankings of the four vis-a-vis all Division I teams is 258 for UCLA, 127 for Kansas, 64 for Memphis and 5 for Carolina. It is interesting to note that UNC is playing almost identically fast to its 2005 national title team.

In terms of Offensive Efficiency:
1. UNC
2. Kansas (tied for first)
3. Memphis

There is not much difference among these squads in terms of offense per possession.

In terms of Defensive Efficiency:

I am not going to break this out completely because the top three are essentially tied at the top, with UNC somewhat behind, but still in the top twenty.

In terms of rebounding, UNC is the best on the offensive boards; UCLA is the best on the defensive boards, and Kansas and Memphis are a bit farther back, but still very good.

Ultimately, I think that UCLA and UNC both have the edge in their games against Memphis and Kansas, due to their each having an All American guy to go to on offense, with UCLA having Kevin Love and UNC having Tyler Hansbrough. Memphis doesn't have any offensive players of this caliber, while Kansas has Mario Chalmers, who is just a step back, but doesn't get the ball nearly as much as Love and Hansbrough.

But if you want to look for an upset on Saturday, slight upset though it may be, it is likely to be Memphis over UCLA, due to UCLA's low-scoring pace and generally high inconsistency rating. I don't think Kansas can work out its scoring problems well enough to defeat North Carolina. Kansas didn't have anybody who seemed to want the ball down the stretch against Davidson and putting Sasha (no relation to Chaka) Kaun up against Hansbrough seems likely to expose Kaun's lumbering lack of mobility.

Kansas beat a 12 and a ten seed in the regionals to get to the Final Four, while UNC defeated a Louisville team regarded as at least the fifth best team in the country. UNC and Kansas are currently 1-1 in the Semi's of the Final Four, with Kansas defeating perhaps Dean Smith's worst Final Four team ever, in 1991 and then losing languidly to Duke; and with UNC beating a far better Kansas team in 1993 and then defeating Michigan and the Fab Five for the title that year.

In 1957, in one of the most famous games ever, UNC completed an undefeated year by beating Wilt Chamberlain in Kansas in triple-overtime, 54-53 for the national title under Frank McGuire.

Only one Big 12/Big 8 team has won the national championship since Dean Smith left Lawrence, Kansas back in the early 1950s and that team had Danny Manning. Apart from the generally weaker competition that the Jayhawks generally face in the Big 12 (Texas got annihilated in its home state by Memphis, which hardly could have given Kansas much confidence), this Kansas team doesn't have a single player in Danny Manning's zip code. Bill Self is likely to have to content himself with making the Semi's this year and save avenging Wilt and the 1957 Jayhawks for another day.