ACC Basketball

Carolina’s Small Ball Myth


Last season, the North Carolina Tar Heels were not your typical Tar Heels team. Two-thirds through the regular season, they looked like an Amanda Bynes’ traffic accident, struggling along at 16-7, suffering blowout loses to Indiana, Texas and Miami.

Heading into their first match up with Duke on February 13, many experts were unsure if this team could qualify for the NCAA tournament and they certainly weren’t going to keep this one close.

This is when head coach Roy Williams decided to make the change. He ditched the center position and went with a lineup of four guards by inserting sophomore P.J. Hairston into the lineup. While the Tar Heels would end up losing to Duke that day, they would go on a roll, finishing third in the conference and reaching the ACC finals.

Throughout this period, the world suddenly re-loved Roy Williams. Everybody was raving about his decision to go small ball. There were even whispers in Chapel Hill about a deep tournament run. Yet, was it all just a delusion? Did the small ball really make North Carolina better? Looking back at the final results and digging deep into the numbers, I’m going to argue it did not.

Overall, prior to the switch, North Carolina was 16-7. Of course that number may not impress many, because some of those wins were against cupcakes. In fact, if you look at just the final 13 games prior to the switch (I picked 13 because that’s how many games Carolina played small ball), they went a less-than-impressive 8-5.

So how did the much improved small-ball version of Carolina do after the switch? 9-4. Yes, a one game improvement from the previous 13 games.

Now that’s not an impressive improvement. If I lasted a minute longer in bed with my wife, she would not consider that a victory. So forget wins…maybe the numbers were better. Or maybe not.

First 23 games: 78 ppg
Previous 13 games: 74 ppg
Small Ball games: 74 ppg

Scoring actually decreased from their first 23 games after NC went small ball.

First 23 games: 69 ppg
Previous 13 games: 70 ppg
Small Ball games: 69 ppg

As you can see, no change at all from the previous 13 games (mostly in conference) to last 13 games.

Of course totals aren’t everything. It’s all about efficiency. Now I’m too lazy to dive into Ken Pom’s world, but I did look at changes in percentages and shot selection.

Overall, in the small ball games, Carolina hit 44.8 percent of their shots from the floor, a slight improvement from 43.6 before the switch.

Now obviously when you go smaller, you shoot more jumpers. North Carolina took 3.2 more threes per game, making 2.2 more, hitting a solid 40.4 from the floor, a five-point improvement from the previous 23 games. This was the biggest change/improvement during the switch.

Inside though, Carolina took nearly five less shots from two-point range, shooting at the same 47-percent clip.

So yes, they shot and made more threes, a +8 in points per game based on the 2.2 average, but it actually didn’t pay off because they scored about nine points less from inside the arc (based on 4.6 less 2-point shots made per game). If you want to include free throwing shooting, Carolina made 1.6 more free throws per game with small ball, thus proving there was no real change.

Of course, points aren’t the only thing that matters. Turnovers were a big problem for Carolina. Prior to small ball, they turned it over 13.2 times per game. However, in their final 13 games, they turned it over just 9.8 times. That’s a solid improvement (although PG Marcus Paige turned it over slightly more, 2.3 before, 2.5 after).

However, to accomplish this, the team sacrificed a ton on the boards. Prior to the move, North Carolina pulled down a solid 41 rebounds per game. However, during small ball, the Tar Heels grabbed just 30 per game. That’s a huge drop in rebounds. That’s either a lot of missed second opportunities or more second opportunities for the opponents.

Looking at all those numbers, plus the results, it’s clear that the Tar Heels didn’t really improve as a team. So why did everyone believe that North Carolina got better playing small ball?

Well, a lot of people pointed to P.J. Hairston’s stats. He was having a disappointing second season in Chapel Hill, coming off the bench. However, once he got the starting nod, his numbers all improved in totals, percentage and in overall efficiency. Obviously, more playing time means more stats, but I would argue that he played better, not because the small ball system worked better for him, but the fact that when he was no longer coming off the bench, he relaxed more. Prior to that, Hairston knew his time on the court was limited and he tended to press.

Secondly, the wins matter to a lot of people (as they probably should). Roy Williams got a ton of coverage for the switch during the Duke game (the first time Carolina went small). In Durham, the Tar Heels’ new lineup seem to fluster Duke, as the Tar Heels led by two, but in the second half, Duke pulled away. Still, the thinking after the game was, sure North Carolina lost, but they didn’t get blown out like they had the game before.

They would go on to win their next six, which is impressive. However, the question I have is, was it because of the small ball or was it because they were playing inferior opponents they would have beaten any way?

Think about it. Those six wins after losing to Duke were against (using Ken Pom) #34 Virginia, #94 Georgia Tech, #38 North Carolina State, #114 Clemson, #124 Florida State (twice) and #53 Maryland (twice). I’m not an expert, but I wouldn’t call that a murderer’s row. The two toughest teams were Virginia and NC State, two teams that had already beaten UNC. However, both those games were at home (thus Carolina had to be the favorite) and both those teams were struggling at the end. Virginia dropped six of their last 11 and NC State was just 5-4 down the stretch (with only one win coming against a top-80 team).

Of those eight small ball wins Carolina got down the stretch, none were against top-30 teams, three came against top-50 teams (Virginia, NC State and #43 Villanova in the NCAA Tournament). With the exception of #53 Maryland, the rest came against teams barely in or outside the top-100.

When it came time to put small ball against good competition, small ball failed. North Carolina lost to #7 Duke twice, #14 Miami and #9 Kansas. Prior to the lineup change, they went 0-3 against the top-30, after…0-4.

In the end, I don’t think small ball was a complete failure. Roy Williams needed to shake something up, so props for that. However, I wouldn’t call it the success story that everyone claimed it to be. Yes, they weren’t getting blown out as much (except for that home loss to Duke in the season’s final game), but if that’s all we’re talking about, then I’m not sure what everyone was bragging about.





  1. Me

    May 2, 2013 at 11:41 am

    “. Now I’m too lazy to dive into Ken Pom’s world….” I’m too lazy to finish reading your article. Comparing stats without looking at the vast kenpom improvement is junk. Not worth my time.

  2. Robert

    May 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Fair enough…but as you can see, there’s enough evidence to prove my point. If you kept reading, you will see, despite the change to small ball, nothing actually change. The points for, points against, overall shooting all stayed the same. The record, improved by one game, but the teams they beat were teams they should have beaten and the teams they lost to, were teams they were suppose to lose to. The Tar Heels most impressive small ball win? Probably at Maryland, because winning on the road was something they struggled with prior.

    Fact is, Ken Pom’s metrics are fantastic, but in this case, if you really need that kind of math to prove that the end result somehow isn’t the case, then in my mind, you’re just reaching.

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