A balanced, elite offense is the thread that ties together Roy Williams’ two national championship teams at North Carolina. When preseason All-American guard Marcus Paige returned last night against Maryland, those Tar Heels immediately became a stiffer challenge for defenders and again the popular pick to emerge from a wide-open field and win the national championship. Paige is UNC’s best 3-point shooter and a terrific passer, the key component in a fluid offense.
Williams won the championship at UNC in 2005 with Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May as the primary scorers driving a fast-paced attack that led the nation in scoring (88.1 points per game) and was second in adjusted efficiency (1.22 points per possession).
Four years later, the Ty Lawson-Wayne Ellington-Tyler Hansbrough-Danny Green squad was just as potent. The Tar Heels produced 89.8 points per game (second in the nation) and led in adjusted efficiency, scoring 1.22 points per possession again.
Both title teams featured five players who averaged in double figures scoring. With Paige back in the fold, each member of the Tar Heels’ current starting lineup is also averaging in double figures and can score 15 to 25 points on any night.
Including last night’s 89-81 win over Maryland, five of UNC’s first seven opponents were ranked in the top 85 of the Pomeroy Ratings. The Tar Heels played all but last night’s game without Paige yet still scored at least 1.10 points per possession in each game except the loss at Northern Iowa. They are third in the nation in adjusted efficiency (115.8) and scoring 82.4 points per game.
The Tar Heels have a solid eight or nine-man rotation, the requisite depth to withstand minor injuries or foul trouble. But what sets them apart from other contenders is two traits that are rare in modern college basketball -- experience and chemistry. It’s revealed via their unselfishness and connectivity on offense. UNC assists on 61.4 percent of its field goals (44th in the nation).
Paige and forward Brice Johnson (13.4 ppg) are in their fourth year playing together. Kennedy Meeks’ playing time has increased as his conditioning has improved. The 6-foot-9 center is playing his best basketball as a junior, averaging 14.0 ppg and 7.3 rpg while shooting 60 percent from the field. Joel Berry II, a sophomore point guard, gained confidence as he handled a larger role in Paige’s absence. He’s scored in double figures in five of seven games and his development allows Paige to play shooting guard.
Entering the season, 3-point shooting appeared to be the Tar Heels’ achilles heel because in 2014-15 they were 344th in the nation in points produced behind the arc. Tar Heels other than Paige hit 90 of 276 (32.6 percent) from 3-point land last season. Despite this lack of productivity from long range, the Tar Heels still had the 10th most efficient offense in the nation.
Williams’ teams are never going to hunt 3-pointers. The goal of his offense is to pound the ball inside first. In five of the last six seasons, UNC has scored at least 60 percent of its points on 2-point field goals, ranking among the national leaders. Still, the Tar Heels lack of deep threats proved costly often last season. They had a 9-7 record in games where they made fewer than five 3-pointers and finished with a 26-12 record.
But they flashed promise in their Sweet 16 loss to Wisconsin, hitting 8 of 13 behind-the-arc. And Paige’s return last night against a top-10 opponent fueled their best 3-point effort of the season. The Tar Heels hit 9 of 13, matching a season high from 2014-15 when they had the same personnel.
So far, UNC is shooting 36.1 percent on 3-pointers, which is better than the national D1 average and is scoring 22 percent of its points on 3s, up from 18 percent last season.
What’s promising for the Tar Heels is they’ve shot a respectable percentage in spite of Justin Jackson’s slump (7 of 28). The 6-foot-8 sophomore has been a terror inside-the-arc (61.2 pct.) and an excellent distributor (25 assists, nine turnovers). But he’s yet to find the 3-point stroke he showed over the Tar Heels’ final 12 games last season (16 of 38). Jackson might not be the 42 percent 3-point threat he was down the stretch in 2014-15, but the team’s top pro prospect is also too talented to continue shooting 28 percent as well.
With Berry II, Jackson and Paige on the floor together, Johnson, Meeks and reserve Isaiah Hicks will have room to operate one-on-one in the paint. So, the Tar Heels’ offense could accelerate to championship-level dangerous over the next few weeks.
The final piece of any championship puzzle is defense, of course. The last ten national champions not only had an elite offense, but had an average adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 9.9. UNC is currently No. 25 in Pomeroy’s defensive ratings but Paige’s return should help in that regard as well. Williams said he’s the team’s best defender because he’s always in the right place. And the Tar Heels’ perimeter defense has been poor. Opponents have scored 42.4 percent of their points on 3-pointers -- best in the nation -- and connected on 39.1 percent of attempts. Maryland feasted from deep last night, burying 12 of 26.
Such a lethal long range performance could end a season on a neutral court in a regional final or national semifinal. Continuing to improve their effort around the arc on each end of the floor could determine whether these Tar Heels reach their ultimate goal in Houston.