UNC Beat: From a Distance

Ask any North Carolina fan why they hate Duke, and they’re likely to give you an entire list of reasons. Probably somewhere after Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s appearance, gothic smugness, Dick Vitale, and slapping the court, you might finally get to something that actually vaguely relates to the on-court product of Duke basketball: the number of three-point shots they attempt. Okay, and the flopping.

We’ve all heard it before. Duke lives and dies by the three. North Carolina fans are usually able to look at an upcoming matchup with Duke and say “Yeah, they can shoot, but do they have anybody to stop [insert UNC big man here]?” It’s displayed like a badge of honor, that the Tar Heels possess this lineage of post players that can allegedly feast on Duke’s “softer” big men who only set screens and rebound, in the words of Mitch McGary.

However, this season is going to be a bitter one for the strongest proponents of that argument. The superior big man is in Durham, and the team that needs success from beyond the arc in order to compete is in Chapel Hill.

For Duke, Mason Plumlee has been a revelation. Averaging a double-double per game (19.6 points, 11 rebounds), the senior has nearly doubled his scoring output from last season, both with an improved offensive game and a much better rate at the charity stripe when he is fouled. Only Virginia Tech’s Erick Green is scoring more so far this season.

Meanwhile, North Carolina currently has a game of musical chairs in the post. Desmond Hubert has started six games, but freshmen Brice Johnson and Joel James have also picked up starts along the way. James’ start, coming Saturday against UAB, was just another in a line of games where James was limited offensively since a hot start to the season, scoring two points over 12 minutes.

In fact, none of the above players were in the game for more than 14 minutes (Johnson). Instead, the Tar Heels went small, making 71.9% of their second half field goals and 10 of 23 three-pointers in the game.

It is this lack of an obvious, must-start guy alongside James Michael McAdoo in the post that requires the Tar Heels to be effective from distance this year. Yes, they have attempted more three-pointers than any other ACC team this season. They’ve also attempted more two-pointers, since there are only two other teams that have played as many games as the Tar Heels, neither with the same up-tempo pace offensively. When you break it down to a ratio of two-pointers attempted versus three-pointers, North Carolina is middle-of-the-pack currently in the conference (and yes, Duke is one of the teams ahead of them).

However, Duke will be able to get plenty of open three-pointers as long as defenses key on stopping Plumlee. There is no Plumlee on this Tar Heel roster to draw attention to the post, at least not at this stage of the season (there’s always hope for one of the freshmen to improve). Probably the closest offensively is Johnson, but defensively how would his wiry frame hold up against larger or stronger opponents? If last week’s game against Indiana and Cody Zeller is any indication (Hubert started, but Johnson and James got more minutes), not good at all.

In that game, North Carolina was 1-for-8 from beyond the arc. With Zeller constantly blocking shots under the basket and the perimeter attack going cold, the North Carolina offense stalled out in an embarrassing loss. In the Maui loss to Butler, North Carolina made only 32 percent of its three-point field goals. In five of their six wins, the Tar Heels have made at least 38 percent of their shots from distance.

Meanwhile, Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock have both placed themselves in the top ten of ACC three-point shooters. P.J. Hairston has, true to his form from last season, shown flashes of marksmanship thus far, but lacks consistency. However, with each passing game it is becoming clearer that these shooters must be able to play well for North Carolina to win, and the schedule will only grow more daunting as December rolls into January. After all, Duke can answer with guys like Seth Curry, Quinn Cook, and Rasheed Sulaimon.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how you win, as long as you win. If North Carolina is able to prove it is one of the best shooting teams in the country on a regular basis, then the lack of a post presence won’t be as big of an issue. If you’re one of those people who has cackled with glee every time a Duke team lost after a poor shooting night, this probably isn’t the North Carolina team for you, especially since there will be some very similar losses along the way for the Tar Heels.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE … : North Carolina won its 21st NCAA Women’s Soccer National Championship Sunday, defeating Penn State 4-1 on the strength of second-half goals by Hanna Gardner, Satara Murray, and Ranee Premji.

Just to put some perspective on the dominance this program has had over women’s soccer over the past thirty years, here are some bullet points.

  • If the Tar Heels had lost in the NCAA Tournament, it would have been the first time that the team lost six games in a season. It also would have been the first time the Heels had failed to win a championship for three consecutive years.
  • With a 6-4-1 mark in ACC play, this was still the first North Carolina squad to lose more than three conference games.
  • If Penn State had won, they would have been the ninth different winner of the Women’s Soccer Championship in 31 years. Only three schools have won more than one championship (North Carolina 21, Notre Dame 3, Portland 2).

Zach Evans is brilliantZach Evans is a student at the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC. Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements. For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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