Mid-season Report Card
After a thrilling victory over Louisville, tough loss to Notre Dame and with a trip to Raleigh on deck, it seems a good time to evaluate where the Heels are as they dive into the gauntlet of the new ACC. This is our midseason report card. We’ll recap some of the more important elements to this year’s squad as well as grade the starters and bench.
Team Defense: A
What became the calling card for last year’s squad has slightly improved, per Kenpom’s defensive efficiency numbers. Last year, the Heels were 21st in AdjD, while they’ve climbed to 15th this season. What’s changed? Carolina is averaging the same number of steals and blocks per game as a year ago, but it’s holding teams to 36% shooting and 26% from beyond the arc. They are holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 41%, which is good for 14th in the country. The D is coming from all over, but we particularly liked the job Isaiah Hicks did on Montrezl Harrell on Saturday. He gets the gold star.
Team Offense: C+
For better or for worse, it’s also the same story as last year on offense. With only one real threat from outside in Marcus Paige, the Heels rely on scoring in the paint. In fact, they’ve taken the most 2-point attempts of any team in the country, while coming in at #280 in 3-point attempts. As long as the defense is holding up, this isn’t inherently bad, but as we saw against Notre Dame and Louisville, it makes it extremely difficult to mount a comeback when trailing by a significant margin. As the commentators love to say, often UNC’s best offense is a missed shot — see below.
This team gobbles up the boards, particularly on the offensive end, where it ranks first nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. After the Butler game, many would assume that UNC suffers on defensive rebounding, but the stats don’t bear that out. Carolina is seventh in total rebounding percentage. Kennedy Meeks’ has established himself as an elite rebounder despite being only 6’8″ and often facing taller or more athletic opponents. He and Brice Johnson are third and ninth respectively in total rebounding percentage in the ACC.
Free Throw shooting: B
Carolina has improved what was a glaring weakness in 2013-’14. The Heels are shooting 70% from the line after notching an abysmal 62% last season. While it’s not a superlative percentage, it’s respectable and no longer a legitimate excuse for close losses.
Marcus Paige: B
As Paige himself stated after the Louisville game, his struggles this season are “well documented.” As much as we love him, we can’t give him a pass. We’ve talked on the podcast about how the reduced burden on Paige would likely help the team, but hurt his All-American candidacy, but Paige really hasn’t been himself. His shooting percentages are down across the board and his assist to turnover ratio is a pedestrian 1.7 to 1. That being said, he’s still leading the #15 Heels in scoring and is fifth in both 3-pointers made and FT percentage in the ACC. And you saw that Louisville game, right? Hopefully the nickname “Second Half Marcus” applies to both individual games as well as the full season.
J.P. Tokoto: A-
Much has been made of Tokoto’s team-leading assists, but not quite as much about his 38 turnovers, good for 9th most in the ACC. While he’s capable of making a jaw-dropping pass, he’s also guilty of throwing away possessions. Still, the increased assist output has been an improvement and helped the team, which needs perimeter players like Tokoto to be able to feed the post. He’s averaging 9 ppg, 5 rpg, 4 apg and 1.3 spg. And while you will never hear us begging for more 3-point attempts, he’s actually shooting a team-best 40% from beyond the arc. Shhhhhhhhh. Do not let this be known.
Justin Jackson: B
Jackson has been a solid contributor in the starting lineup all season, showcasing the mid-range game that all the scouts salivated over during his recruitment. He’s shooting 57% from 2-point range, a gaudy number for a perimeter player. Where he’s disappointed is from deep. Jackson is shooting 20% from beyond the arc on the season. It was an area he was expected to boost for the Heels — and he still might — however it appears it won’t be immediate.
Brice Johnson: B-
Johnson was expected to take a huge leap this year with increased playing time, but his production has remained close to what he averaged last year with fewer minutes. His defense is still suspect, and he has the fifth most fouls in the ACC. He is, however, averaging double digit points and seven boards, so his presence has been felt. He’s also top ten in defensive rebounds in the conference. Johnson still has lots of room to grow and his development over the course of the year could play a big role in how far UNC goes.
Kennedy Meeks: A-
Meeks has quietly become a force, averaging just a half point less per game than Paige (12.8 to 13.3) and 8.6 boards to go along with an assist and steal every night. His free throw shooting has improved, which is good because he gets fouled quite a bit, leading the team in FTA per game. He ranks in the top ten in the ACC in blocks, defensive rebounds and offensive rebounds. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is second only to Jahlil Okafor in the ACC. Our only real complaint is that he’s only playing 22 minutes a game. It’s unclear if that’s because his conditioning only allows him to play that many minutes or it’s part of Roy Williams’ substitution scheme. Brice Johnson averages about the same number of minutes.
Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson have both been sparks off the bench at times — particularly for their defensive abilities. They’re continuing to earn more minutes and the plays Pinson was making against Notre Dame are promising omens for the future. Nate Britt and Joel Berry have been steady floor generals when they are called to action. JOEL JAMES HAS A HOOK SHOT. The reason for the B+ here is that when a bench player comes in, the Heels don’t experience much of a drop-off in ability. The offense may slow down when either one of Meeks or Johnson is off the floor, but the team continues to rebound and probably gets a boost on D. Teaching Moment Simmons always logs a few good lessons per night as well.
Looking back over the grades, lots of Bs are popping up, and that’s kind of where this team is. We’re giving them the plus because of the recent gutsy comeback against Louisville and good effort against a Notre Dame team that simply couldn’t miss from three. There’s room for this team to grow, which is encouraging, but the offensive woes aren’t going away just because Carolina recently got a good win. We could see this squad vaulting into A status with some improvement in guard play from both Paige and another bench player or two.