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Navigating the Gauntlet - UNC & VT

Let the data warm your heart.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, February, ye are the worst of times, ye are the best of times. Mostly the worst though. The weather sucks, any residual holiday cheer has been completely extinguished by that harsh mistress we call reality, and you’ve probably already tanked your New Year’s resolutions. But at least there’s basketball. More specifically, Louisville Cardinal basketball in the midst of ACC play, and what a midst it is. After a near flawless January, the Cards are currently tied for the top spot in the conference, likely a surprise for players and fans alike.

But can they maintain their current head honcho position? They have an upcoming stretch that would give any coach night sweats. A North Carolina team looking to impose the same home court beat-down they were on the receiving end of a few weeks ago. An ultra efficient, hot-shooting Virginia Tech looking to capture a conference win against a ranked team at home. A Florida State team looking to regain their footing in the comfort of the Donald L. Tucker Center after recent humblings at the hands of Duke, Pittsburgh, and Boston College. And mighty Duke, looming like Zion Williamson constantly is on the front page of ESPN.

Quite the trial, but the rewards are great as well. Win ‘em all, and the Cards flirt with a top 5 ranking and are solidly in 2 seed territory. Split the difference, and the Cards likely hold pretty steady in the rankings. Drop ‘em all and the lads will drop out of the rankings and potentially back to a double digit tournament seed. Let’s take a look at what the Red and Black and Coach Mack must do to ensure it’s more the former than the latter. We’ll tackle the first half of the gauntlet (UNC and VT) in this post, the second half will come next week since these posts still take me a hot minute to whip up.

Note: Mike has imbued me with the tools necessary to exert my power as your in-house data visualization savant (formerly known as GeneticsCard) appropriately. All figures here are interactive. Hover, zoom, click and drag to zoom in on specific areas, and more to your heart’s content. I can answer any questions in the comments. For the tech-minded, I will always link to the code used to generate any figures/scrape any data at the end of the article. I use these as an exercise to build skills and try new things as well, so I may sometimes take wonky approaches to look at the data just for the sake of it.

All data current as of 01/30/2019.

The Overview

First, let’s review the general playstyle of both UNC and VT in comparison to U of L. Louisville is pretty average in terms of pace, coming in ranked 242nd in adjusted tempo with 67.2 possessions per 40 minutes, though this has increased to 70.5 in conference play. Virginia Tech prefers a slightly slower approach with a tempo of 65.5. North Carolina, on the other hand, sprints up the court Sonic the Hedgehog style. I’m pretty sure they drill on getting the ball over the half-court marker within 3 seconds every possession. They lead one of the highest tempos in the nation (76.0, 5th) and couple it with efficiency on both sides of the floor.

UNC limits teams in transition and allow pretty average length possessions while utilizing man coverage and the occasional half-court press. Virginia Tech forces opponents into long possessions with a zone, but their defense has slipped in ACC play, where they’ve been allowing opponents the 3rd highest eFG% in league play at 54.5% due largely to poor perimeter defense (ACC opponents have shot 38.6% from 3). However, this is offset by their ultra-efficient offense (7th in the nation, with the highest eFG% at an absurd 59.7% and 2nd highest 3P% at 42.6%).

Identifying the Keys

Look, I’m not a basketball expert, at least no more than any other armchair coach. But I am a scientist, and I believe in data-driven decisions and hypotheses derived from reasonable observations. The scientific method and all that from your 7th grade science fair, but applied to actual fun stuff rather than moldy bread. These are good teams, but they’ve both lost games and have weaknesses that can be exploited. Let’s see if we can’t identify those weaknesses by comparing stats from each teams’ wins/losses and determine how the Cards can best take advantage.

UNC Breakdown

  • Hound Coby White. CC/Fore need to keep a hand in his face and pressure him whenever possible. He’s a scoring threat from every level (TS% of 58.9, up to 64.8 in conference play) - the easiest way to limit this is by not allowing him the space to shoot, which the Cards did very well in their first matchup (0-4, 4 pts from FTs). Both CC and Fore forced a turnover and subsequent foul out of him within the first 3 minutes of the last game. He did not return until 9:08 remained in the half and never got in the flow of the game, getting his pocket picked twice more. He is UNC’s playmaker and gets the ball up the floor in a hurry. Cameron Johnson is much less effective at getting open looks without White on the floor, so forcing him to the bench was certainly a big part of the Card’s early lead as UNC’s offense stagnated. The Cards completely shut down the outside game, which would be, well, good to do again.
  • Avoid early fouls, particularly against Nassir Little. Sutton will need to be keyed in on defense. Force him to settle for the 3, as he’s very good at drawing fouls off the drive and high post - the best in the ACC during conference play with 7.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Conversely, his defense is poor, and his lack of awareness and positioning result in him being called for 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play. He has a tendency to reach on drives, so the Cards should try to drive at him hard.
  • Rebound. UNC is a great rebounding team, nearly always beating their opponents on the boards. Their rangey wings and guards crash the boards really well, especially on the offensive glass. Nobody outside Luke Maye had more than 4 rebounds during the first tilt against the ‘Ville. Sutton/Nwora need to aggressively rebound and box out their man out to give Enoch/Malik the opportunity to lord their size over Maye for rebounds on both ends of the floor. Enoch had a great game on the offensive boards last game, and the Cards will need that out of him again.
  • Don’t allow 3’s in transition, especially from Cameron Johnson. Nwora/Sutton will need to be aware of where he is at all times.

tl;dr: Play HARD. Yeah, I don’t feel great about that one either. Force UNC to actually run a half-court offense and make Coby White’s life difficult. Guards will need to box their man out while still getting back on D to slow the transition. Be aggressive on offense and drive on Nassir Little all day, as he’s terrible at defending without fouling. Don’t let Cameron Johnson take uncontested 3’s.

Virginia Tech Breakdown

  • Control the tempo. UNC beat VT by forcing them to try to play in transition, which the Cards are capable of playing into as well. CC, Nwora, Sutton, and McMahon are all adept transition scorers. They were unable to out-Virginia Virginia, but that’s not the type of game the Cards want to be dragged into.
  • Make them pay for playing 4 guards. VT’s November loss to a truly terrible Penn St. team (7-13) was largely the result of getting beat on the boards 36-29 and allowing 14 offensive rebounds. Their losses were also some of their worst offensive rebounding games. The Cards can take advantage, particularly if they can get Kerry Blackshear into foul trouble early, as he is far and away their best rebounder.
  • Don’t settle offensively. VT forces 43.5% of opponent’s points to come from 3s, good for 1st in the nation. They force teams to live and die by the 3. Drive and kicks, inside-out plays, and making the extra pass are going to be necessary for good looks. Let’s hope Jordan Nwora’s strong outing against Wake Forest has him back in prime shooting form, but he also needs to look for the extra pass rather than forcing shots as he occasionally does. All opponents in VT’s losses had success in the paint, which is one area where the Cards should have a clear advantage.
  • Close out on shooters (literally everyone besides Kerry Blackshear). Williams and Enoch are going to need to be ready to spring out on shooters. Guys can’t let the weak side shooter float to the corner unnoticed, as VT does a good job swinging the ball and finding the open man. Louisville’s defense has been excellent during conference play, forcing opponents to shoot 29.6% from 3, forcing turnovers on 20.8% of possessions, and limiting teams to 45.3 eFG%. But that was against the ACC’s easiest conference slate so far. Perimeter defense is going to be crucial against VT, as they are one of the best shooting teams in the nation and score 40% of their points from deep.
  • Force them to take long 2’s. VT spends a lot of time each possession trying to get an open 3, but in each of their losses, it was actually the lack of reliable 2 pt shooting that did them in.
  • Take care of the ball. VT forces turnovers on 23.4% of opponent’s possessions with quick hands and by poaching lazy passes. UNC and UVA were both well under that mark during their victories, and the Cards will have to make crisp passing a focus, particularly outside the arc where they have a bad habit of half-assing short passes.

tl;dr: SCORE MORE POINTS THAN THE OTHER TEAM. This is a team that looks like it should beat the hell out of U of L on paper given that Mack’s defensive scheme is aimed to force their most efficient shot. Tweaks are going to be necessary, and it’d really help if Perry could get his head on straight and be the defensive bulldog the team really needs him to be. Try to score in transition, minimize sloppy mistakes, and make them pay for the small lineup. Beast out, Steven Enoch. Please.

Hopefully, Mack has briefed the Red and Black with many of these same points and has emphasized them during practices this week. Obviously, I’m not playing with a lot of observations here - these are good teams, and each has only a few losses. Small sample size and non-significant p-values, but this ain’t peer review, so we do what we can. I’ll be back next week with a breakdown of Florida St. and Duke.

Go Cards, Beat Everyone.

Technical Notes: All stats were pulled from using the wonderful sportsreference python API created by Rob Clark or scraping with BeautifulSoup followed by some very annoying parsing. All data visualizations were created with plotly, yet another python package. All code can be found in a Jupyter notebook file on my Github.