The result was one Roy Williams savored Saturday – a North Carolina victory against Arkansas that sends his team to an NCAA tournament regional semifinal – but he appreciated, too, the way his team won: in a style and fashion that’s becoming rarer and rarer these days.
After it ended, a reporter asked Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, if the kind of game his team had just played – fast-paced and up and down the court, with no shortage of transition scoring chances, no shortage of action – is that kind that needs to happen more often in college basketball.
Williams didn’t hide his affinity for games played quickly, with an up-tempo flow.
“I think that we all need to look at things we can do to perhaps speed things up or make it a more free-flowing game,” he said. “But I think everyone agrees that we need to do that. But just because Roy Williams likes something doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for the game.
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“I mean, if it was up to me, we’d have a 15-second clock, and it would really be fun then.”
Possessions tell the story
To Williams, games can never be played at a quick enough pace. Which is part of what will make his team’s game against Wisconsin on Thursday especially challenging.
None of the remaining teams in the NCAA tournament plays at a quicker pace than UNC, according to kenpom.com, a website devoted to advanced analytics in college basketball. And no remaining team plays at a slower pace than Wisconsin, the No. 1 seed in the West Region.
UNC, the region’s fourth seed, averages about 70 possessions per game. The Badgers don’t even average 60 possessions, according to kenpom.com, which is run by the statistician Ken Pomeroy.
The difference between UNC and Wisconsin is the difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner. Whichever team forces the other to run its preferred race is likely to increase its chances of victory.
The Tar Heels have found their share of problems in slower, more prodding games. They entered the NCAA tournament 1-5 in games with 65 or fewer possessions but defeated Harvard, their opponent in their first tournament game, in a game with 60 possessions.
UNC also defeated Virginia, which played at an even slower pace than Wisconsin, in the ACC tournament. Before they were eliminated Sunday with a loss against Michigan State, the Cavaliers had been the slowest-paced team in the NCAA tournament.
“A lot of teams in the ACC, even if they’re not a team that traditionally plays slow, will slow the ball down against us just because they think that’s an advantage,” UNC guard Marcus Paige said Monday. “So we’ve played against that a lot this year.
“So I think that will help us moving forward into this game.”
Tuned in to tempo
Williams and his players much prefer the kind of pace they experienced against Arkansas. UNC’s 87-78 victory came amid a game with 78 possessions – one that featured plenty of fast breaks and quick shots. Some of the faster sequences, especially in the first half, resembled something out of a video game.
It’s likely to be a different experience Thursday for the Tar Heels. Wisconsin takes its time in its halfcourt offense, and no team, according to kenpom.com, scores more efficiently.
Part of the Badgers’ success is one of the reasons forcing a quicker tempo has so often proved so difficult against them: They rarely commit turnovers. Wisconsin commits turnovers on 12.4 percent of its possessions, which ranks first nationally.
“They’re a one seed for a reason,” Williams said. “They’re able to get you to play their tempo most of the time, more than you can get them to play the tempo that you want.
“You guys have heard me say I’d much rather win in the 90s, (but) if you want to be a really good team you’ve got to win in the 60s. Or 50s.”
Wisconsin hasn’t allowed a team to score 90 points since 2011. Only one – Duke, which defeated Wisconsin in November – scored 80 this season against the Badgers. Just three others scored 70.
Against Harvard, UNC at times attempted to create a quicker tempo by utilizing halfcourt traps. Such a strategy might be difficult to employ, though, against Wisconsin, with its bevy of shooters and deft passers.
Benefiting from experience
Williams compared Wisconsin to Virginia, which was also known for its efficiency on offense.
“They capitalize,” Williams said of Wisconsin. “They’re probing if you make a mistake. And so for us, it’s got to be that question of being patient enough, tough enough to try to be very sound fundamentally. You can trap somebody, but if they’re a really good 3-point shooting team, it just opens up more 3-point shots.”
The Tar Heels gained valuable experience against teams that prefer a slower pace during the regular season. Yet they struggled, too, in defeats against Virginia, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Iowa – all four of those losses coming in games with fewer than 65 possessions.
And here comes another game in which the possessions are likely to be fewer, the transition opportunities rarer. Williams said he wouldn’t spend “one second … not one” thinking about ways to speed Wisconsin up.
The focus, instead, would be on maximizing scoring chances and avoiding turnovers. The Tar Heels will practice for a slower pace, but Williams knows he can’t simulate that, anyway.
He listed the players on the “blue team,” which in practice prepares the starters for what they’ll see. On the blue team Monday, Williams said, was Stilman White, Justin Coleman, Spenser Dalton and Jackson Simmons.
“And Denzel Robinson, the last week before he turns into a fireman,” said Williams, referring to the former walk-on who is the son of assistant coach Steve Robinson. “I mean, we can’t really simulate what in the dickens Wisconsin is going to do.”
Meeks’ status unclear: Doctors are further evaluating the knee injury Kennedy Meeks sustained Saturday, and it’s unclear if he will play Thursday, Williams said.
Meeks suffered the injury – what Williams again called a sprained knee – late in the victory against Arkansas.
It’s unclear when Meeks, who has started 31 of UNC’s 36 games, might play again. He had an MRI, Williams said, and Meeks was scheduled to meet with a doctor Monday afternoon to discuss the results.
“I don’t expect that we’ll know anything unless something really bad came out (of the MRI),” Williams said, “for the next couple of days. If he doesn’t practice (on Monday), he can still play. But if he doesn’t practice Wednesday, it’ll be hard to play on Thursday.”
Williams said when he approached Meeks on the court Saturday, Meeks told him he heard a pop from his left knee when he sustained the injury. Williams said he saw Meeks “walking around on campus” Monday.