UNC Basketball: How matchup dependent are the Tar Heels in 2018-19?

How good is UNC Basketball? More than most teams, the answer to this question might depend on the individual matchup.

At 19-5 and ranked 8th in KenPom, North Carolina has had a solid season thus far. But if you ask someone for their top 5-7 teams in the nation, UNC Basketball seems to often be on the outside looking in of this discussion. If this perception is true, I think it’s fairly warranted. The Tar Heels have had some solid home wins over Gonzaga and Virginia Tech. But on the other hand,  UNC wasn’t too competitive in a 13-point loss at Michigan, looked underwhelming in an 8-point neutral court loss against Kentucky, and had a good chance to win yet fell short at home against Virginia.

Is UNC just not quite good enough, or did some of these losses come down to poor matchups? As I looked into the results, there seemed to be certain opponent profiles that UNC has faired better and worse against this season.

My hypothesis was this: North Carolina, with its 9th ranked offense, is at its best when its offense is clicking. With the 5th quickest tempo in the nation, UNC’s offense is most comfortable when it can play fast. Playing at a quick tempo allows UNC to take advantage of its passing ability (7th in assist rate) and get good looks from three (40th in 3P%). Therefore, it seems UNC would play best against teams with worse defenses (duh, I know), higher tempos, and the highest amount of defensive 3PA’s allowed.

It would play worse against teams that defend really well, slow the game down, and allow less 3PA’s. It felt to me like this was the case, but has this actually played out? The below charts reflect UNC’s best wins and losses thus far this season. I excluded Louisville, as UNC has had both a good win and bad loss against the Cardinals, effectively canceling each other out.

(All statistics used in this article were found via KenPom and are up to date through the games completed on Feb 13.).

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Gonzaga: Being at home helped UNC, in addition to the fact that Gonzaga’s defense was significantly worse than its current 21st ranking when it played UNC. Gonzaga’s fast pace of play may have improved UNC’s odds of victory. The Tar Heels pushed the ball and put up plenty of threes, shooting 13-25 from downtown. For these reasons, Gonzaga might have been a decent matchup for UNC.

North Carolina St.: With only the 67th ranked defense, the Wolfpack weren’t in a great position to slow UNC’s offense down. Their 31st ranking in pace of play may have only made things easier for UNC.

Virginia Tech: At first glance, Virginia Tech might actually seem like a tough matchup for UNC, as it’s both strong defensively and doesn’t play at a fast pace. I liked the Tar Heels’ chances, however, as almost no team in the country has allowed more 3PA’s than the Hokies. Against a great three-point shooting team like UNC, I wasn’t sure this would go well.

Wofford: The Terriers’ strength isn’t on the defensive end, and the fact they also give up quite a few 3PA’s likely didn’t help their cause.

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Texas: The Longhorns posed a challenging matchup for UNC, as its interior athleticism and 34th ranked defense didn’t make things easy. Texas’s defense doesn’t allow a ton of threes, and maybe most importantly, they play at the 297th tempo in the nation. The UNC-Texas matchup was actually played at a pretty fast pace, but maybe there was something about Texas’s style of play that still favored them.

Michigan: The Wolverines arguably pose a tougher matchup for UNC than any other team in the country. Not only do they have the 2nd ranked defense and allow 3PA’s at the 2nd lowest rate, Michigan plays at the 304th fastest rate in the country.

Kentucky: The Wildcats boast the 9th ranked defense and are 249th in tempo. I was surprised by how UNC’s performed in this game. Perhaps its just came down to the matchup.

Virginia: If Michigan’s the toughest matchup for UNC, Virginia is likely right up there. The Tar Heels actually had a good chance to win, but the Cavaliers proved too much. Their 3rd ranked defense and 353rd pace of play may have provided a tough matchup for UNC.

All five of UNC’s losses (including Louisville) have come against teams with a tempo ranking of 233rd or lower. No game is easy in March, but a tough matchup can make things even worse. It’s worth keeping this in mind when figuring out how far to send UNC in a bracket.