If you think you can only win when you shoot the ball, then you’re not really tough. And that really ticks me off. You’ve got to be able to win basketball games ugly.
So what does it mean to win basketball games ugly?
For the purpose of this exercise, we’re going to define it as winning a game when you shot poorly.
And how are we going to define shooting poorly?
Instead of using just field goal percentage, we’re going to use adjusted or effective field goal percentage because it takes into account a three-point basket is worth more than a two-point basket.
Effective field goal percentage or eFG% is calculated like this:
eFG% = (.5 * 3FGM + FGM) / FGA * 100
So, what’s a poor eFG% or adjusted field goal percentage?
While 40% might be a good threshold for field goal percentage, we’re going to use 45% as the fulcrum for adjusted field goal percentage.
Anything over 45 eFG% is decent and anything below 45 eFG% is poor.
This leaves us with a healthy sample size of games. In the Roy Williams era that spans 15 plus seasons and 569 total games, Carolina has registered a sub-45 eFG% 111 times.
111 times or almost 20% of all games.
The Tar Heels have a record of 42-69 when posting a sub-45 eFG%. Below is the breakdown per season or year.
The Tar Heels are 0-2 when posting an eFG% below 45 through the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season:
So, that means the 2018-19 version of Carolina can’t win ugly?
The sample size is immature. There are at least 18 games left in the regular season.
These eFG% numbers are descriptive, not predictive. It describes what happened in the game. It doesn’t mean the next time Carolina registers an eFG% under 45 it will be a loss.
And of course, there are other factors too (3 other really important ones.)
It does suggest that this Carolina team has a slim margin of error when shooting poorly. The good news is this has only happened in 11% of games thus far. The bad news is the good news won’t predict the future.
So, what does a team look like that can win ugly?
The 2017 National Champion squad is a hell of an example.
The 2017 Tar Heels posted a 5-5 record when registering a sub-45 eFG%.
Three of those five wins were in the NCAA Tournament, including the National Championship game.
This means half of the wins en route to the 2017 Title were won ugly.
Take the Arkansas game as an example. This is the game you say Carolina maybe didn’t deserve to win, but they won, and this is why.
Shot volume or more opportunities to score.
Arkansas posted an eFG% of 50% to Carolina’s 42.1%. The Tar Heels even turned it over on 23% of its possessions, however, the Razorbacks were worse at 25.6% of its possessions.
Carolina attempted three more field goals and 17(!) more free throws than Arkansas. It won the game by seven points.
When the ball doesn’t go in the basket, what can you do to avoid a loss?
Get to the foul line and bludgeon your opponent on the boards.
The Tar Heels made 18 free throws while the Razorbacks attempted eight (+10 margin), plus Carolina rebounded 42.9% of its missed shots and 77.1% of Arkansas’ missed shots.
This is one way how you can win ugly or overcome a poor shooting effort.
You earn more opportunities to score.
What other ways can you win ugly?
There is enormous power is not making stupid decisions.
When it comes to basketball, avoiding turnovers can be a super power.
Let’s revisit this example from the ESVS blog post, in the 2017 National Championship game:
So, what’s the point?
95.6% of Carolina’s possessions were turnover free, and only 81.1% of Gonzaga’s possessions were without a turnover.
Why is this a super power?
If you turn over the ball, you can’t shoot, and if you can’t shoot, you can’t score, and if you can’t score - well, you get the point.
Carolina took 14(!) more shots than the Bulldogs and won the game by six points.
Does getting more shots and avoiding turnovers always work?
While earning more shots and avoiding turnovers is generally a positive strategy, it won’t guarantee success.
Remember the 2018 NCAA Tournament loss to Texas A&M?
Carolina avoided turnovers on 92.3% of its possessions, and still lost by 20 points. Twenty!
The Tar Heels even attempted 18(!) more shots than the Aggies. Turns out Texas A&M made 14 free throws and Carolina attempted just seven free throws (+7 margin).
And Texas A&M didn’t need a lot of shots because it posted a 60 eFG%.
Sometimes when the ball doesn’t go in the basket, it’s simply too much to overcome because the other team outperforms you.
So, what is the best way to win ugly?
What if you didn’t have to win ugly? Or at least win ugly all that often?
The chart above shows:
This is for the Roy Williams era or since the start of the 2003-04 season, when Carolina posts a sub-45 eFG%.
First, the 2005 National Championship team recorded a sub-45 eFG% just three times in 37 games or just 8% of its games. It didn’t need to win ugly all that often, and it was 1-2 in those three games.
The win? It was an important one for many reasons.
The 75-73 win over Duke when Marvin recovers and scores. A game where Carolina attempted 11 more shots and seven more free throws.
Second, the 2010 team is the polar opposite. A sub-45 eFG% in a whopping 41% of its games. The 2010 made the NIT. It wasn’t good, and this is some damning evidence why.
If you’re going to shoot poorly in 41% of your games, you’re simply not going to win much.
And finally, the 2009 Championship team had 13% or five of its 38 games with an offensive eFG% below 45. It won just one of those games too.
The average margin of defeat in those four losses? Just four points. A pair of possessions.
While the outcomes suggest the team couldn’t win ugly, it was damn close to winning all of those contests.
For comparison, the average margin of defeat in the two games when the 2018-19 team posts a sub-45 eFG%?
So, what does it mean for this season’s squad?
It’s a concern that the 2018-2019 has put out two data points where it shoots quite poorly, and both results were lopsided losses. Not even close.
This season’s team isn’t the traditional Roy Williams team in a lot of ways. It doesn’t overwhelm you on the boards, it turns the ball over way too much, and both of these means the shot volume is just good and not great like in 2017.
Bit, just because Carolina hasn’t won ugly yet, it doesn’t mean it can’t win ugly.
Remember, descriptive. Not predictive.
Everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket.
A major question for the 2018-19 Tar Heels is how does it look when the ball doesn’t go in the basket.
P.S. - all of the eFG% and four factor data can be found here.
And you can poke holes all over this analysis, here are a couple explanations for possible items we’re not accounting for:
Why the arbitrary cut-off of 45% for eFG%?
What about changes in the game?
Totally more things we’re not accounting for too. So if you think this article is hogwash, rather than dismissing it, please tell us how to improve it.