NCAA Lacrosse Tournament Participant: North Carolina

via cdn.newsday.com

Tournament Seed: 8

First-Round Opponent: Maryland (May 15, 1:00)

2011 Record: 10-5

Conference: ACC

Last Tournament Appearance: 2010

NCAA Championships: 4

Four Notable Players: Ryan Flanagan (LSM); Billy Bitter (A); Nicky Galasso (A); Marcus Holman (A)

Downloadable Tempo-Free Profile: North Carolina

Carolina's last title came in 1991.  The Tarheels haven't even been to the Final Four since 1993.  Is this the year that North Carolina returns to the college game's biggest stage?

I have no clue.  You're talking to the wrong guy, man.  I write nonsense on the Internet; I don't forecast the future or anything.  Go ask The Amazing Kreskin.  He could probably help you out.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA DOES WELL

Back in March, just before the Big City Classic in New Jersey, I penned a piece on the North Carolina offense and how Nicky Galasso was the hub to which all of the Tarheels' spokes emanated.  In Carolina's six games since that piece, not a whole lot has changed: The Tarheels are still gunning with one of the best offenses in the land and the biggest reason for that is that Galasso -- a freshman -- is straight murdering the competition.

Here's a quick look at North Carolina's multifaceted offense:

PEW PEW: SHOOTING LACROSSE GUNS
METRIC VALUE RANK AVG.
Offensive Possessions Per Game 33.92 33 33.56
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency 32.38 10 27.92
Shots Per Offensive Possession 1.08 13 1.00
Offensive Effective Shooting Percentage 29.72% 23 28.64%
Offensive Assist Rate 18.40 9 15.37
Extra-Man Conversion Rate 33.33% 24 31.87%
Extra-Man Opportunity Reliance Rate 0.10 51 0.13
Strength of Schedule -- Opposing Defenses Faced 27.32 21 28.03
  • This Carolina team can run and oftentimes looks to get transition opportunities.  In the overall, though, this isn't a team that races all over the field playing lots of possessions on both ends.  As a result, what makes this Tarheel offense so dangerous is that it isn't getting tallies through offensive possession volume (they're only playing about an average number of offensive possessions per 60 minutes of play), it's that they're getting scores almost a third of the time that they have the ball.  That is the model of offensive efficiency.
  • Unlike a team like Maryland that is loaded with sharp shooters, North Carolina has been relying a bit on shot volume to get on the board (notice the Tarheels' shots per offensive possession and offensive effective shooting percentage values).  This isn't the worst thing in the world.  Galasso and Bitter are often working from behind the cage, offering back-up opportunities in order to retain possession. I wouldn't call this a wart on the North Carolina offense per se, but it is something to keep an eye on. If they run into a team that can take away shot opportunities (like Syracuse) or run into a hot goalkeeper (like Carolina did in losses to Hopkins and Maryland earlier this year), the Tarheels' offense could stagnate a bit.
  • I love me a team that shares the bean (check out Carolina's offensive assist rate).  Galasso is obviously the table-setter here, but he's not doing it alone.  Bitter and Wood join Galasso in the top-200 in individual assist rate (assists per 100 offensive possessions).  If Jimmy Dunster had met the NCAA's ranking standards, he'd be in the same cohort as well in the metric. That's four guys that can make an offense go. When you can generate so much offense from so many different guys, you create offensive dimensions that most defenses can't control. The Tarheels' ability to share the ball is a big reason why the team's shooting percentages are where they are.
  • Finally, this is the best part of the Carolina offense: They have one of the stronger extra-man units in the country but they don't need it to score.  They're kind of like Maryland in this regard and are much different than Bucknell.  This Tarheels' offense gets it done six-on-six as well as anyone in the country and they really take advantage of their unsettled transition opportunities. 

WHAT CAROLINA DOES POORLY

To be clear: The North Carolina defense has improved significantly over the last few weeks. It wasn't too long ago that the Tarheels were ranked in the bottom-third of the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. With improved play from Ryan Flanagan, Jordan Smith, Charlie McComas, and keeper Steven Rastivo, Carolina has moved into the top-half of the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Despite this, though, the Tarheels still aren't the strongest defensive outfit in the tournament this year.  Here's a quick chart and some comments:

CAROLINA "D": WE'RE GETTING BETTER.  PROMISE.
METRIC VALUE RANK AVG.
Defensive Possessions Per Game 29.14 5 33.73
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency 27.46 29 28.22
Shots Per Defensive Possessions 1.00 30 1.00
Defensive Effective Shooting Percentage 29.58% 40 28.83%
Defensive Assist Rate 14.58 29 15.41
Defensive Clearing Percentage 83.94% 41 82.76%
Opponent Extra-Man Reliance 0.10 16 0.13
  • I think part of Carolina's improved defensive performances over the last few weeks has been Joe Breschi's use of a bunch of junk defenses to slow down and confuse opponents. Carolina has been running some man-to-man out there, some zone, and some hybrid nonsense that has been morphing as offensive possessions endure.  It's weird stuff, and it's kind of working. 
  • Look at the number of defensive possessions that Carolina sees during 60 minutes of play.  The Tarheels are never on defense. You can't say that Carolina is getting tired legs on the defensive end or that they're getting mentally drained playing defense.  This defensive unit is relatively fresh compared to others and their problems are attributable to execution, not overwork.
  • What's scary about Carolina's defensive work this year is that opponents aren't really requiring the extra attacker to beat the Tarheel defense.  The opponent extra-man reliance rate shows that.  The Tarheels are getting beat in even-strength scenarios, either in six-on-six scenarios or in the transition game. I think the latter scenario isn't as likely, though, because Carolina has as many athletes as anyone in the country and they're not giving up free opportunities by blowing their clears (the Tarheels are sixth nationally in clearing percentage).  This is a team that is getting beat in the attack box via the passing game (as evidenced by the average defensive assist rate). 
  • The team's defensive assist rate aside, there's another problem lurking.  Carolina isn't anywhere near the top of the charts in causing turnovers.  Rather, they're allowing opponents to take a high rate of shots per defensive possession and allowing Rastivo to make a save.  Now, this isn't a huge problem from 30,000 feet: Rastivo is holding about a 56% save percentage.  That isn't too bad.  The problem is that the save percentage is misleading: The shot volume that opponents are allowed is permitting greater opportunity to beat Rastivo. What you're left with is a defensive effective shooting percentage hovering around the bottom-third in the nation.  If Carolina does a better job at watching off-ball movement and getting their hands on sticks and bodies on their mark, I think you'd see Rastivo's percentage rise and the team's defensive effective shooting percentage plummet as well.  In Breschi's system, though, it isn't going to happen.  Rastivo will still be asked to make a ton of saves to end a defensive possession and given the number of shots he must face (often from preferential shooting positions), there is an inherent failure factor present.

OUTLOOK

Even though North Carolina is ridiculously young, they have the goods to make it to Memorial Day Weekend.  This is a good team capable of outscoring any team that it faces. If the defense continues to improve, the Tarheels become even more dangerous. The selection committee did no favors to North Carolina pairing them with Maryland in the first round -- the third meeting this year between the schools -- and putting them in a bracket with Syracuse -- a team that the Tarheels don't particularly match up well with.

It's a tough road ahead, but the Tarheels may have enough to travel it.

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