Did the North Carolina Lineup Changes Pay Off?

Ed. Note: Good work here out of Mike. To the front page!



After a 13-11 defeat in Durham to arch rival Duke, Tar Heel head coach Joe Breschi decided it was time to change up the lineup. He moved stellar freshmen Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey into the starting lineup and paired them with junior attack Marcus Holman. The results were three straight wins over ACC foe Maryland, Dartmouth and then-top-ranked Johns Hopkins by a total of eight goals.

Then they were thrashed on the ESPN1, The Uno, in front of what I'll assume were hundreds of millions by the now-top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers. What has changed for North Carolina since moving a couple of fab frosh into the lineup?

First, we need to figure out what wasn't working for the Tar Heels in the first place. UNC came out of the gates on fire to start the season, outscoring Penn State, Mercer and Detroit 52-25 to open 3-0. They'd up that to 4-0 with a one-goal victory at Navy before the proverbial wheels fell off the proverbial bus.

Carolina lost three of their next four in March -- including a head-scratcher at Penn, 10-6. What's worth noting, however, is that the Tar Heels did lose a few close games in that stretch. A couple of one-goal losses to both Lehigh and Princeton (the former being a pretty darn good team and the latter being a pretty underrated team that is pretty darn good, too) before their two-goal loss at Duke.

Before swapping the lineup, the Tar Heels were scoring on offense at a 30.4 efficiency rate. The national average in 2012 is currently sitting at 29.5. Essentially, UNC was an average offense on a per-possession basis and their defense wasn't exactly stellar either. Carolina was posting a 28.6 efficiency -- slightly better than the current national average.

Still, larger tell-tale signs lurked below the surface, namely in their rate of shots. Carolina was only getting 0.90 shots-per-offensive-possession directed at opposing cages. The national average is a shade over 1. Meanwhile, they were holding their opponents to a decent 0.96 shots-per-possession rate. Still, the Heels could only muster an average efficiency rating with the ball despite holding an enormous possession advantage -- about 55% over the first eight contests. That works out to being about seven more possessions than their opponents -- that rivaled the best in the game right now.

Enter in the lineup changes. The Heels suddenly couldn't help but fire shots at opposing nets, ripping off 1.31 shots per possession, despite the pace of their games slowing. UNC games were brisk at over 71 possessions per contest in that first eight game stretch, but in the next three it dropped to just 66 -- playing Maryland and Hopkins will help bring down anyone's possession totals. They averaged roughly the same amount of goals scored in each segment, but UNC's efficiency jumped to 35.2% -- an impressive figure as only five teams in the country currently score on better than 35% of their offensive possessions (unadjusted for schedule). After coughing the ball up on 45% of their offensive possessions in the first eight games of the year, the Tar Heels cut that down to just 31.4% (national average of 47.7%). They were firing a ton of shots, controlling possessions, converting efficiently and taking care of the ball. Everything seemed grand.

Unfortunately, they started to take on some water at the other end of the field. Their 28.6% defensive efficiency worsened to 30.9%, their opponents took a bit better care of the ball, started firing more on net than before (1.07), and suddenly the Heels great possessions advantage was cut almost in half -- down to just about +4 possessions per game. UNC found itself in a trade off of more offense at the expense of defense..

Overall, the Heels season looks like this:


You can click the image to enlarge it. This is UNC's offensive efficiency (blue) and defensive efficiency (red) plotted with a 3-game moving average. Beginning with the game against the Naval Academy, UNC's efficiency margin (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) shrunk and, eventually, dipped into the negative It's since rebounded a bit, but only to just pull even. This is a club sitting inside the top ten of both the coaches and media polls. While they're a good team, they just aren't top-ten good.

On the year, I have North Carolina's offensive efficiency -- adjusted for defenses faced -- sitting at a very good 34.0% which is 11th best in the nation. However, the downfall of the Heels thus far -- the defense -- sits just 40th once I adjust for opposing offenses, allowing a goal 30.9% of their defensive possessions.

Overall, have the moves been worth it? Yes. Given that on the year, the Tar Heels adjusted possession percentage of 54% nets them an extra 5.6 offensive possessions per game over their opponents (3rd best), an increased offensive attack is more valuable to the Heels. In an average Carolina game this year, they get around 37-38 possessions while their opponents get 31-32. If we make the (foolish) assumption that their efficiency ratings in the first eight games were indicative of their true talents, and therefore held for the duration of the season, they would score 11.4 goals per game and allow 9.0 for a differential of 2.4. However, if we make the (foolish) assumption that the three games (before the Virginia game*) after were indicative of their true talents, and therefore held for the duration of the season, they would score 13.2 goals per game and allow 9.7 for a differential of 3.5

The boost in offense, and decline in defense is netting them around a goal per game over what they were getting before moving Bitter and Sankey into the lineup with Holman. It's been a trade off that works on the whole, but can come back to bite the Heels if they face another dominant possession team. We need only look at the Virginia game over the weekend.

* = I excluded the Virginia game because I meant to pen this piece before this passed weekend. If we include the Cavaliers shellacking of Carolina, the raw offensive efficiency drops to 33.3% and the defensive efficiency jumps to 34.4%, meaning that they are losing about 0.7 goals per game with this lineup. That's just a product, though, of the small sample we're dealing with -- hell, the entire lacrosse season is a small sample to be quite frank -- and it's not a conclusion I can totally buy into. Virginia is just flat-out better than the Tar Heels. For that matter, Hopkins is, too. Kudos to UNC for beating them, but I would bet on Hopkins in a rematch in a heartbeat.

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