Cam Johnson missed a three with just under eight minutes left in the first half of North Carolina’s 81–59 win over Washington, but Nassir Little grabbed the rebound and followed with a layup, drawing a foul on Washington’s Jamal Bey in the process. That sent the teams’ second-round NCAA tournament to the under-eight-minute media timeout, which was much needed for the Huskies, and not only because they now trailed by 13. They were getting run out of the gym.
The sequence described above isn’t special at all on its own. There are a lot of missed threes in every game, and plenty of those rebounds are collected by the offense and put back in the basket. Drop this particular missed three and putback into its proper context, though, and you see something not only special, but illustrative of the offense that has made North Carolina one of the best teams in the country. Johnson attempted his three with 7:58 on the game clock. At 8:03, just five seconds earlier, Washington’s Noah Dickerson had made a jumper. In five seconds—and only five seconds, since the game clock doesn’t stop on made baskets at that point of the game—the Tar Heels inbounded the ball, got it up the floor for a good look at a three and had someone underneath the basket in place to pull down an offensive rebound.
“That’s how we play every day,” said senior guard Kenny Williams.
That unrelenting pace has confounded teams all year and has the Tar Heels two wins away from their third Final Four in four seasons. It’s a near-impossible style to counter, in large part because the Tar Heels have perfected it.
North Carolina represents the country’s preeminent blend of pace and efficiency. The Tar Heels came out of the first weekend of the tournament ranked sixth in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo and eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency. Among the other teams in the top 20 in tempo, only Buffalo and Duke are also in the top 20 in efficiency, and neither the Bulls nor Blue Devils are in the top 10 in both categories. You have to go back to 2015 to find the last team that was in the top 10 in both tempo and efficiency, and that was a BYU squad that earned just a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament. The last national title hopeful to be in the top 10 in both metrics was 2008–09 North Carolina. These Tar Heels certainly hope this season ends the same way that one did: with a national championship heading home with them to Chapel Hill.
Playing fast was generally a losing bet across the country this season. No other team in the top 10 in adjusted tempo made the tournament, and only nine of the top 50 teams in tempo earned bids. Five of them were mid- or small-major programs and three were among the last four teams into the Big Dance, with Belmont pulling double duty in both categories. The only teams that played at a faster pace than North Carolina require the past tense because all of their seasons are over: Florida International, Eastern Kentucky, Savannah State, Texas Southern and Marshall. Only four teams in the Sweet 16—LSU and Gonzaga, in addition to North Carolina and Duke—are in the top 100 in adjusted tempo. LSU is ranked 58th, while Gonzaga, which has a reputation for being one of the fastest-paced teams in the country, is 70th. Most teams that play at an extremely fast pace do it out of necessity. The Tar Heels do it because they excel at it.
The flip side of the equation is the same. Besides North Carolina and Duke, the other eight teams in the top 10 in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency are ranked 70th or lower in tempo. Seven of the eight are ranked 158th or lower. Every offense is different from its counterparts, but North Carolina can lay claim to having the only truly unique offense in the country.
What makes the Tar Heels special? Why are they the only team capable of playing at a 99th-percentile tempo with a 99th-percentile efficiency? Why are they the first team in a decade to play like this while also contending for a national championship? To senior swingman Cam Johnson, the answer is simple.
“Personnel. We’ve got guys who are capable of doing it,” Johnson said. “And we practice it. If you watch our practices, we’re just going up and down, up and down. Usually, I feel like a coach would be more likely to stop things, but in our practices we embrace that up and down and keep it going.”
We attempted to get a window into those practices, even just descriptively, but to no avail. We couldn’t get the Tar Heels to give away any of their trade secrets. Of course, Roy Williams has been around a long time, and the Heels are running the same offense that the coach perfected at Kansas and brought with him to North Carolina. Watch them play enough, and you can piece together what they must be doing behind the closed doors of their practice gym.
When the Tar Heels get the ball, whether off a rebound or made basket, they get it quickly to a ballhandler—Coby White if he’s on the floor, or often Seventh Woods if he isn’t. Swingmen fill the lanes and push all the way down into the corners. The big men sprint down the middle of the floor, with the first one doing a rim run, and the second one trailing him. If there’s an open shot available immediately, they take it. If there’s a driving lane open, they attack it. If the big gets position and a seal, he gets the ball, whether it comes directly from the point guard or after a swing pass into the corner.
“From summer practices to preseason practices to now, it’s always [about] how fast can we get up and down the court,” Kenny Williams said. “And it’s always about getting a great shot. That’s what we work on, and it’s no surprise that it comes to fruition in games. That’s the emphasis of our practices.”
In this case, practice has made perfect. Or, as close to perfect as is realistically possible.
“If we make a mistake, we just keep on playing through it. You saw them a lot earlier in the season when we had some turnover issues,” Johnson said. “The more you make those mistakes and learn from them and grow past that, the better your offense becomes while playing at that speed. Your efficiency continues to increase.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels did struggle with turnovers early on this year. In their season-opening win over Wofford, they turned it over 15 times, good for a turnover rate of 21.4%. Two weeks later in a loss to Texas (yes, that happened), they gave it away 17 times, or on 21.2% of their possessions. Things got particularly ugly when they stepped up in weight class. The Tar Heels committed 23 turnovers in a win over Gonzaga and 18 more in a loss to Kentucky. All told, they finished the non-conference portion of their schedule with a 17.8% turnover rate, and that included games against the likes of Elon, Tennessee Tech, St. Francis (PA), and UNC-Wilmington. In ACC play, the Heels had had a turnover rate of 17.1%, fourth-best in the conference.
If there’s nothing available on the primary break, the Tar Heels pull it out and start running their secondary break. That typically begins with a swing to the big man who was trailing the play. These particular Tar Heels can be especially dangerous on the secondary break because that trailing big man is often Luke Maye or occasionally Johnson, both of whom are adept from behind the arc.
Even on the secondary break, the Heels are looking to attack the first available opening. That’s easy to see both in the highlight above where Maye drained a three, and also the one below from the second-round win over Washington. Maye, the trailing big, gets the swing pass and his first look is into the middle of the lane. He spots an open Nassir Little in a soft spot in Washington’s zone, and Little converts on an easy baby floater.
The secondary break can also begin with the big man setting an on-ball screen, as we see here in North Carolina’s ACC tournament loss to Duke. White takes the screen from Garrison Brooks and gets to the rack for a layup.
Notice that while none of the previous plays were true transition possessions, the Tar Heels got the shots up with 26, 25 and 23 seconds remaining on the shot clock. That is another feature of playing at such a fast tempo. The average possession for the Tar Heels lasts 14.6 seconds, fifth-shortest in the country. Their success on the break isn’t as simple as looking at fast-break points, because they treat every possession as though it’s a fast break, even if the statisticians don’t see all of them in that light.
“Coach [Williams] preaches about good shots and bad shots,” White said. “Shot selection, he harps on that a lot. But he also wants us to play fast. It works for us because we have a lot of people who can make shots. If Cam is off or if I’m off, we’ve got Luke, Kenny, Nas [Little], Garrison, who can finish at the rim a lot. We’ve got a lot of offensive weapons.”
North Carolina will meet Auburn in the Sweet 16 and, if it advances, the winner of Kentucky and Houston in the Elite Eight. Auburn has the reputation for playing fast, but is ranked 158th in adjusted tempo. Kentucky and Houston, meanwhile, are two of the slowest teams left in the field, ranking 274th and 247th, respectively, in tempo. No matter who they play, the Tar Heels will be themselves. No team can force them out of their style.
“We love playing it,” Johnson said. “It’s what we do.”