UNC Basketball: Possessions Created And Saved

In their first game of the 2020-21 season, Carolina had a better combination of blocked shots, steals, offensive rebounds, and turnovers than any game in 2019-20. Can they keep it going?
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No Late Night With Roy.
No exhibition games.
No secret scrimmage.
Abridged practice schedule.
Two freshmen starting in the backcourt.

Given these complicating factors, you would be forgiven if you expected Carolina to commit a slew of turnovers in the opening game of the 2020-21 season.

And honestly, beyond all the COVID obstacles, the opener of even a typical season is full of first-game jitters, miscues, and learning how to play with new teammates.

You’ve been there.
You’ve seen it.
You’ve expected it.

“The Tar Heels will probably win this game, but it’ll be sloppy,” you think to yourself as you settle into the excitement of the first game of a new season.

But here’s the catch:

UNC only surrendered nine turnovers on Wednesday night against College of Charleston.

The game wasn’t perfect. Far from it. There was a lot to build on and learn from.

There was a lot of good that happened, too.

For example, let’s put those nine turnovers in historical context:

Nine turnovers in the first game of the season is tied for the second-fewest in the Roy Williams era. The only game with fewer was the first game of the 2017-18 season in which Carolina had seven turnovers against Northern Iowa.

Here’s the entirety of that list of the number of turnovers in the first game of the season in Coach Williams’ tenure:

Screen Shot 2020-11-30 at 12.20.38 AM

As you look back at the box score from Wednesday night, you’ll notice some other encouraging numbers. Namely, nine blocked shots and 10 steals. Both of these numbers are solid of their own accord in any single game, but all the more so when you consider that they happened in the same game alongside the previously mentioned nine turnovers.

Need proof?

Last year, Carolina had more than nine blocked shots in just one game – 12 against Oregon in the Battle 4 Atlantis. But in that game, there were only four steals and there were 12 turnovers.

Also last year, Carolina had more than 10 steals on only one occasion – 11 versus Gonzaga. But again, in that game, there were only four blocked shots to go with 12 turnovers.

In order to further demonstrate what a unique combination of stats these three are together in one game, let’s create a simple formula to help us out. We’ll add the number of blocked shots and steals together since they are positives and subtract the number of turnovers since they are negative.

Here’s our working formula:

Blocked Shots (B) + Steals (S) – Turnovers (TO)

One note about this formula is that it doesn’t account for the fact that not all blocked shots result in an extra possession for the defensive team. For example, of the nine blocked shots against College of Charleston, Carolina took over possession on six of them while Charleston maintained possession on the other three.

In any event, let’s plug in the numbers from the Charleston game and see what the formula yields:

9 B + 10 S – 9 TO = +10

Without any comparative numbers, it’s hard to know whether this is a good result or not. To provide context, here are the numbers this formula would yield from every game last season:

Screen Shot 2020-11-29 at 11.15.21 PM

Notice that in all of last season, the best result of the combination of blocked shots, steals, and turnovers was a plus-three, which occurred both in the Oregon and Gonzaga games mentioned above.

The Tar Heels bested that by seven units in the first game of this season (+10).

Possessions Created and Saved

Taking our examination a step further, what if we began to actually look at this formula as something of a more legitimate metric? What if our formula created a way to help monitor “possessions created and saved”?

To do so, we would also need to add in offensive rebounds, which is the other stat monitoring change of possession. Offensive rebounds, along with steals and blocked shots, would serve to “create” extra possessions, while any turnover not committed is a possession “saved”. Let’s call our formula “Possessions Created and Saved”, or “PCS”.

Now that we’ve added in offensive rebounds, let’s once again compare the College of Charleston game to the entirety of the 2019-20 season.

The new formula for “PCS”:

Blocked Shots (B) + Steals (S) + Offensive Rebounds (OReb) – Turnovers (TO) = PCS

College of Charleston: 9 B + 10 S + 17 OReb – 9 TO = +27 PCS

Once again to provide context, here’s how that +27 compares to the 2019-20 schedule:

Screen Shot 2020-11-29 at 11.44.50 PM

As you see in the table, the +27 PCS against Charleston was higher than any game last season. The closest was +22 against Oregon. No other game last season hit +20 or above.

What To Do With The Blocked Shots?

As mentioned above, not every blocked shot creates a possession for the defense since the offense has the opportunity to maintain possession of the ball after the block. To accurately account for both potentialities, one possibility is to add a multiplier to the formula for the percentage of time that the defending team takes possession after the blocked shots occur. For example, if the defense controls a blocked shot 55 percent of the time on average across all of basketball, you would multiply the number of blocked shots by 0.55 in our newly-generated “possessions created and saved” formula.

Or, to be exactly precise, you could track the number of blocked shots controlled by the defense or offense on a game-by-game, block-by-block basis. As stated earlier, Carolina blocked nine shots and controlled six of them in the Charleston game, so we would add six in our PCS formula rather than nine. The actual tally for the Charleston game therefore changes from +27 to +24.

Unfortunately, without having the actual blocked shot numbers broken down from 2019-20, there’s no way to contextualize +24 PCS versus what took place last season. However, we can continue to track blocked shot possession information throughout the 2020-21 season and beyond.

In fact, I’ll do just that. Throughout the 2020-21 season, I’ll be tracking Carolina’s PCS numbers and actual blocked shot possession information for a more accurate PCS report.

Wrapping Up

Okay, I get it, pump the brakes. This is just one game. It’s an extremely small sample size and therefore doesn’t offer much statistical data that we can (or should) take away with regard to the 2020-21 roster’s ability to both create and save possessions.

At the same time though, it’s not nothing. This young, COVID-delayed, under-practiced team has already done some impressive things in that one game this year:

  • come within one of matching the fewest turnovers in the first game of the season of a Roy Williams-coached UNC team.
  • achieved what would have been the second-most blocked shots in game all last year.
  • achieved what would have been the second-most steals in a game all last year.
  • compiled a larger PCS score (+27) than any game last season

Oh yes, there will be bumps in the road.
We don’t yet know what those bumps will be.
We don’t yet know where those bumps will come from.
But we know that they will be there.

And yet, there is reason for optimism.
Roy Williams is the coach of this team.
This team has a senior Garrison Brooks.
This team has a sophomore Armando Bacot.
This team has a stellar recruiting class.
This team has depth.

Just to remind you what we've talked about here today: 

In their first game of the 2020-21 season, Carolina had a better combination of blocked shots, steals, offensive rebounds, and turnovers than any game in 2019-20. 

This team is going to create and save possessions. Stay tuned and let's track it together!

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