North Carolina’s men’s basketball team is big. Texas A&M’s is bigger, and it was the Aggies’ imposing size that set them on a path to destroying the defending champs.
No. 2 UNC is out of the NCAA tournament after No. 7 A&M delivered an 86-65 thrashing in the round of 32 Sunday in Charlotte. The Aggies (average height: 6’7, with four key rotation players 6’10 or taller) forced the Tar Heels (average height: about 6’6, with no big men on the floor for much of the game) to play a game they didn’t want to play. UNC couldn’t handle it.
The most stunning thing was it was over by halftime. The Aggies led by 14 then, and the only reason the deficit seemed manageable is North Carolina is North Carolina, with all its aura and postseason inexperience. In hindsight, the Heels had almost no chance at even making this game close. To do that, they’d have had to play outside themselves.
A&M’s size required the Heels to play a game that wasn’t theirs.
North Carolina isn’t a great shooting team. The Heels’ offense is great — it was fourth in the country in opponent-adjusted efficiency this year — but their success is built around rebounding. Dating back at least to his days at Kansas in the early 2000s, Roy Williams has always coached elite offensive rebounding teams. That’s the byproduct of recruiting lots of big, talented players and also prioritizing glass-crashing year in and year out.
This year’s team was No. 3 in offensive rebound rate, the fourth year in a row UNC was in the top five nationally in that critical stat. About four in 10 UNC misses found their way back into Carolina Blue hands, so the Heels could afford to not be knockdown shooters. Despite A&M being the sixth-tallest team in the country by average height, the Aggies aren’t voracious defensive rebounders. To that point, they didn’t totally shut out UNC, but the Heels lost on second-chance points, 9-6. Without that huge edge benefitting them, the Heels had to make lots of shots, and A&M didn’t cooperate.
UNC doesn’t like the three-pointer. Williams’ teams never do, because why shoot from distance when you’re big enough and athletic enough to get better looks at the rim? For the year, 35 percent of the Heels’ shots from the field came from beyond the arc. But against A&M, they showed consistent disinterest in challenging A&M’s size inside. In the end, 40 percent of the Heels’ attempts against the Aggies were threes. The difference between their usual frequency of threes and their frequency Sunday is the same as the difference between being the country’s 245th-most three-happy team out of 351 and about 100th. (Playing from way behind in the second half didn’t help that ratio.)
Here, in one video, is why UNC had such a hard time with A&M’s size:
The Heels shot 31 three-pointers, and six of them went in. That’s not the only reason they lost, but it’s the reason they got obliterated so thoroughly.
The Aggies have flaws, but being big could take them a long way.
They’ll have a hard matchup in the Sweet 16. Joining them in a West Region semifinal in Los Angeles will be No. 3 Michigan, which has a different makeup than North Carolina.
The biggest difference is the Wolverines are more comfortable shooting tons of threes, even though they aren’t great at making them (36 percent, 117th in the country). Coach John Beilein rarely puts more than one post player (6’11 Moritz Wagner) on the court at a time, and even then, Wagner’s more of an inside-out big than a classic back-to-the-basket type. With a talented trio of 6’10 guys (Tyler Davis, Robert Williams, and Tonny Trocha-Morelos), the Aggies will again be positioned to control the paint. Maybe the Wolverines will flush enough threes to win, but maybe they won’t. A&M is a hard match for Michigan, too.
Either way, A&M’s season is now a success. The Aggies are in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years after making three in their entire history before that.
Billy Kennedy has built his program from the middle out. It might be enough to make this March even more special than it already is.