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May 14, 2011

Wiederer: Crunching the Numbers

I hate to admit this, but I've been feeling a bit mathematical recently.

Maybe it started last month with the stacks of income tax data I had to organize. Perhaps my recent trip to Las Vegas and those endless hours spent leaning up against the craps tables awakened my inner Rain Man.

Whatever it is, I've been a bit numbers-obsessed of late. So this is your warning. The rest of this column is going to be full of figures and stacked with stats. Enter at your own risk.

Here goes …

To be honest with you, I've lost official count.

But since returning to Chapel Hill in 2003, I'm estimating that North Carolina coach Roy Williams has been asked 8,972 times whether it's easier to put together a championship team with players who are experienced or with those who are talented.

And approximately 8,970 times, Williams has responded to that query with some variation of the following answer: "Well, needless to say, the ideal scenario would be to have experienced talent - that kind of deal. That's when you know you can be really, really good - when you have talented players who have been around for a while. But if I had to pick one over the other, experience or talent, I'd rather have talent."

The logic is simple.

Players can gain experience much easier than they can increase their talent level.

But doesn't it seem as if Williams is as good as anyone in the profession at taking talented players and then keeping them around longer than anyone expected?

Be honest, a year ago at this time, did you really think you'd be reading the words "Harrison Barnes" and "sophomore year" in the same sentence? And isn't it noteworthy that program icon Tyler Hansbrough spent four full years at UNC?

So now, as Williams heads into his summer with his Tar Heels getting a decisive nod as the preseason No. 1 team for the 2011-12 season, I felt compelled to put together some data to analyze how talent and experience have collided in Chapel Hill over the last eight seasons to fuel a run of success unlike any seen in the program's history.

The quick research into UNC's blitz under Williams provides some pretty eye-opening statistical data. The Tar Heels have averaged 28 victories per season while posting a .784 winning percentage.

UNC has won at least a share of the ACC regular season title five times in eight seasons under Williams.

And perhaps, most impressive of all, the Heels have a 23-5 record in NCAA tournament play since 2003.

Now, at the risk of fully morphing into John Brenkus, ESPN's "Sports Science" guy, it's time to deliver more numbers-heavy analysis to quantify North Carolina's recent success while keeping one eye focused on whether the 2011-12 Heels have the make-up to cut down the nets at the Superdome next April.


THE ACCUMULATION OF TALENT


As previously mentioned, Williams has become a bit of an addict when it comes to securing elite talent on the recruiting trail.

Since returning to UNC in 2003, the Hall of Fame coach has signed 29 players to scholarships, including incoming freshmen P.J. Hairston, James McAdoo, Stilman White and Desmond Hubert.

Of those 29 players, 16 of them were ranked in the top 40 of their high school class by Rivals.com.

The only program that tops UNC over the past eight recruiting classes in terms of signing top 40 prospects is Kentucky, which has nabbed 20 such players.

Right behind UNC are Duke and Kansas, who have grabbed 15 top 40 players each. And right behind them, all with 10 top 40 signings since the fall of 2003, are Syracuse, Louisville, Memphis, Ohio State and Texas.

With Williams' desire to have elite talent as a launching pad for success, it's easy to conclude that he's been at the top of the college game during his tenure at UNC at securing difference-making players.

As for UNC's 2011-12 roster?

The Tar Heels are slated to go to battle with eight former McDonald's All-Americans in the rotation, all players who Rivals had ranked in its top 40 in their respective classes.

That's a pretty good starting point.


KEEPING ELITE TALENT


Still, it's more than just landing star players that has fueled North Carolina's success in the past eight years.

Williams has also done a fine job at keeping stars around long enough so that they have a chance to maximize their potential while still wearing their Tar Heel uniforms.

Consider this: of the 14 top 40 players who have played for Williams at UNC to date, eight of them have stayed on campus for at least three seasons.

That doesn't include rising sophomores Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock, who will both likely be around for their junior seasons in 2012-13, giving Williams an 71.4 percent success rate of holding onto the best of the best of his recruits for more than two years.

As for Kentucky, Kansas and Duke?

Of the 16 top 40 players who have suited up for at least one season with the Wildcats since 2004 - four more are on the way this season - eight of them have left Lexington before their junior years.

And rising sophomore Terrence Jones may become No. 9 with an early jump to the NBA Draft in 2012.

Of the 14 top 40 recruits Bill Self has coached for at least one season at KU, 10 have stayed in the program past their sophomore season.

At Duke, Coach K has kept eight of his last 12 top 40 recruits around until at least their junior years.

One other stat to consider: of the 60 players who were rated as top 10 recruits in the classes between 2005 and 2010, 37 of them (61.7 percent) went to the NBA either right out of high school or after one year of college.

Williams signed seven of those 60 top 10 players. And only one, Brandan Wright, was a one-and-done player.

Oh, and of the team UNC will have next season, four players - John Henson, Barnes, Bullock and James McAdoo - all came out of high school as top 10 talents.


THE EXPERIENCE FACTOR


So just what can experience mean in allowing a very good team to make the jump to the legendary level? Well, for Williams, it's been his most experienced teams that have enjoyed the most success.

UNC's two national championship teams this century, for example, each started five upperclassmen - two seniors and three juniors.

Of the other five teams Williams has taken to the Final Four both at Carolina and Kansas, here's the breakdown of the experience in their starting lineups.

1991: Three seniors, one junior, one sophomore

1993: Three seniors, two juniors

2002: One senior, three juniors, one freshman.

2003: Two seniors, one junior, two sophomores

2008: Two juniors, three sophomores.

Next year's Tar Heels will likely enter the season with the same starting lineup that they finished this past season with.

Assuming Williams gives the starting nod to Tyler Zeller, Henson, Dexter Strickland, Barnes and Marshall, Carolina will have one senior, two juniors and two sophomores on the floor.

Given the talent, that should be enough to propel the Tar Heels to great heights. But will it be enough for Carolina to win it all for the third time in eight seasons?






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