In addition to its All-American power forward, dominance on the offensive glass and lethal transition attack, North Carolina has one other advantage over the rest of the Final Four field this weekend in Houston.
The venue itself.
Cavernous 71,500-seat NRG Stadium has a reputation as a house of anguish and frustration for outside shooters. With no walls or bleachers behind either basket, the backdrop seems to challenge shooters' depth perception even more than other domed stadiums.
In the 2011 national championship game at NRG Stadium, UConn won shooting only 34.5 percent from the field because opponent Butler set a record for the worst shooting performance in a title game at 18.8 percent. In the 2015 South Regional at NRG Stadium, Duke, Gonzaga, Utah and UCLA combined to shoot 26.7 percent from behind the arc in three games even though all four were among the 75 best 3-point shooting teams in the country last season.
"Tough place to shoot because of the elevated floor and open background," one assistant coach whose team has played at NRG Stadium told Yahoo Sports.
Added another assistant coach from a different school, "It's just absolutely wide open. It feels like the court is floating in the great abyss."
Statistical guru Ken Pomeroy last March did a study of every college basketball game played at NRG Stadium since it opened in 2002 and found that the 30 teams who participated shot just 32.2 percent from behind the arc — a more than four percent plunge from their average clip. Pomeroy acknowledged "this could be the result of cataclysmic randomness," yet also concluded "it appears that it’s only slightly easier to make 3-point shots at NRG Stadium than it is on an aircraft carrier."
If outside shooting truly is more difficult at NRG Stadium than other venues, North Carolina will gladly live with a few extra bricks. Of the four teams to qualify for this year's Final Four, the Tar Heels are by far the least reliant on 3-point shots.
Villanova, Syracuse and Oklahoma each attempt more than 40 percent of their shots from behind the arc and rank among this season's 60 most 3-point reliant teams. According to SI.com's Luke Winn, 2011 VCU is the only other Final Four team in the past decade that attempted such a high volume of 3-pointers.
Oklahoma is the second most accurate 3-point shooting team in the nation and is heavily dependent on the long-range shooting of Buddy Hield and his supporting cast. Villanova is trained to hunt in-rhythm 3-pointers and has ranked in the top 30 in 3-point rate each of the past three seasons. Syracuse is more 3-point dependent than it has ever been under Jim Boeheim because the Orange lack a back-to-the-basket scorer yet boast streak-shooting Trevor Cooney and two other players who hit above 40 percent from behind the arc.
By contrast, the 3-point shot is a last resort for North Carolina, something the Tar Heels only take when one of their perimeter players is left wide open or when the shot clock is dwindling. The Tar Heels are 337th nationally in percentage of shots from behind the arc at just 26.8 percent because they do most of their damage in transition or in the paint.
Of the four Final Four teams, North Carolina also has been the most vulnerable to defending the arc. Opponents struggle to score inside against the Tar Heels' array of long, athletic frontcourt standouts, but they've taken a third of their shots from behind the arc and made a very respectable 36 percent of them.
What that all means is that if NRG Stadium truly does deflate outside shooting percentages, then the venue is largely made for North Carolina. The only downside would be that Tar Heels' opponent on Saturday does tend to goad foes into shooting an abnormally high number of 3-pointers.
About 40 percent of the shots opposing teams took against Syracuse came from behind the arc, a product of the Orange's trademark 2-3 zone. North Carolina will have to be vigilant about finding gaps in the zone and playing through the high post, especially because Syracuse isn't as long and athletic as usual in its front court and surrenders far more points than usual at the rim.
During a conference call with reporters on Monday, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was asked if playing in such a big stadium made any difference.
"I go back to Hoosiers," he said. "I tell them the court is the same distance, the rim is the same height, the free-throw line is the same distance."
That's undeniably true, yet the unusually low outside shooting percentages at NRG Stadium are unmistakable too. If that's a trend that continues this weekend, then the venue could be North Carolina's biggest advantage.
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