North Carolina has figured out a new way to win basketball games, one that barely depends on throwing the ball into the big orange hoop.
After taking a nine-point lead on Oregon with 5:55 to go in the national semifinal matchup, the Tar Heels didn’t hit a field goal for the rest of the game. You’d think that would mean Oregon was able to storm back, but the Ducks didn’t help their own cause, hastily scrambling to shoot ugly 3-pointers. They went 3-for-18 in the second half and 1-for-8 in the last six minutes.
And when Oregon began fouling in the game’s closing seconds, the Tar Heels missed four consecutive free throws. But the Ducks didn’t take advantage with a potential game-winning shot. In fact, they didn’t even take a shot. North Carolina sealed the game on a pair of offensive rebounds.
There’s somewhat of an explanation for this. North Carolina is the best offensive rebounding team in college basketball, grabbing 42.1 percent of their own misses, according to Ken Pomeroy’s data. They had 17 offensive rebounds tonight, which is why they won despite shooting just 36.8 percent from the field. This is nothing new: They’ve been in the top five in offensive rebound rate the last three years and have only finished outside of the top 30 once in 14 seasons under Roy Williams.
Their best offensive rebounder is 6-foot-10 forward Kennedy Meeks, the bulky senior who bullied his way to the boards on the second miss. He’s eighth in the nation in offensive rebound rate, grabbing 16.4 percent of his team’s rebounds when he’s on the floor. And he’s played the best basketball of his life in this tournament, setting a career high in rebounds with 17 against Kentucky and tying a career high in points with 25 tonight. It’s pretty ridiculous for a four-year starter to be hitting career highs in the most important games of his last NCAA tournament.
So on one hand, it kind of makes sense that a team that is so good at offensive rebounding would get two critical offensive rebounds. On the other hand: No! This is not normal at all!
There is a reason everybody who has ever played high school basketball yelled “BOX OUT!” at their television screens when they saw Oregon wasn’t corralling those free throw misses. You’re really, really, really not supposed to give up offensive rebounds on free throws. The rules of basketball literally place a defensive player in an ideal position to box out an offensive player. It should require a really irregular hop for an offensive player to be in better position for a rebound, and considering how gently people shoot free throws, there aren’t a lot of irregular hops. I can’t find any data on offensive rebound rates off of missed free throws in college, but this Nylon Calculus post found that in the NBA, only 11.2 percent of missed free throws are rebounded by the offense, compared with 26 percent of missed field goals. If there’s about a 10 percent chance of a missed free throw being rebounded by the offensive team, then there should be about a 1 percent chance of the offensive team getting two straight missed free throws.
And the person who failed to box out for Oregon on both plays? That was forward Jordan Bell, who played a great March (and April). He averaged 13.2 rebounds across five NCAA tournament games and became the fifth player since 1985 to record five 10-rebound games in one tourney. (The other four players were all really good.) He also had eight blocks against Kansas and shot 72.9 percent from the field on the tournament.
In the biggest game of his life, he had 16 rebounds, a career high. And yet the night — and Oregon’s season — ended with people (rightfully) criticizing his box out form on two free throws, either of which could have been his 17th board.
And Bell wept in the locker room.
I’d like to tell Jordan Bell the Ducks didn’t lose because of him. They lost because the other four starters went 14-for-47 from the field. If anything, his career night — and incredible tournament — is why the team was a few points away from the national championship game. Even if he got those boards, it’s pretty unlikely Oregon would have gotten down the court and scored a desperation heave to win the game with no timeouts.
But I don’t think I’d be able to convince Bell — or anybody else who ever successfully got a defensive rebound on a missed free throw. This tournament is brutal, as the plays made in critical instants come to define seasons and careers. He made one surprising, unlikely mistake, and then he made that same mistake again, and that’s how we’ll remember his amazing run.