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The Daily Tar Heel

Concerns against zone defense remain for UNC men's basketball in March

The North Carolina basketball team’s first conference loss left the team flummoxed.

The Tar Heels shot poorly from the field in their 75-63 loss to Georgia Tech, making 24 out of 72 shots. Their 33.3 percent field goal percentage ended up being the lowest of the season. UNC also took 26 3-pointers and made just five of them.

It was all thanks to a 1-3-1 zone.

“Against that type of zone, you have to have some type of penetration, or you’ve got to have ball movement; you can’t just pass it one time and be able to get it in the middle,” Justin Jackson said on Dec. 31 after the loss. “And so we were kind of stagnant as far as the guards out there, and so it didn’t really open up the inside as much as it should have.”

That first game in conference play was a bellwether for how some teams would treat the Tar Heels throughout the season. MiamiSyracuse and Virginia all threw zones at UNC.

But over the course of the year, the Tar Heels have improved in one key aspect of beating zone defenses.

“Well, we shoot the ball better from the 3-point line,” head coach Roy Williams said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

North Carolina’s long-range bombers, Joel Berry and Jackson, have proved valuable in busting zone defenses this season. Both are excellent shooters who stretch defenses, in turn, opening up the paint for drives and inside looks.

While shooting helps, UNC hasn’t put all of its eggs in one basket to beat zones. A season ago, Brice Johnson’s eight assists against Syracuse’s zone in the Tar Heels’ Jan. 9 road win disassembled that defense.

“We don’t pass it inside nearly as well as we did last year,” Williams said. “Brice’s passing inside against the zone at Syracuse was as good as I’ve ever had any big man.”

Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks are good passers, but they’ll never be great ones. Instead, Theo Pinson has helped shoulder the load. Pinson missed five conference games this season, and UNC went 3-2 in those games. The losses came on the road against Georgia Tech and Miami — which both used zone defenses.

“Theo’s a great passer,” Luke Maye said after UNC’s 85-67 win over Pittsburgh. “He’s got an uncanny eye for seeing open men. You’ve always got to be on your toes when Theo’s got the ball, because you never know when it’s going to come.

In that Pittsburgh game, North Carolina melted the Panthers’ zone defense so badly that they switched back to a man-to-man alignment in the second half. That first half was an example of UNC at its best against zone defenses: the Tar Heels shot well but also moved the ball and dominated on the boards with 11 first-half offensive rebounds. UNC also moved well without the ball, setting off-ball screens and testing the attentiveness of Panther defenders.

North Carolina wasn’t bad on the offensive boards against Georgia Tech, though. The team finished with 44 total rebounds, including 19 on the offensive glass.

At the end of the day, beating zone defenses really comes down to hitting shots. The Tar Heels can’t afford a cold shooting day like they suffered against Georgia Tech. Instead of leading to a first conference loss, it could be a season-ending misstep in March.


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