Sunday night’s final game of the PK80’s Victory bracket between Michigan State and UNC was, to say the least, not easy to watch.
What was expected to be a thrilling matchup between two high-octane, premier college teams quickly turned into a game of “who can play the worst brand of basketball,” and damn, UNC took that trophy home. (MSU took the trophy for winning the Victory bracket. I must admit, that’s probably a better trophy, but alas.)
Luke Maye, whose name was floating amid headlines for a breakout season that , shot 3-for-13 from the field and a horrid 2-for-7 from the charity stripe, finishing with eight points and six rebounds. The backcourt tandem of Joel Berry II and Kenny Williams also struggled, going a combined 3-for-18 from the field for 15 points. The freshmen trio of Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman were truly abysmal all night, finishing a combined 1-for-11 from the field for a lowly two points, and struggling to grab rebounds (they combined for nine total) against a massive MSU frontcourt.
Despite such a horrendous offensive game, fans shouldn't be too worried. Berry will get back to stroking threes, Williams will continue his hot shooting, Theo Pinson will keep making his athletic drives to the hoop and Maye will solidify his breakout season. Let’s not forget, Cam Johnson is set to return — and debut — at some point this year, and his presence will only improve the offense.
The offense just isn’t something to worry about.
The defense is.
From the surface, it isn’t that obvious. According to stats guru Ken Pomeroy, UNC’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 15th in the nation (as of Wednesday morning), which can be seen in both the average points allowed per game to opponents (71.83 after six games) and the 24 turnovers committed by MSU on Sunday. Clearly, UNC is doing something right on that end.
Despite what these few stats may say about the defense, one must take a deeper dive — both into other stats and film — to see the glaring issue plaguing UNC’s defense throughout the season.
Simply put, opponents are shooting lights-out from deep: UNC is allowing opponents to shoot a scorching 40.4 percent from downtown, with three pointers making up 41.7 percent of opposing shot attempts; this puts UNC 309th and 281st, respectively, out of all 351 college teams according to KenPom.com.
That’s really, really bad; and it could be even worse, considering how often teams are being left open as a result of over-helping and players missing defensive rotations.
Let’s look at some examples from Sunday’s game.
Watch Theo Pinson on this play. Following an entry pass from Miles Bridges to Nick Ward, Pinson comes over to help the already double-teamed Ward, and proceeds to block his shot. Jaren Jackson grabs the offensive rebound and, seeing that Pinson is still under the basket and nowhere close to Bridges, kicks it back out, and Bridges cashes in on a wide-open three.
Here’s the same thing as before: Cassius Winston misses the pull-up jumper, but MSU snags the offensive rebound, and with UNC’s defense completely unsettled, the ball finds its way to an open Joshua Langford who drills a three.
Want more over-helping and poor rotations? You got it! Here, Winston goes around a screen and drives to the basket. Drawing the whole team — seriously, every damn Tar Heel was crowded in the paint — toward him, he kicks it back out to a red-hot and wide-open Langford, who drains another three.
These are just a few clips from the first half. I could’ve easily included several more defensive lapses where players were left watching MSU put up jumpers off of offensive boards, drive-and-kicks, and other simple motion plays. (I could’ve included these plays, but then this column would be far too long. I wish I was exaggerating.)
MSU finished the game 10-for-26 from behind the arc, with many of their misses even coming off of the same plays shown above (meaning, UNC is lucky to have only lost by 18).
Until Sunday, these defensive lapses had yet to hurt UNC in any noticeable way. After all, they won the first five games by an average score of 92.8 to 73.6, comfortably winning in blow-out fashion.
Even yet, these lapses were apparent throughout each and every game, thus signaling an alarming trend.
Take this play from the home-opener against Northern Iowa for example. Juwan McCloud loses Jalek Felton on a weak screen, forcing Brooks and Pinson to rotate over to prevent a layup. Sensing four Tar Heels in the paint, McCloud then quickly flips the ball out to Isaiah Brown in the corner. With Pinson far from his original assignment, Brown is left with an easy, wide-open three.
Here’s another example, this time from the PK80 matchup against Arkansas. Adrio Bailey beats Maye on a baseline drive, prompting Brandon Robinson to leave his man in order to help; Bailey drops the ball off to Jaylen Barford, whom Felton attempts to trap; this leaves Anton Beard (who Felton was originally guarding) alone at the top of the key, and with UNC failing to contest him, he sinks the open shot.
As I’ve made abundantly clear, time and time again UNC suffers major defensive breakdowns, leaving opponents with far too much space on the perimeter to shoot. These lapses may not have harmed them against weaker competition, but against strong foes like MSU, these weaknesses will be picked on over and over.
I can’t pinpoint the exact cause behind such poor execution. Maybe it’s inexperience, or poor awareness, or poor communication. Maybe it’s the daggum coaching. Hell, maybe it’s all of these things.
Regardless of the cause, UNC has to buckle down and fix these simple mistakes. This squad isn’t as talented as last year’s championship roster; they can’t get by on talent alone, and they certainly can’t get by when they’re taking several plays off on the defensive end.
Each play matters. There are definitely no small plays, and one would think that a team that was a shot away from a championship two years ago would recognize this.
Coach Williams and the players have a lot of work to do, and must figure out how to play ferociously not just on offense, but on defense as well.
If not, well, I’ll end this column with a hot take that UNC faithful won’t particularly enjoy:
There’s no way, at this rate, that this team beats Duke. No chance. None.
And that sounds f—ing terrible.
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