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UNC men's basketball looks to solve Syracuse's 2-3 zone in Tuesday night clash

UNC graduate forward Pete Nance (32) celebrates a dunk in the Dean Smith Center on Jan. 21, 2023, against the N.C. State Wolfpack. UNC won 80-69.

After Saturday’s 80-69 victory over N.C. State, UNC head basketball coach Hubert Davis insisted he was not worried about the team’s record. With a Tuesday visit to Syracuse, Davis’ focus likely remains the same: keep getting better.

“One of the things I always think about is making sure we’re improving,” Davis said. “And at the end of the day, the results will take care of themselves.”

UNC’s recent run may justify Davis’ view, as the win over N.C. State marked UNC’s ninth win in 11 games. Davis liked several things the team did well against the Wolfpack, which must carry over if the team wants to earn a road victory against the Orange.

Beating the 2-3 zone

Under head coach Jim Boeheim, Syracuse has long favored the 2-3 zone defense. The Orange’s zone places a frontline of two defenders above the 3-point line and a backline of three defenders across the baseline — two near the corners and one hovering in the paint. 

The zone is designed to deny entry passes into the low post, the kinds of passes off which UNC center Armando Bacot thrives. Feeding the star senior in the post more and running fewer pick-and-rolls sparked the Tar Heels’ hot streak, but they will likely need to find another way to attack against Syracuse.

In a Monday ACC media Zoom conference, Davis said Syracuse excels at protecting the paint and stopping teams from getting shots in rhythm. The Orange average the most blocked shots per game in the ACC and house the conference’s leading shot blocker, center Jesse Edwards.

Davis believed UNC would need high shooting accuracy — particularly from beyond the 3-point arc — to keep the offense chugging, but good shooting might not be the Tar Heels’ only solution.

When the ball is caught on the wing, a corner defender in the Orange’s line of three will stunt to discourage a drive. If an opposing player is also in the corner when the stunt occurs, that player has a split moment to cut to the basket and receive a pass. For this role, UNC has graduate transfer forward Pete Nance. 

Nance can catch the ball at the awkward angles Syracuse forces and drive without losing the ball. Davis praised Nance’s all-around game versus N.C. State, saying the former Northwestern Wildcat is someone who he needs to put in more situations to get to the basket.

With Bacot hanging in the dunker’s spot, Nance can draw out the heavy-footed Edwards and zip a pass to Bacot before Edwards can recover. Nance is also capable of sinking turnaround fadeaways, the kind of shot Syracuse’s zone frequently allows.

According to KenPom, Syracuse has one of the lowest defensive rebounding percentages in the country. If UNC is forced into a tough jumpshot, they can rely upon offensive rebounding from Bacot to grab second-chance points.

Containing the drive

To stall the Orange offense, North Carolina’s defense must stall guards Judah Mintz and Joseph Girard III. In the pick-and-roll, Mintz’s burst allows him to drive with power. He excels at finding tight windows to lay passes off to his teammates.

Girard, leading Syracuse in scoring with 17.5 points per game, can shoot threes instantly off the catch, post his man up and bully his way to the rim — or play a two-man game with an intelligent roll man in Edwards.

UNC has struggled to contain drives this season, but Davis joked that after Saturday's contest, the team should have no excuse to play solid defense, as the Wolfpack was shut down for most of the night. If the Tar Heels want to show they have become more consistent, Tuesday’s defensive challenge will be a good opportunity.  


@DTHSports |

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