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How UNC Stopped Duke

Hat tip to william for linking this excellent piece by Mike DeCourcy at the Sporting News on the defensive strategy that held Duke to 68 points on Saturday night.

This is what happened:

Assigned to assemble the scouting report for the Duke game, assistant coach Steve Robinson suggested to coach Roy Williams the Heels might want to consider switching on all of the Blue Devils' screens. So when 6-8 forward Kyle Singler set a pick for Paulus, defenders assigned to those players changed assignments -- even though that frequently meant Hansbrough having to deal with Paulus on the perimeter and Heels point guard Ty Lawson coping with a bigger player.

"We did not want to play them the same way we played them the first time," Williams said. "They got so many open threes. They'd turn the corner, and we'd try to help, and they'd attack the big guy and got to the line. It was so many different things."

In Duke's 11-point victory in Chapel Hill on Feb. 6, it was precisely the Tar Heels' struggle to defend screens that drained energy from their effort. The Blue Devils found themselves in the clear often enough to shoot 13-of-29 from 3-point range, including clutch jumpers from Paulus and Singler as Carolina attempted to conjure a late comeback.

What the Heels recognized from that game -- and, Lawson admitted, from watching Wake Forest take a similar approach in its mid-February victory over Duke -- was that the Blue Devils' players are interchangeable. That's mostly a tribute to their skill -- they all drive, they all pass, they all shoot -- but Carolina figured a way to turn that against them.

It made little sense to worry about who was matched against whom if Singler was as likely to jump up and hit a 3-pointer as Paulus, or if wing Gerald Henderson was as likely to drive the ball to the lane as guard Jon Scheyer.

Switching all crosses was unconventional enough Williams said he'd never done it in his coaching career. You don't need to count up the neatly combed gray hairs on Williams' head to realize "never" represents a long time. This was his 686th game as a head coach, his 553rd victory.

Duke did not react to the challenge with the maturity its coaches hoped to see. When the switches occurred, ballhandlers too often froze. Instead of taking advantage of small-on-big mismatches created inside, the Devils tried to stick with their strength on the outside but shot 5-of-14 from 3-point range in falling behind 42-31 at halftime.

On the few occasions Lawson was switched onto 7-1 Brian Zoubek, who played nine minutes, "They didn't even look for him," Lawson said. "And Singler -- they didn't look for the big man. They didn't use that real well."

An accomplished offensive team averaging 85.1 points and 47 percent shooting, the Devils failed to score after taking a 68-66 lead with 5:42 left. They got some decent shots and failed to convert, notably a baby hook from point-blank range with 2:46 remaining that Henderson normally would hit in the dark.

Nice having a HOF coach ain't it? Of course kudos to Steve Robinson for suggesting it. Duke basically looks to get space and shoot threes because they get open looks one of two ways. The first is dribble penetration which collapses the defense and opens up shooters. This has not been discussed much but UNC did a great job of stopping penetration. Part of that was the switching on screens and part of that was UNC defenders guarded the ball including guys like Tyler Hansbrough and Alex Stepheson who slid their feet and kept Demarcus Nelson out of the lane. The other side of the equation was the switches themselves which seemed to confuse Duke since they are accustomed to finding open looks for the ball handler off the screen and even if someone comes over to cover they are good at making the extra pass to the open player. And even though the switches created mismatches, the players with the advantageous position such as Zoubek guarded by Lawson is not a normal part of the Duke offensive flow and therefore it was missed by the other Blue Devils on the floor.

UNC also did an excellent job of staying home even when Duke did get some penetration and making the Devils finish at the hoop. There were a few breakdowns such as Paulus getting all the way and getting fouled on the hoop. However some of the 15 UNC blocks is owed to the fact UNC brought help on the weak side after the Duke player was committed to the hoop and not before when he still had options available to pass. It was generally a well timed and well executed defensive set which worked because the Tar Heel players brought the intensity and effort to the court. The interesting thing will be if these two play in the ACC Championship and how much of this defensive set UNC uses plus what Duke does to adjust to it.

That being said, both teams have too much to worry about before then.