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UNC vs GT: Three Things We Learned

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Unfortunately, GT taught UNC a few lessons about zone offense and shot selection.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

2016 is finally over. If you’re a UNC fan, student, alum, or athlete I hope you celebrated appropriately last night and made sure to rid your mind, body, and soul of all of last year’s UNC’s sports demons.

Unless, of course, you play lacrosse. In that case, 2016 was memorable for all the right reasons.

So, as we officially enter 2017, let us reminisce on a few of the painful lessons the men’s basketball team learned from Georgia Tech yesterday afternoon. They will be important to remember as the new year begins.

Struggles against the Zone

In an attempt to neutralize the athleticism and depth of UNC, Georgia Tech’s zone defense confused UNC all day long. Unable to successfully make any adjustments, the Heels seemed to be caught on a hamster wheel of mistakes, and couldn’t get off.

Credit the Yellow Jackets for maintaining their poise and discipline on the defensive end. Many times, young teams will get excited, break down, and let their emotions (both excitement and panic) affect their execution. Georgia Tech did not do that. They stayed in their lanes, kept their hands active, and packed the middle to neutralize UNC’s post game.

UNC obliged by not showing any coherent zone offense, often choosing to just pass the ball around the perimeter. When UNC did feed the post, which wasn’t often as Meeks and Hicks combined for only 13 of UNC’s 72 FG attempts, the Heels rarely skipped it across the court or kicked the ball back to the wing with any consistency. The result was often a contested lay-up, fadeaway jump shot, or a turnover.

By not effectively moving the ball in and out of the paint, Georgia Tech often remained in their preferred defensive positions. In fact, the lack of movement led to 20 UNC turnovers, for a TO% of 25%. That’s one turnover every four possessions. Even worse, 15 of those 20 turnovers were bonafide steals. In case you were unaware, the goal of a zone is not usually to cause turnovers.

Poor Shot Selection

It’s lazy to say “lack of aggression” was the culprit yesterday. Effort and urgency are always easy buzzwords to use for a bad loss. In reality, the Heels just did not attack the gaps in the zone. That’s partly because they never created any.

There are multiple ways to attack a defense, and UNC didn’t show an ability to do any of them. By not actually forcing the zone to rotate and move, whether by penetration or an effective inside-outside game, UNC settled for too many jump shots and three pointers. As they got desperate, the Heels began to force too many contested shots in the paint.

The Heels attempted 26 three pointers, good enough for 36% of UNC’s total FG attempts. That’s the second highest rate of the season, behind the Davidson contest. Before yesterday, only 28% of UNC’s field goal attempts were from behind the arc. Those numbers, combined with the measly 13 FGS between the the starting post players, are often a recipe for disaster.

In a day of ugly numbers, the most startling number was at the free throw line. The Yellow Jackets were 28-33 from the line. UNC was 10 for 14. There’s a saying that logically states if your opponent makes more FTs than you attempt, you’re likely going to lose. That was true yesterday.

Nate Britt

Nate Britt was the most notable player on the floor for UNC. He almost singlehandedly kept the game close before Georgia Tech finally pulled away. Britt has taken some flak this season and has struggled to consistently make shots. That’s why his performance was inspiring.

He played like the 4th year senior UNC fans have all been hoping to see. Poised, scrappy, and providing timely shots or defensive stops, Britt earned 26 minutes off the bench. Most impressively, almost everything he did was in the flow of the game. He (mostly) didn’t hunt his shot, or trying to force his way through three defenders.

Instead, he focused on every other aspect of the game. Britt finished with 5 steals, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and only 2 turnovers. That resulted in 13 points on 5-9 shooting (3-4 from three). Britt seemed more “in control” than previous games. That’s encouraging because that is when Britt is at his best.

UNC will need his poise and leadership in a few more games as 2017 begins. The next three months aren’t going to be any easier.