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UNC Basketball Film Review: Defending Luke Maye

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Opponents are guarding UNC differently than in past years. It’s not working.

NCAA Basketball: Western Carolina at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

We are 10 games into the season and it’s time to recognize that Luke Maye has developed into a nightly triple threat for UNC’s offense. He ranks first on the team in points (19.9) and rebounds (10.5) per game. His 2.7 assists per game are good enough for third on the team.

His versatility, quite frankly, has changed how teams have traditionally guarded UNC. In doing so, it has also helped the Heels maintain their low-post presence while becoming increasingly lethal from three-point range.

My colleague Kyle Britt and I have used the exam week to study the Heels’ first 10 games. Later this week Kyle will focus on the play of Joel Berry and Jalek Felton. Today I’ll look at how teams have guarded UNC’s big men in the past, and how Luke Maye has changed those tendencies. Tomorrow I’ll take a more comprehensive look at Maye’s impact on the overall offense. Let’s begin.

“Historical” Context

We all know that UNC has traditionally focused on two conventional post players. Last season it was usually a combination of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley. Below is a very basic snapshot and reminder how teams have guarded the Heels in the past.

Using two opponents with different styles, Gonzaga and Duke, we see common defensive choices on UNC’s big men. Both Hicks and Meeks often have a large cushion at the top of the key. In Gonzaga’s case, Meeks even has a five foot radius at the elbow.

In previous years, opponents kept their feet inside the arc, and usually only came above the top of the key to guard a ball screen. This would clog the passing and driving lanes that have been so available this season. Opponents knew the ball was coming to the post, and UNC’s lack of consistent three-point shooting made this a popular game plan.

Ball screens are often how UNC purposely drew defenders away from the basket. If the defenders “hedge” too hard (step out to guard the ball handler) they’re vulnerable to the pick-and-roll. UNC fans got used to seeing this as Meeks often rolled down the middle of the lane for an easy bucket. Just like this:

If a defender doesn’t hedge hard enough they risk giving up an open three—which Joel Berry has used to his advantage. They also risk giving the ball handler too much room to drive, as we see Theo does here.

Against Duke, Hicks drives on Jayson Tatum thanks to a screen from Joel Berry. From time to time last season, it was not unusual to see Hicks attempt to take his man off the dribble. Nonetheless, Tatum starts his defense below the three-point line and is able to cut off Hicks’ path to the basket. It was only a poor defensive rotation by Duke that left Meeks open under the rim.

Defending Luke Maye

Compare those examples to how Arkansas and Michigan have guarded Maye. I chose these two teams because they are both major conference opponents and most likely resemble the competition UNC will face in the ACC. Below are four examples of defenders getting their “heels on the line” - a euphemism for defending outside the three point line. This style of defense is often used against perimeter players and deadly outside shooters. It’s clear that Maye’s shooting ability has opponents closing the gap that previous UNC big men have received.

Please take note of all the open floor space inside the three point line. There is so much room for activities. If you’re still not convinced look at a few of these examples in action.

Here, Maye receives the reversal from Jalek Felton out of the secondary break. Maye’s defender is outside the arc and Kenny Williams’ man is “hugging” him in the bottom of the screen. Luke sees the space, doesn’t hesitate, and drives to the rim. Kudos to Garrison Brooks for “sealing” off his man in the paint.

In an almost identical setup, Luke Maye receives the reversal from Seventh Woods. This time Kenny Williams’ man is sagging towards Maye to deny the driving lane. Maye recognizes the change, and reverses to Williams for the three. This was a direct result of Maye’s versatility, but he also deserves credit for not forcing the drive, remaining unselfish, and playing within the offense.

To finish off today’s lesson, here’s a backdoor lob against Michigan. This particular option has been a common occurrence in UNC’s secondary break, though fans are more familiar with this being called for Brice Johnson than Luke Maye. That’s not the case when the defense guards Maye 24 feet away from the basket.

By defending Maye so far up the court, Kenny Williams has both time and space to deliver a solid back screen. The room to maneuver also allows Maye gain speed and separation. By the time Michigan successfully switches the screen, the ball is already in the air. Previous Tar Heels like Johnson, JMM, or Hicks didn’t need as much space and could rely on their athleticism for this play. Luckily, Maye’s ability to stretch the defense ensures this will remain a viable option.

Of course, if opponents give Luke any room above the arc, he can just do this.

So there you have it. Teams have adjusted how they guard UNC because of the Swiss Army Knife that is Luke Maye. In doing so, many worries about UNC’s offense have been alleviated. The different defensive have opened up the offense and fans are seeing a more creative, diverse, slashing, cutting, shooting team than in previous years.

In past seasons, when a player had a breakout season, it was often done within the traditional UNC system. Despite some nuances, the UNC offense looked the same whether Sean May or Kennedy Meeks was in the rotation. Ditto for duos like John Henson-Brice Johnson, or Raymond Felton-Ty Lawson.

That logic does not hold true this season. Tomorrow we’ll take a deeper look at how the UNC offense has been directly effected by Maye’s break-out season.