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UNC vs Kentucky: Problems in the paint

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Michigan killed them with ball screens. Kentucky killed them with big men.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at North Carolina David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Ok. It was ugly. Most of us are disappointed. Some are concerned. Others just want to know what on earth happened. We have you covered.

Like we did after Michigan’s dominating victory, here’s a breakdown of UNC’s defensive struggles. Unlike the Michigan debacle where the Heels couldn’t stop a pick-n-roll if their lives had depended on it, Kentucky regularly got the ball to their big men who killed UNC with an inside-out game.

Below are some clips and pictures showing the first half debacle. That’s followed by two clips showing Kentucky three pointers in the second half. The dominance of Reid Travis in the first half allowed cleaner looks from three in the second half. This video from Dadgum Box Scores sets the tone.

Note, Roy says that fronting the post and not helping up the lane were keys to their post defense. North Carolina did not follow those principles throughout the afternoon.

Reid Travis re-establishes position

Nassir Little checked in at 12:27. At 11:47 Reid Travis went to work. These two pictures establish how we get to the play.

Little does a solid job fronting Travis as the ball travels around perimeter. He follows the ball, fighting Travis for position. As you see in the next clip, Little does not sustain the effort.

By the time Travis gets the ball, Little has pushed him 15 feet away from the basket. Travis kicks it back out. Then he takes Little to school.

Travis immediately re-establishes position deeper in the paint, and attacks. Manley blocks the first shot, leaving Nick Richards to get the rebound. Technically, this may count as helping up the lane.

Little recovers and maintains position, but Manley leaves Travis to attempt to block Richards’ attempt. Kenny Williams doesn’t drop down to rebound or box out and fouls Travis with a push in the back.

Had Little not allowed Travis to re-establish position, Manley shown a little more discipline on either shot attempt, or Williams dropped hard to rebound, this possession might have had a different ending.

Washington Attacks

A few minutes later, Maye is defending PJ Washington. Note Maye’s feet. He has effectively left the front door open to his house. Washington has a free lane to the paint.

This is not a matter of Maye being a lesser athlete. It’s a matter of poor defensive positioning. See below.

Washington takes advantage of the open space. Often the defender “one pass away”, as Cam was, is tasked with helping to stop dribble penetration.

In this case, that would have left Tyler Herro wide open on the perimeter. It’s possible UNC’s game plan tasked Cam with staying closer to the perimeter.

As a result, Garrison Brooks is stuck in no man’s land. Instead of decisively engaging Washington or falling back to Travis, Brooks is frozen in place.

The motion on the opposite sideline keep Platek and Woods occupied, so neither one can help on the baseline. Travis earns the and-1.

Washington to Reid

Again, Nas gets stuck behind his man in the post. This time it’s PJ Washington who establishes position.

The Wildcat guards continually pulled any perimeter help away from the lane with dummy motion and/or extending way outside the three point line. This time Coby White and Brandon Robinson can’t sink into the lane.

Washington turns to his right, and Maye (incorrectly) helps up the lane. Check it out from start to finish.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Travis benefits again.

For anyone clamoring for Little to play more minutes or move permanently to the “4”, this game is a textbook example why he may not be ready. He got abused, whether it was poor effort or being overpowered. Per Adrian Atkinson, the Heels have an efficiency of -14.6 against top teams, with Little at power forward.

Washington Pick-n-Roll

Kentucky also used UNC’s old nemesis with the pick-n-roll. Again, Nas Little is a main culprit. His hard hedge may or may not be correct, but it isn’t the reason for this defensive breakdown.

It’s the lack of effort he shows recovering to Washington that is so alarming. Middle-aged men have shown more urgency in local YMCA pick-up games.

Then, for reasons that are completely unknown to me, runs to guard Washington from behind. He doesn’t help Maye trap from the front or recover to pick up Travis.

Watch the play in its entirety.

After Hagans picks up his dribble, Little casually strolls down the lane with Maye stuck in a 2-on-1 situation. After Hagans completes the post entry, Little literally runs to guard Washington’s back.

At best, this possession is the epitome of “token” defense. At worst, it’s a selfish “I don’t care” defense.

I’m not trying to pick on Little. All of the big men struggled defensively. However, Brooks’ foul trouble limited him in the first half. It’s not a coincidence that Kentucky was able to extend the lead in the final six minutes of the first half, when Brooks was on the bench. Unfortunately, Little didn’t rise to the challenge despite a golden opportunity.

Again per Atkinson, the two big-man lineup was best for UNC in the first half.

Herro Three

Reid Travis was less prolific in the second half, but his impact was still felt. Here, he rides Maye up the lane, as they battle for position. By pushing Maye up the lane, Kentucky has a wide open area underneath the basket.

Travis gets the ball 15 feet from the hoop. As soon as Travis touches the ball, Brooks is running to double-team the big man. That forces Cam to eventually drop down to the block. Tyler Herro drifts to the far sideline.

Why are two big men trapping Travis so far from the hoop? Not sure. Maybe it was an attempt to force a quick turnover. Or maybe Brooks misread the situation. Regardless, it put extra pressure on the rest of the defense and left Herro wide open for an uncontested three.

Washington Dagger

The Heels only trailed by six, needing a stop. Instead, another ball screen proves to be their undoing.

Note that Coby White is standing almost straight up, completely unprepared to get around a ball screen. This has been a common problem throughout the season.

As had happened throughout the game, Kentucky drew the Heels defense well outside the paint. This time, Washington brought Maye outside the three point line. That allows Ashton Hagans to get deep in the lane and stress the defense.

For all intents and purposes, this play sealed the game for Kentucky.

White’s “recovery” is comical and Brooks has to stick with Hagans. That leaves Travis wide open as he rolls tp the hoop.

The defense collapses, including Maye, leaving Washington alone at the top of the key. A quick kick out leads to a dagger three pointer. White, who looked completely lost on the entire possession, had his back turned to two Wildcats on the perimeter. Brutal.

Maybe he was still sulking over his turnover that led to the entire sequence of events.

What Next?

Look, Carolina has played a tough schedule. Three losses are not season-defining. Only one loss, against Texas, is truly perplexing. Considering Seventh Woods missed that game, maybe that defeat is also understandable.

The Heels are a mixture of young stud athletes and veterans who have struggled to find any consistency. Yet, despite major letdowns on Saturday, the Heels actually “won” the second half and stayed within striking distance. The sky isn’t falling. They truly are thisclosethankyouverymuch.

However, it is clear that some tweaks are needed. Whether those include better effort, a shorter rotation, or schematic changes is to be determined. With the exception of Tyler Hansbrough’s career, panicking in December has become a right of passage for UNC fans. Every March, we all finish the season relatively pleased with the outcome.

Now, let’s just hope they don’t screw up against Davidson and Harvard.