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UNC Basketball Film Review: UNC’s problem guarding the ballscreen

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The Wolverines embarrassed the Heels using ball screens and pick-n-rolls. How?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As UNC gets ready to welcome UNC-Wilmington to Chapel Hill this week, it hardly seems like we are already eight games into the season. A wide array of opponents and wildly inconsistent performances have most of us a bit perplexed. It’s hard to get a read on the Heels in their current state. Over the weekend, Quintin gave us a two-part series breaking down eight things we think we have learned about the Heels. It’s worth a read here and here.

I was a bit more mystified at the sudden struggles and reviewed highlights from the last Michigan game. The buzzsaw that carved up the Heels caught most reasonable fans and “experts” by surprise. A team that returned as much experience as UNC does, combined with three athletic and/or versatile freshmen, should not look as lost and confused as North Carolina did on Wednesday.

Michigan hit some tough shots, run an incredibly disciplined offense with multiple options, and are a tough match-up for the Heels. None of that really matters in regard to what the Heels failed to do in Ann Arbor. Nothing was cutting edge or overly complex. The defense was just appalling. Atrocious. Putrid. Whatever word you want to you use probably doesn’t do justice to the monstrosity we witnessed. So, instead of using words, lets use video and try and break down what happened.

I could focus on any number of issues, but I chose their inability to guard the ball screen on the pick-n-roll. Below are five examples of ball screens and pick-n-rolls by the Michigan offense. Let’s see if anything stands out.

Ball screen #1

Here it is in .GIF form. Michigan’s Jon Teske sets a ballscreen for Zavier Simpson on the left side of the court. Simpson takes two dribbles to the top of the key, Teske rolls, and Michigan has two easy points. Take note of:

  • Coby White is slow to get over the screen.
  • Garrison Brooks doesn’t hedge or even “show”. He flattens out to discourage Simpson driving, and is late recovering to Teske.
  • Cam Johnson never commits to help side defense, and thus the lane is wide open
  • Kenny Williams gives token pressure as Teske rolls. Never makes contact/bumps/tags. Never slows down his movement. He also does not commit to help side defense, as the ball moves away from him.

Here it is broken down in pictures. No, this was not in the second half when Michigan went on their massive run. This was at the 18:50 mark of the first half. It was their first basket of the game.

Coby is three feet behind Simpson. Brooks flattens and allows Simpson freedom of movement. Cam Johnson isn’t in “bad” help defense at this point, but without any help from Kenny on the other side and standing at 6’9, he’s a Christmas tree ornament at this point.

This is a split-second later. Brooks has moved further down the lane. Kenny steps up as his man drifts up the court, but as you saw in the clip above, it’s just token pressure and he never touches Teske. With Cam sliding to cover Jordan Poole, the lane is wide open.

As Teske receives the ball, Luke, Kenny, and Cam are all hugging their man. Brooks, who had been trying to both deter Simpson and recover to Teske is stuck in no-man’s land. Coby recovered to Simpson just as he slipped the pass down low.

To reiterate, these were the first two points for Michigan. There is a familiar pattern in the next four clips.

Ball screen #2

Five minutes later, Michigan runs the exact same play. Simpson takes three dribbles to the right side of the key, and finds Isaiah Livers in the corner. In this case:

  • Seventh Woods recovers “enough”, but never makes Simpson uncomfortable
  • Luke Maye stays flat, just like Brooks. Teske was arguably open (again), as Kenny Williams never makes contact (again). Maye is a little quicker to recover than Brooks was.
  • Nassir Little was deeper into the lane on his help defense compared to Cam, possibly deterring the post entry. However, that left Livers was open in the corner.

All things considered, this was not terrible defense. Little was slow and/or hesitant to recover to the corner, but a contested three is usually preferable to a lay-up. The common theme will continue to be lack of pressure on the ball at the point of attack.

Ball screen #3

The second half was simply a continuation of the first half. This is the exact same ball screen option. This time:

  • Coby White doesn’t even get screened, but anticipating contact he still gets beat and never gets in front of Simpson. This puts additional pressure on Brooks.
  • Brooks flattens out (again), and even retreats without fully recovering to Teske. The retreat allows Simpson to get to the elbow, making the lob an easier pass than it would be from outside the arc.
  • Luke Maye makes zero contact with Teske, as he rolls to the rim. Matador defense at its finest.

Take note of Kenny (kind of) helping in the lane. Anything other than alley-oop and he could have provided some relief. Credit Simpson with another good read.

Ball screen #4

At this point, it was clear UNC wasn’t going to make any adjustments. This is Groundhog Day.

  • Coby White once again does not get screened, but does a slightly better job staying with Simpson.
  • Brooks flattens out, but does not retreat. This allowed White time recover, but also allows Teske to roll.
  • Kenny Williams does not bump/tag Teske.
  • Cam Johnson never steps foot in the lane in help defense. He’s out of position, and a non-factor.

Ball screen #5

Same play. Different option. Same outcome.

  • Seventh gets over the “screen” and should have had time to recover.
  • Brandon Huffman flattens, but doesn’t retreat. He also doesn’t really play the ballhandler, and basically defends a space on the floor. Simpson deserves credit for making a good read.
  • In this case, the help defense is non-existent. Both Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson are caught on the three-point line. That, and Huffman’s inability to flatten/hedge, makes this play so successful

Remedies?

Far be it from any of us to diagnose what exactly went wrong in these defense sets since we don’t know the game plan, but a few things stand out. North Carolina wanted their guards to go over the screens with the post player expected to flatten out and recover on the screener/roller. That’s not abnormal, but without a true rim protector in the paint and Michigan’s ability to play 4-out-1-in and 5-out offensive sets, North Carolina had no answer.

The ballhandler stayed comfortable, was never forced to a spot on the floor that he didn’t want to go to, and dictated the flow of the game. UNC did absolutely nothing to impose its will on the Wolverines. That was amplified every time the screener (usually Teske, as shown above) had free reign down the middle of the lane. I’m unsure why the wing (Kenny or Luke in these clips) never even touched Teske. That lack of physicality, combined with consistent slow and/or lazy help defense and an apparent lack of adjustments, kept the middle of the lane open all night.

Note: The lack of help side defense may have been a decision by the team to shade towards the arc and keep three-point attempts to a minimum. Though, Michigan still shot 11-22, so that wasn’t as effective as desired.

Let’s be clear: Michigan is a very good basketball team. However, the mistakes that were made are not solely due to the personnel on the floor, or a result of being overmatched. (I’m speaking specifically to those who are clamoring for Nassir Little to step into the rotation). There is a lack of vocal leadership, physical play, and overall communication that is painfully apparent.

It’s also entirely plausible that UNC’s philosophy on guarding ball-screens (or lack of guarding them) is slightly out of date when guarding more modern offenses. If these struggles continue, that may be a topic worth diving into at a later date.

To be fair, it should be noted that the starting 5 were actually +2 during their time on the court and were at their defensive best with Garrison Brooks at center. Watching those clips above, I found that hard to believe. I point you to these two tweets from Adrian Atkinson as proof.

Yeh, it’s early. North Carolina will improve. All the old axioms apply. However, there is often truth in failure. We saw it last year against Michigan State, when the dominant performance by the Spartans foreshadowed the Heels’ eventual 2nd Round exit to Texas A&M. Last week’s loss should be viewed in a similar light.