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How UNC neutralized Duke’s size

A minor defensive wrinkle and better execution keyed the memorable comeback.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Well, North Carolina survived. From last Thursday to Monday, Duke, NC State, and Notre Dame all tried to defeat the Heels. All failed. As a result, North Carolina has now reversed their season’s fortunes and won four straight. If you’re wondering how that may have happened, you may be surprised that they accomplished this feat with defense.

More specifically, UNC appeared to have a different defensive wrinkle for each team. This is not unusual. Yet, after getting annihilated from behind the arc during its three-game losing streak, the Heels were are at a loss for words in trying to describe what was happening. While there were plenty of reasons for the wins (rebounding, hot shooting, Roy Williams refusing to call timeouts), certain defensive wrinkles stood out to me and my THB colleague Alan Ganey - so while I’m writing this, he deserves a shout-out for his keen eye.

This week, I’ll look back on those three games and break down the defensive adjustments that UNC displayed. Today, I’ll focus on North Carolina’s efforts to front Bagley, Carter, and Bolden in the post.

Bad Defense

For years, Duke has killed UNC with its outside shooting. This season, with two legitimate big men in Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter, the Heels anticipated seeing a subtle shift in Duke’s strategy. The first half was proof of this as the Blue Devils scored 30 points in the paint. Those points came on an array of drives, transition dunks, and entry passes to the post. Below is one example of Gary Trent Jr. getting the to the rim and three examples of Luke Maye being the target of Duke’s post men.

Gary Trent Jr catches the ball at the foul line extended. Cameron Johnson over-extended into the passing lane, and Trent attacks the basket as Maye is now behind his man. Maye’s inability to regain position on the baseline side of Carter effectively boxes him out of the play and gives Trent an easy two points.

A classic hi/lo look from Duke sees Bolden pin Maye on the block, and receive an easy entry pass from Bagley. Maye allowed Bolden to waltz down the lane untouched off the pick and roll. Bolden made him pay.

Below are two more examples of Luke Maye allowing Bagley and Bolden to get position, call for the ball, and score over him.

Both Maye and Pinson had worked hard at fronting or three-quartering the post (when a defender plays on the side of the post player while discouraging an entry pass with their arm). Unfortunately, too often they didn’t make the Duke big men fight for position and ceded open real estate.

Also, take note of both Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson’s defense. Their hands are down and provide zero deterrence on the perimeter. Both Bagley and Duval are completely comfortable without any pressure on them, making the entry passes virtually unchallenged.

Good Defense

At the half, Alan and I said to each other, “Hey, you think they should front the post, and pressure the ball more?” Then, Roy Williams repeated those exact sentiments at halftime. (Go to the 40:17 mark). Both of us are currently completing job applications to join next season’s staff.

While fronting the post can give up prime rebounding position, it encourages high lob entry passes. Those entry passes allow the defense time to rotate to a better help side position. It can also discourage dribble penetration and entice guards to take make poor entry passes or take contested pull up jump shots.

Early in the second half, Maye three-quarters Carter. Duval starts penetration, but there isn’t a lane. Pinson shades over into the lane just enough to deter the drive or the pass. A falling back jumper isn’t the best decision. UNC gets the rebound.

The next time down the court, Duke tries to go inside to Bagley. Notice the difference in Maye’s defensive pressure on Carter compared to the first half “intensity”. That pressure, combined with Pinson’s efforts forces Carter to toss a lob towards the baseline. Bagley struggles to control the ball and Pinson recovers to force the steal.

Maye fronts Carter on the initial hi/lo, forcing Bagley to reverse the ball to Allen. Notice Pinson’s active hands at the top of the key to help dissuade an entry pass. As the ball swings back around the arc, Bagley tries to ride Pinson up the lane. Pinson recovers and Berry stays in front of Duval who makes a poor pass. Carolina ball.

At this point in the game, Duke tried to go Jolly Green Giant big with Bolden, Bagley, and Carter all in the lineup. It did not work. Garrison Brooks keeps his hands up and in front of Carter’s face while Maye and Johnson front Bolden and Bagley, cutting off any passing lane. Carter lobs the ball towards the middle of the paint, where Kenny Williams flies over from the opposite corner. This was a textbook defensive possession.

The end result was a Carolina victory and Duke scoring a UVA-like 29 points in the second half. This wasn’t a huge adjustment, and judging by Roy’s comments at halftime, likely was part of UNC’s original game plan. In the second half, the Heels simply executed better. Sometimes that’s the most simple explanation.

Later this week, I’ll break down how this game differed from the NC State and Notre Dame contests.