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Defensive adjustments may have saved UNC’s season

A couple changes here and there could have made all the difference.

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

As we prepare for the North Carolina’s clash with Louisville tomorrow, let’s revel one more time in last week’s successful gauntlet. Those three wins in five days likely saved UNC’s season and revitalized their hopes for a high seed in March.

The inability to stop three-point barrages has forced the coaching staff to implement a slightly different defense, which Inside Carolina touched on yesterday. However, after last weekend, I’m unconvinced the changes end there. It’s slightly more complex, but not complicated.

On Wednesday, I broke down some defensive adjustments that allowed the Heels to neutralize Duke’s size. Today, I’ll show a few examples of how the Heels altered that defensive approach against both NC State and Notre Dame.

Full Disclosure: I cannot and do not know the actual defensive game plans that UNC implements for their opponents. The following clips and analysis just show different patterns that appear against opponents - in these cases, NC State and Notre Dame.


Against Duke, UNC held Duke to 29 second half points, in part because they “fronted” Bagley, Carter, and Bolden. They did not do this consistently against NC State. Instead, they mixed up fronting and three quarters defenses but, more times than not, UNC ended up behind NC State’s post players. I think that was by design. (But I’m not sure anyone would ever admit that).

Watch the four clips below. Take note of how UNC guards high ball screens, where UNC positions itself behind Omer Yurtseven, and where Yurtseven catches the ball.

Hi-Lo to Yurt

  1. Luke Maye starts with three-quarters defense on Yurtseven, before the NC State big man is able to get deep in the paint.
  2. An easy hi-lo pass to Yurtseven results in two points.

High Ball-screen #1

  1. High ball screen draws Maye away from the basket
  2. As Al Freeman turns the corner, Maye “flattens out” and retreats. It doesn’t stop Freeman’s drive, but deters Freeman from fully committing and prevents a pass to the rolling Yurtseven
  3. Maye does not get in front of Yurtseven, so he pushes him far off the block where Yurtseven’s height is not as advantageous. Yurt misses the jumper.

High Ball-screen #2

  1. This is the exact same play as the previous one. High ball screen forces Garrison Brooks to flatten out and stop Braxton Beverly from penetrating.
  2. Like Maye, Brooks gets behind Yurtseven, but doesn’t push him out as far off the block.
  3. Yurtseven turns into the lane, and hits the hook shot.

This was a markedly different approach than against Duke, and happened throughout the game with Yurtseven, Abdul-Malik Abu, and Lennard Freeman - who are certainly of a “different” caliber than the Duke trio. This defense appears to have been UNC’s attempt to encourage possessions in the paint and limit the amount of three-pointers that the Wolfpack attempted. Playing ‘behind’ a post player also gives the defense better position for a rebound. Whether or not this was their intent, it worked.

Abu, Freeman, and Yurtseven at UNC: 16 points, 15 rebounds, 8-21 FG, 0-1 FTs (Yurtseven had all 16 points on 8-16 shooting, and 13 rebounds)

Abu, Freeman, and Yurtseven at NC State: 28 points, 9 rebounds, 11-23 FG, 6-11 FT

When the buzzer sounded, the Wolfpack big men had scored 12 more points, attempted 10 more foul shots, grabbed 6 fewer rebounds, and as a team NC State attempted 17 fewer three pointers as they went 7-13.

I could be completely wrong about this defensive tactic and why it was used, but it’s undeniable that the post defense had a noticeable impact on the game.


Yet, when Notre Dame visited Chapel Hill on Monday there was a new wrinkle in the post defense, especially in the second half. As noted above, when NC State ran a high ball screen, the post defender (Maye and Brooks), “flattened” on the screen, and retreated to Yurtseven who rolled to the basket. They tweaked this against the Matt Farrell-led Fighting Irish.

In the first half, Notre Dame big man Martinas Geben was whistled for two quick fouls. His replacement, John Mooney entered the game, and promptly hit his first six shots - which were all three pointers. The Heels seemed to revert back to their prior defense miscues of over-helping on the drive. See below.

Kick out to Mooney

  1. Compared to the high ball screens by NC State, Theo Pinson does not hedge or flatten out on the screen.
  2. Matt Farrell takes advantage of the open space and the entire UNC defense collapses to the paint.
  3. Farrell finds Mooney wide open in the corner for a three. This happened throughout the first half.

In the second half, UNC made a change. It resulted in more Notre Dame points in the paint but fewer successful three point attempts

Geben Jump Shot

  1. Maye flattens out on the pick-n-roll again, but watch how long he follows Farrell. He chases the PG across the whole court.
  2. The drive is deterred, but Maye eventually gets stuck in help defense on the wing.
  3. Geben hits the 16 foot jump shot. Still better than a Mooney three.

Farrell-Gebens Pick-n-Roll

  1. Another high ball screen, another pick-n-roll
  2. Again, Maye flattens and commits longer than normal.
  3. A great pass by Farrell finds Geben. Still better than a Mooney three.

In ACC play, Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell and TJ Gibbs average a combined 32.7 points and 9 assists per game.

Against UNC they finished with 19 points on 4-28 shooting. The duo did have 12 assists, due to the highly successful pick-n-rolls. Farrell, who leads the conference in made three-pointers per game with 3.1, was 1-12 from three. The rest of the Irish were 9-15. UNC clearly made Farrell and Gibbs a priority, and dared the rest of the Irish beat them. Mooney came close to succeeding, but a simple tweak mitigated disaster.

There are numerous factors that go into a game, but these two games had similar outcomes. In the first half, Notre Dame scored just 4 points in the paint, while firing 16 three point attempts (making 6). In the second half, the Irish tripled their points in the paint with 12, while “only” shooting 4-11 from three.

In both games, “encouraging” a few more points in the paint seemed to ease the pressure from the perimeter. Compare that to Duke, when it was crystal clear the Blue Devils WANTED to go inside but struggled in the second half.

At this point in the season, it appears the UNC staff has decided to trade difficult two-point attempts at the rim for three-pointers. At a minimum, they are not over-helping to the extent they were earlier in the season.

Next time someone says Roy doesn’t know X’s and O’s and can’t coach, point out this three game stretch. It was a clinic on how minor adjustments can have major affects.