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UNC vs Pitt: Three Things Learned

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Zone defense, BRob and Leaky did things, and Luke Maye is still good

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2016, the Heels earned a victory in their first ACC road game of the season. Last year they dropped a close game to a talented Florida State squad. The year prior, a lesser-talented Georgia Tech team used the win to propel themselves to an 11th place conference finish and earn Josh Pastner the ACC Coach of the Year award. I still can’t reconcile either of those events.

Regardless, the important thing is that Jeff Capel’s Pittsburgh Panthers took the loss and the Heels got a much needed road victory in conference play. Here are three more lessons we learned.

Defensive Experimentation?

Against Harvard, the Heels switched to a zone defense for a brief stint in the second half. At the time, it seemed like an effort to experiment with a younger, longer lineup (Leaky Black, Nassir Little, and Brandon Robinson were on the court) against a low-threat opponent, as the Heels had a commanding lead. It was successful, but almost everything was successful against Harvard.

However, on Saturday, a switch to a 2-3 zone defense proved to be the difference in the game. It flustered the Panthers, who had found success with dribble penetration and pick-n-rolls to keep the game close. After stumbling to a 12-12 tie, the Heels reeled off a 27-4 run over a 10-minute stretch. The zone was a noticeable factor in Pitt’s offensive ineptitude during that stretch.

Not usually a proponent of zone defense, the Heels have used it on rare occasions for a possession or two under Roy Williams. Fans with a keen eye will remember the Heels used a 2-3 zone in late game situations against Kentucky and Oregon in the run to 2017 title. Older fans will remember that Dean Smith often used multiple defenses during a game in an attempt to confuse an opponent. Williams historically does not use that tactic like his mentor did.

With such a diverse roster of talent, length, and depth – who have consistent problems guarding ball screens and fouling – this may be a development to keep an eye on.

Bench Comes into Focus

Both Brandon Robinson and Leaky Black had impressive games off the bench. Thanks to Kenny Williams’ foul problems, Robinson saw 15 minutes of action and Black had 16. That’s well over their averages of 9.5 and 12.1 minutes per game. They made them count.

Robinson finished with a seemingly pedestrian 5 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist. Where he made his mark, though, was on defense. He finished with three steals, and deserves some partial credit for Nassir Little’s monster block in the first half. As you see below, it was Robinson’s defense that forced Jared Wilson-Frame to the baseline and allowed Little to recover for the swat.

Leaky was equally productive. He finished with 2 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 turnovers, and 1 block. As has been noted before, Black’s strengths are versatility and poise. Both were on display in his first conference road game, since we have to technically call Pittsburgh an ACC team. He has struggled against top competition this year, but he has consistently thrived as a complementary piece.

With Sterling Manley out for an unknown amount of time, and Andrew Platek failing to find a rhythm, it’s clear there are minutes to be had. While I expect Robinson to see more of the immediate opportunities due to his experience with ACC competition, both players are trending up.

Remember Luke Maye?

On December 14th, we examined Luke Maye’s perceived lack of production. Since then the Heels are 4-1 and Maye recorded double-doubles against Gonzaga, Davidson and Pittsburgh. In those five games Maye is averaging 15.6 points, and 10.8 rebounds. He’s shooting 48.1% (26-54) from the floor, 86.3% from the line (19-22), and 41.1% from three (7-17).

It’s worth noting that he’s doing it all while averaging less than 30 minutes per game.

Along the way, the Heels are averaging 83.8 points per game and only allowing 69.4.

There were numerous logical explanations for the perceived drop off in is production and efficiency. As we said at the time, Luke was just getting warmed up. Now that conference play is here, it appears that he is ready for an encore to his All-American junior season.