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Pointing to the Passer: How UNC carved up the Syracuse zone

25 field goals. 19 assists. Pretty simple.

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

This may be hard to believe, but UNC’s performance on Thursday night was an offensive clinic against Syracuse. It wasn’t the traditional hi-lo that the Heels have used in the past, nor was it as pretty as when Theo wreaked havoc last season. Tuesday night was a mix of blunt force trauma mixed with tactical patience and surgical precision.

Yes, Coby White hit shots, most notably going 6-11 from three. That always helps. And yes, UNC was an incredible 34-37 from the foul line. The entire team was a battering ram, consistently finding space to attack the rim.

Lost in the hoopla, though, was that North Carolina had 19 assists on 25 made field goals. The 76% assist rate was their second highest in ACC play and third highest of the season. Luke Maye and Kenny Williams combined for 11 of them. Those six three-pointers from White? All assisted by Luke or Kenny.

So, let’s take a minute and look at how movement, with and without the ball, allowed North Carolina to put up 93 points against a top-25 defense.

Pushing the Pace

We know UNC wants to push the pace, but against the zone that can look a little different. UNC’s secondary break isn’t quite as effective, so unless North Carolina can find one of their early options before the defense is set, chances can be limited.

Spoiler alert: They found early options.

Brooks Rim Running

This is pretty simple. After a defensive rebound, Kenny has the ball at the top of the key. Syracuse’s Paschal Chukwu is slow to get back and Brooks slips to the paint. Kenny knows this is almost always the first option in transition. An easy dunk takes advantage of a weakness in the zone.

Kenny Attacks

Coby tried to push the ball to the rim, but Buddy Boeheim does enough to deter. As White pulls back, Syracuse runs a trap on the sideline. This leaves an open lane that Kenny exploits as soon as he receives the reversal. An aggressive attack causes a defensive rotation by Bourama Sidibe, and Kenny slips a pass to Maye.

Luke finds Cam

Another look at how UNC’s early offense can catch wreak havoc against the zone. Four Syracuse players are below the three-point line. Maye doesn’t care and simply attacks into the lane, drawing attention from all five defenders. He finds Cam for the easy three. Just over four minutes into the game, Jim Boeheim called his first timeout.

The Orange could’ve used that. They played the final six minutes of a winnable game without any timeouts remaining.

Woods to 3-Rob

There’s a lot to process here, but it starts with Seventh Woods. In order he:

-Wraps around his back to change direction, putting Boeheim on his hip
-Hesitates, faking Frank Howard into retreating towards Kenny
-Attacks the paint as Marek Dolezaj backtracks
-Gets to within 8 feet of the bucket, drawing Oshae Brissett away from the corner
-Finds newly nicknamed “3-Rob” for the bucket

Credit to Robinson here. He had just airballed a 12-foot jump shot on the previous possession. Irrational confidence can be a good thing.

Woods to Nas

Here’s a quick setup. Nas is at the rim. Chukwu is not. Woods sees this development.

Great recognition by Woods, made possible by better awareness from Little. What’s more interesting? This came after a Syracuse made basket. Six seconds had already elapsed by the time Syracuse made their shot and Seventh Woods released his pass. Chukwu was really slow to get back.

Note: Please enjoy Seventh Woods’ reaction for your viewing pleasure.

Finding gaps in the zone

Compared to man-to-man, it’s more difficult to create space against the zone. Instead, teams have to find space that is already available. Quick ball movement and even quicker recognition are mandatory. Making open shots helps.

In past years, North Carolina has dominated Syracuse in the paint. On Tuesday they still led 26-22 in that category, but there was balance from other areas.

Cam Elbow

Easy concept. Brooks gets the ball at 18 feet and Syracuse instantly sends a double team. Luke shifts to the short corner, drawing Elijah Hughes with him. Cam exploits the huge gap in the middle. At 6’9”, that shot is basically unstoppable.

Little Lay-up

UNC has all five players above at or above the free throw line. With Carolina being so deadly from deep, Syracuse has to adjust accordingly. Woods hits Luke in the high post. Nas instantly cuts to the open area under the basket. Cam replaces Nas, pulling Oshae Brisset just far enough away and Little gets inside position. A quick face-up by Maye and UNC has two more points.

Maye to Coby, High-Post

Keeping with the high-post theme, Luke flashes to the free-throw line. Seeing Tyus Battle with his back turned, Coby drifts to the free-throw line extended. Maye also notices this and doesn’t hesitate.

Why was he so open? Marek Dolezaj is occupied with Garrison Brooks on the block, trying to prevent another layup. Maye is so quick with the pass, the defense can’t rotate quick enough.

Inside-Outside for Coby

Throughout the season I have written about inside-outside ball movement. This is a perfect example of why it is so important. Maye enters the ball to Brooks, who draws two defenders. This causes a defensive imbalance when Frank Howard moves to defend Kenny.

There is now an opening at the top of the key. As soon as Brooks kicks it out to Kenny, Coby sees it and drifts over for the ball reversal. His mind was made up before he even started moving. White catches it in rhythm, and nails it from 23 feet.

What’s Next?

Yes, Coby White was on fire, adding to a potentially legendary freshman season. It needs to be stressed, though, that 18 of his points came off assists. North Carolina’s offensive system, when run appropriately, can be just as effective against zone defenses as it is against man-to-man defenses. It may be even more devastating.

Last night looked different from previous offensive performances against Syracuse, but looks can be deceiving. It wasn’t just Coby White bailing out poor offense or the refs awarding free throws like Oprah gives away free gifts at Christmas. UNC found gaps in the defense and aggressively exploited them. It was a total team effort.

In other words, it was a classic Tar Heel performance.