It’s nice to see that after the worst half of basketball the Tar Heels had played in a while, they were able to quickly recover and erase all doubts in their NCAA Tournament opener versus the Iona Gaels. That game is done and behind you, and there really isn't a lot of time to sulk about how much closer the game ended up being than it should have been, as we've got a quick turnaround.
Tomorrow, Carolina’s NCAA Tournament continues with a second round matchup against the Washington Huskies. Washington is the Midwest's nine seed after winning the Pac-12 regular season. That should tell you something about them and the league. That said, they won a game against a favored and hot Utah State to make it. So what can we expect against Washington?
Zone, Zone, and more Zone
If you read Jake’s preview of the region’s seeds, you’ll know by now that Washington is coached by former Jim Boeheim lead assistant Mike Hopkins. You don’t get that job unless you’ve bought into the preferred defensive style of Boeheim, and Hopkins did indeed bring the zone to the Pacific Northwest.
To see how Carolina will handle Washington, it would probably be more instructive to look at the Syracuse game rather than the Iona game. Yes, Iona played a zone that seemed to catch the Tar Heels off guard in the first half on Friday, but due to their lack of size it was more of a 3-2 or instead of a 2-3 or 1-2-2, which Washington also employed against USU. The goal of Iona's zone was to deny entry inside and force Carolina to take contested outside shots. Carolina waited until the second half to realize they had plenty of room to operate inside if they could just get the ball there.
Washington plays a more traditional 2-3, hence why the Heels' Syracuse game is a better comparison. The Orange managed to get out to a 46-43 lead at the half in the February 26th game, but Carolina turned it around in the second half. The Orange started to wear out and the Tar Heels eventually won 93-85. Coby White was a monster, going for 34, and Nassir Little used the space from the zone to grab 11 for himself.
That familiarity with that style should serve Carolina well, but don’t expect a rout. UNC's last few games against Syracuse have not been easy and Washington likely will control tempo.
Garrison Brooks and Nassir Little
These two get their own category because both were huge in Carolina’s win Friday, and with the way Washington will pack it in with the zone, they have a chance to match that effort.
Washington is not tall. They have three guys in their regular eight man rotation that are over 6’8”, and their tallest player, junior Sam Tillins, is 6’ 11” but only plays about 10 minutes a game. Nassir Little seemed to be the only guy playing on offense for the Tar Heels at times, scoring 19 points in 17 minutes, and his determination to get to the basket when no one else would helped keep Carolina in the game in the first half. In the second, he had a couple of power jams that seemed to suck the life out of Iona.
Brooks, meanwhile, scored 10 points after having some trouble hitting easier shots in the first half, and grabbed eight rebounds. When Luke Maye picked up his third foul in the second, he and Little were out on the floor together for a while and the team didn’t seem to miss a beat. Add that to the fact that Washington is absolutely horrid in rebounding their misses - they're 343rd ranked KenPom Offensive Rebounding percentage - the skill that both have at getting to the ball after teammates' misses should be on full display.
The confidence that both should be able to get from their performance against Iona should help them against the Huskies, and don’t be surprised if Coach Roy Williams deploys this tandem more. Iona was set up well for both to show up, and the Huskies shouldn’t be much different.
3 Point Shooting
The other aspect when beating a zone is hitting a ball behind the arc. The reason is simple: there are only two guys at the top of the defense, which gives a team more room to operate up there than they'd have against man. With good passing you can set it up for one guy who can shoot well from deep to get open, especially if someone drives and the zone collapses around the ball.
The problem for the Tar Heels is that their three point shooting has not been great lately. Adam Lucas pointed out that in their three postseason games so far, the Tar Heels are only 18-68 from behind the arc. That is a paltry 26.5%, and an alarming number for the Tar Heels if they want to continue down this road. The primary offender of poor shooting? Coby White. He’s 3-20 - yes you read that right - from three since the regular season ended, and two of those makes came yesterday against Iona. On eight attempts.
White has managed to score double digits in all three games, but one of the reasons Carolina is a #1 seed in this tournament is White’s ability to hit the long shot. There isn’t much reason to worry about Cam Johnson, as he’s 8-18 from three so far on the postseason, but Carolina needs multiple threats in order to open up the middle and give guys like Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, and Nassir Little room to operate. Hopefully a few more will fall for White on Sunday and open the floodgates.