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UNC Basketball vs Pittsburgh: Three Things Learned

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Another Saturday. Another deflating loss.

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

Another weekend conference game. Another loss. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. The Heels repeated a regular occurrence from this season, and dropped a 66-52 contest to Pitt. North Carolina took the court at noon, and appeared every bit as lifeless and dreary as they have at other points in recent weeks. The opening stanza didn’t quite reach the levels of ineptitude displayed against Georgia Tech a few weeks ago, but the result was still the same.

Let’s just dive into three things we learned.

Defensive Tweaks

For the first time this season, Roy Williams put the Heels into a zone defense for long stretches. With North Carolina constantly getting beat off ball screens and dribble-drive-kick action, a switch was made in both the first and second half. It was met with mixed results, but ultimately slowed down Pitt’s scoring efforts. The Panthers only made two field goals in the final 15:11.

As the game evolves and offensive styles put a bigger emphasis on three-point attempts, North Carolina’s defensive philosophy has become an increasing point of debate among UNC fans in recent years. North Carolina has traditionally had elements of hard hedging on ball screens, helping (or overhelping) on dribble penetration, and being more willing to trade three-point attempts for close range attempts in the paint.

When UNC has top tier athleticism on the perimeter and depth in the post to provide consistent rim protection, that style has proven to be very successful. The past few seasons, though, it made UNC prone to offensive onslaughts from deep. That philosophy has been abused on a regular basis this season, to the point that it is obvious that the current talent cannot execute on the defensive end for 40 minutes. It’ll be interesting to see if Roy takes a page out of Dean Smith’s playbook (or, uh, even Josh Pastner’s current methods), and moves to a more fluid defensive scheme that involves multiple defensive looks throughout the game to control the tempo as much as possible.

Post Entry Problems

North Carolina tried to emphasize post entries early and often. However, without any real outside shooting threat, or a real threat at point guard, Pitt just sagged into the lane and double-teamed Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot. Those difficulties limited the Heels during their early first-half struggles as Pitt eventually reached a 23-point lead.

Part of the problem was the location of the entry passes. Brooks and Bacot often received the ball 8-12 feet away from the rim, or one of UNC’s guards dumped it off at an awkward angle after over-driving or misreading the defense. With Brooks’ limited post repertoire, and Bacot’s propensity to fade away from the rim, that’s a recipe for low-efficiency attempts. I’ll dive into this later this week with a film review, but here are a few examples.

Example 1

Brooks received the ball well outside the paint, with a double team coming from the wing and no room for Bacot to dive. An offensive putback saved this possession.

Example 2

Bacot takes a short entry pass, and actually bobbled the ball. Pushed out the free throw line extended, this was salvaged by a Brandon Robinson three-pointer with the shot clock under 10 seconds.

Example 3

Bacot called for the ball up the lane, as UNC tried to set up the backscreen lob. Four Pitt defenders were within five feet of each other. A poor pass from Robinson sent Bacot towards the baseline before he could grab the ball. This was also saved by an offensive put back after a missed attempt from Bacot.

A few common themes were UNC post players not getting deep into the lane, and plays being saved by offensive rebounds. Even when a solid pass was made, Bacot, Brooks, and Justin Pierce failed to convert at the rim and the free throw line. Brooks still finished with 16 and 13. Bacot complemented him with 12 and 11. They finished with a combined 28 points and 24 rebounds. Most of that was thanks UNC’s 21 offensive rebounds (6 from Brooks, 4 from Bacot).

Free Throws

This is low-hanging fruit, but UNC was 10-21 from the line. Pittsburgh was 19-27. The old adage says that if your opponent makes more free throws than you attempt, then your opponent will win. It’s not 100% applicable in this instance, but it’s close. An inability to draw contact, or convert when at the line, doomed the Heels.

Some of this is attributed to a lack of athleticism and playmakers on the perimeter. UNC’s guards just cannot get to the rim. It can also be traced to the above section, where the post players are not consistently getting the ball in high-percentage areas where shooting fouls are easily drawn. Credit Pitt for hitting their foul shots, but it’s hard to ignore that if UNC hits a few more freebies, a late 10-point deficit could have been two possessions.

Instead, it was another deflating defeat for a team that once again failed to show up for a full 40 minutes.