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UNC vs Syracuse film review: How the Tar Heels punished the zone...again

No matter how they do it, watching UNC carve up the Syracuse zone never gets old.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Death. Taxes. Roy Williams’ UNC teams punishing Syracuse’s zone defense. These are three guarantees in life. Over the weekend, the Heels extended a now nine-game win streak against the Orange. It’s hard not to laugh at the fact that during UNC’s worst season in almost 20 years, the Heels still managed to sweep NC State and crucify Jim Boeheim’s signature style on Syracuse’s Senior Night.

Whether it was Garrison Brooks with another double-double, Cole Anthony drilling deep threes, or Christian Keeling setting another career high, ‘Cuse had no answers. North Carolina broke the 90-point barrier for just the second time all season. They averaged a season-high 1.33 points per possession. I’d caution anyone getting super excited over beating a team who is 55-53 in ACC play over the past six seasons, but every victory this season deserves an oversized celebration.

It’s important to note that last night’s victory was different than previous years. In 2018 and 2019, UNC’s outside shooting was more potent. Syracuse extended their zone past the three-point line and often lifted four players above the foul line. Our 2018 breakdown highlighted how UNC exploited those higher lines with Theo Pinson and Luke Maye slashing and penetrating to dominate in the paint. Last season, Coby White’s speed and Maye’s versatility helped push the pace and then dominate with an inside-outside game from the pocket.

Saturday’s success may have looked similar, but it was much more cause-effect than the past two years. Let’s get to the highlights.

Brooks to Bacot

For most of the game, Syracuse tried to keep their zone compact. Nobody is outside the three-point line and the three defenders along the backline are below the free throw line. This wasn’t just because of UNC’s offense positioning on this play. This happened throughout the first half.

In order to beat the zone, players have to move off the ball. That has been an infuriating inconsistency for UNC this year, but they’ve shown signs of improvement. This play is a perfect example. Bacot drives just enough to shift the defense, retreats after the kick out, and cuts down the lane when Brooks receives the entry pass. Bacot struggles to finish (again), but draws the foul. Next year that has to be a dunk.

It was clear that the Orange’s early game plan was to pack in their zone, force UNC to beat them from deep, and hope to contain the Brooks and Bacot in the front court.

Cole to Brooks

Of course, the easiest way to beat a defense to never let it get set. As Coby did last year, the Heels tried to push the pace early in the game. Anthony continued his recent improvement in understanding when to accelerate, when to shoot, and when to dump off to a big man. He displays all three of those decisions on this play. Credit to Brooks to running to the rim and getting into position. He cleared a driving and passing lane for Cole.

(Please note that Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson effectively stopped running at the foul-line extended. This will be important in a few minutes.)

Cole to Brooks alley-oop

With Syracuse sagging inside the arc, the “pocket” in the zone was almost non-existent. To remedy that, UNC installed an effective set. Leaky Black and Christian Keeling act as though they’re cutting across the court, but set screens instead. This opens up just enough of a seam for Anthony to attack.

Bourama Sidibe has to respond and steps up to stop Cole’s drive, and Elijah Hughes shades Bacot in the short corner. Brooks is left alone. This was one of Cole’s six assists in the first-half.

Cole from three

Later in the half, UNC runs the same set. This time, Pierce is at the four and Brooks is in the short corner. Syracuse is also more prepared and closed the gap. Didn’t matter. Cole fires it from 24-feet. When people say Roy doesn’t make adjustments to his offense, show them these two plays. This set takes advantage of Syracuse’s scheme and plays to the strengths of Cole Anthony.

Yes, it helps when players make shots.

Cole to Keeling

Holding a 14-point lead, the Heels are still trying to push the pace, Cole weaves in and out of traffic where all five ‘Cuse defenders eventually collapse in the paint. Keeling follows Cole, filling the far lane all the way to the corner.

This is textbook transition offense, and again shows tremendous growth and maturity by both players. Three weeks ago, Cole shoots the ball looking for contact and Keeling stops above the free throw line.

Robinson corner three

The first part of this play shows UNC in a 4-out, 1-in set-up. Bacot’s injured ankle forced the Heels to go small in the second half. That should have been a dream scenario for Boeheim’s crew, but it quickly turned into a nightmare.

Here, Cole enters to Brooks who dribbles into the middle of the floor. Brandon Robinson moves to the short corner, which is usually reserved for the other big man (like in the first half). Leaky replaces Robinson in the corner, and Syracuse sends two defenders. That was a mistake.

Seeing Syracuse at a disadvantage after sending two to Leaky’s corner, UNC flings the ball around the perimeter. Brooks occupies the middle while Robinson runs the baseline to the empty corner. Pretty simple action that started with BRob’s movement and Brooks’ passing in the beginning.

Cole Anthony hits two threes

Now the Heels are feeling confident. Syracuse is still keeping most of their zone inside the three-point line. The only exception is when Cole touches the ball, but not much is being done to deny him the ball or make him uncomfortable. Hughes half-heartedly runs out after the reversal pass.

Cole squares up and lets it fly.

The next time down the court, Cole does it again. Syracuse’s game plan of sagging off the perimeter is going up in flames. They’ll have to adjust.

On the very next possession, Hughes steps out to guard Anthony 30-feet away from the basket. I’m not versed well enough in the intricacies of this defense, but why Hughes stepped out and not Buddy Boeheim is beyond my comprehension. Whatever.

Keeling is left all alone in the corner and gives UNC a 64-48 lead, capping a 9-2 spurt over three possessions. Syracuse called a timeout.

Pierce to Brooks

Three possessions later (and after Keeling hit another jumper), Syracuse puts four of their defenders at the foul line or higher, hoping to deter any more three-point shooting. It was reminiscent of the past few seasons. Naturally, UNC takes advantage.

Justin Pierce finds a huge hole at the foul line. He takes the pass from Cole, turns and finds Brooks all alone. This gave UNC a 68-53 lead with 11:09 remaining. The teams largely traded buckets for the rest of the game, with Syracuse never getting closer than 11 points.

There was plenty to like. Aside from the scheming and the coaching chess match, the most noticeable takeaway was how confident UNC looked. Quick decisive passes were received by non-hesitant shooters. The ball snapped around the court and players moved without the ball. It looked like the team most expected to see when the season started.

With two more regular season games, the only hope of going dancing will require a shocking ACC Tournament run. We can all dream, but winning four or five games in a row may be too much of a challenge for this depleted team. Just enjoy the final two weeks.

(Unless anyone knows a way to play Syracuse and NC State a combined five times in next week’s tournament).