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UNC Basketball: Getting in the zone

Coach K offers Carolina just what it needs to fix its flaccid offense; a zone defense.

Duke v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Shaking off the awful loss against Clemson is a must as the Tar Heels prepare for the first Duke game of the season this Saturday. Enough has been said about how this year will be the first time since 1950 that neither team is ranked, but I’ll just add that both teams are playing... suboptimal basketball at this moment in time.

One reason for optimism? Carolina’s biggest weaknesses, turnovers and poor shooting, are not necessarily exacerbated by Duke’s current style of play. The Blue Devils have been playing zone defense as of late, as the young team either 1.) cannot be taught proper defensive principles, or 2.) K is using the zone to hide poor individual defenders.

UNC has played only one team that defends primarily via zone this season, a respectable 81-75 win over Syracuse in Chapel Hill. During that game, Carolina mostly stuck to its season-long script; shoot poorly, rebound the basketball, and turn it over every now and then. Roy Williams is surely frustrated with this year’s team’s predilection for losing possession, so it was nice not having a team pressure Carolina bringing the ball up.

In the Clemson loss, many of UNC’s turnovers came from ill-advised post feeds, where the post either had a man overplaying, or a help defender swarming the arrival of the ball. The Heels did show some competency feeding the high post, where pressure wasn’t severe, before throwing turnovers into the low post.

If Duke isn’t quick to double the high post, Day’Ron Sharpe and Garrison Brooks (who have demonstrated sharp passing acumen this season) could feed Armando Bacot for his patented baseline dunks. If the zone sags to protect the low post, maybe this will be the game that Garrison decides to show off his mid-range game and become the player we thought he’d be at the beginning of the season.

Aside from the win against NC State (86-76), the 81 points scored against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone was a season high for a Tar Heel team that has been anemic on offense. Twenty-four offensive rebounds helped there. Carolina ended up taking 13 more shots than the Orange, along with 11 extra FT attempts.

The 2020-21 Tar Heels are not as fast as Roy Williams’ great teams, but this won’t hurt them against a Duke zone that would’ve slowed down the primary and secondary breaks anyhow. Carolina does need a better offensive performance than they showed on Tuesday. I remain cautiously optimistic that Roy’s expertise at carving up zones, combined with Duke’s poor quality this season, should be enough to drag this donkey across the finish line.


If you’re like me, you want to do your part putting good energy into the universe to help Carolina beat the Blue Devils, so here are some videos to watch before bed. They’re clips of the last time Duke had a team that K quit teaching man-to-man defense to in the 2017-18 season. Here’s a recap of how that ended: