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UNC Basketball: Could a press compensate for the team’s lack of height?

This could be the year we see some full court action.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-North Carolina vs Butler Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

There has already been quite a bit written about North Carolina’s size for next year and how they will be forced to play small ball. That is just not true. Although the 2017-18 Tar Heels are clearly not going to be the lengthy team that towered over most of their opponents last year, modern college basketball is simply not about having rosters full of seven-footers. By the time December rolls around, I suspect we will all be talking about athleticism and length instead of height.

Nevertheless, there are certainly going to be teams that are bigger (both height and weight) than the Heels. Some of those games are going to be games where a win is needed. Advance far enough, and at least one of those games is sure to come in the NCAA Tournament. What happens then? Villanova proved two years ago that a smaller team can win by playing aggressive perimeter defense and denying the entry pass. Lengthy perimeter defenders can help in this regard.

A team full of athletic mid-size players that are capable ball-handlers and can finish on the break still needs to press.

Now, I am not talking about Smart’s “havoc” or Huggy Bear’s “whatever he calls that mess that they play in the Big 12 (which only has 10 teams).” Nor am I referring to the 34 court man-to-man extended token pressure that Joel Berry II sometimes applies just to toy with opposing guards. I am envisioning a standardized full court 1-3-1 that morphs into a 1-2-1-1 when the off wing drops back to cover kick out threes on the break. This is an active hands, trapping defense that will take advantage of smaller guards who can’t see over the top of Kenny Williams and can’t advance the ball faster than Theo Pinson.

An organized press could bring several advantages to this year’s version of the Tar Heels. Most obviously, a press will relieve much of the pressure on the mostly inexperienced front line. Sure, there could be some 2-on-1’s that develop when the press is broken, but surviving the press usually just means starting the offense with only 15 seconds on the shot clock. Less time to work the ball generally equals less time to work it inside.

Carolina has the depth at guard and wing to survive some periodic foul trouble and to avoid fatigue. The back-up point guard remains a question mark (that will be filled by Pinson by the time February rolls around), but otherwise there will be a bench full of talented players ready to hit the floor. Most opponents won’t have that kind of depth and I will take the Heels second team against anyone else.

Rebounding could be an issue in the half court but open court rebounding generally favors aggressive wings. While there could be boards from long misses, expecting the same offensive rebound percentage this year as last year is foolish. These drop offs would be significantly mitigated with more open court rebounds and fewer out of the half-court set.

Finally, as My Grumpy Dad has already reported, tempo will be at a premium. Carolina teams under Roy Williams always like to run, but last year’s length and interior size made defense in the half court less of a stressful situation. Opponents in 2017 will go to great lengths to slow the game and prohibit open court opportunities. The 2016-2017 key stat was games where the Heels were outrebounded (1-3 in those games but the 1 sure was a biggie since it was the last game of the year!). The 2017-2018 key stat will be fast break points. Winning the fast break by 10+ points will equal victories and that will require turnovers and tempo.

While on summer break, I will be dreaming of the fast break. And victories.