Zone defenses have been effective against UNC in recent years as the Tar Heels have lacked an abundance of perimeter scoring threats, thereby allowing opponents to generate congestion in the post.
On Sunday, UNC attacked the Colonials’ zone through the air, on the ground and via the high post. The Tar Heels made decisive, sharp passes over the top of the zone from the perimeter time and time again in scoring their first 13 field goals off 10 assists en route to building a 39-25 lead.
“I thought we executed much better against their zone,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “We moved it better tonight. Our big guys can pass the ball. We’ve done a nice job of that in practice. We didn’t do it Friday night, but I thought we did tonight.”
While NCCU’s zone was traditional with intent to clog the paint, Robert Morris’ zone was more spread out with two of its backside defenders nearly extended up to the free throw line at times. UNC noticed that tendency on film and placed an emphasis on feeding Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson in the post, according to junior guard Marcus Paige.
Johnson led UNC with 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting and Meeks added 21 points on 6-of-7 shooting (9-of-14 FTs). UNC’s post players scored 29 of the team’s first 39 points and the Tar Heels totaled 60 points in the paint on 30-of-46 shooting.
The Tar Heels shot 50.7 percent (36-of-71) from the floor and finished with a 29-8 assist-turnover ratio. Meeks and Johnson assisted on made field goals to each other three times and set up free throw opportunities on several more passes, highlighting the effectiveness of the high post against the zone.
“It makes the defense collapse, because once the ball gets in the middle, then guards are going to come down and the big guys are going to step up,” Johnson said. “Somebody has to get there to be able to stop it…. Once you get it in the middle, it just breaks down their entire defense.”
J.P. Tokoto turned in a career-high 10 assists, five of which were inside to UNC’s starting post bigs.
“J.P has great vision,” Paige said. “He can really pick apart a zone defense, especially because it gives him a chance to just survey the whole court. And then Kennedy and Brice are both willing and creative passers enough that when they work together on that high-low, it’s really tough to stop.”
Paige added that it helps that both bigs are finishing better this year due to Meeks gaining explosion and Johnson packing on pounds.
UNC’s zone offense is slightly more rigid than its freelance approach against man defenses, utilizing the high post as an entry point to attack the heart of the zone. UNC’s guards rotate around the perimeter to create passing angles and also loop under the basket from one wing to the opposite corner to outnumber and stress that side of the zone.
UNC also capitalized off set plays against the zone with alley oops, once from Marcus Paige to Johnson out of a timeout in the first half and a second time from Tokoto to Justin Jackson after halftime.
Executing against a mid-major’s zone is one thing. Having Sunday’s level of success against power conference teams may not come as easy, although Paige sees no reason why it cannot.
“That passing can be done against bigger, more athletic guys as well,” Paige said. “It’s an unselfishness and a willingness to throw the ball inside a lot. That’s not going to change. Maybe not quite as many overhead passes through four guys for a layup, but at the same time, the high-low that you saw today is going to be effective against all zones.”
Williams agreed, highlighting the ability of some of his previous teams against zone defenses.
“We’ve had some teams that didn’t mind playing against a zone and people who wouldn’t play zone against us because we moved the ball so well and did such a great job on the offensive backboards,” Williams said. “And so that’s what we have to do if we’re not shooting it as well as I’d like for us to.”
The combination of quality passing and abundant offensive rebounding should help mitigate UNC’s limited perimeter shooting against zone defenses as the season progresses.
Heels Effective Against RMU's Zone
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