Multiple Zone Options

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Straight 2-3. Extended 1-3-1 trap. Drop 3-2. No. 15 North Carolina’s zone arsenal has complemented Roy Williams’s base man-to-man over the past two seasons, including a heavy dose of the 2-3 in Wednesday’s win over Wake Forest.

Williams switched to the 2-3 zone after Marcus Paige, Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto had all accumulated three fouls each less than a minute into the second half of 87-71 win over the Demon Deacons. The defensive adjustment worked – the Tar Heel trio picked up just one foul over the final 19 minutes while holding their opponent to 41.9 percent shooting after halftime.

Williams is a proponent of man-to-man in part due to accountability. Each player is responsible for the player he is defending and he also knows which player he is supposed to box out for rebounding purposes.

Man also requires constant effort and movement. Stagnant zones can easily be exploited, as evidenced by UNC’s 51.5 percent shooting spree in the first half against Ohio State in December before Thad Matta’s halftime fix.

“Our coaches stress that we have to be just as active in the zone as we are in man,” Tokoto said following Wednesday’s victory. “It causes turnovers and it makes them take tough shots.”

Tokoto noted how Wake Forest took advantage of UNC’s zone a few times by swinging the ball around the perimeter. When the ball is on the wing, the top defender is supposed to stay in position to defend the 3-point shot on a ball reversal. Several times that defender collapsed back to the free throw line when the ball was passed to the top of the key, leaving the wing open on the swing pass.

By and large, however, UNC was effective in getting tips, forcing a handful of turnovers and making the Demon Deacons take tough shots over the zone.

Wednesday marked the first time that UNC had run the 2-3 zone for multiple possessions since the loss at Kentucky in December. The Tar Heels opened the game in the 2-3, but the Wildcats quickly shot them out of the zone with deep 3-pointers.

One interesting aspect of UNC’s zone play against the Demon Deacons was the defensive adjustments made depending on makes and misses. When Tar Heels scored, they ran back and set up in their zone. When they missed a shot, they automatically defaulted into man.

“If we score, then we change defenses because we call a signal,” Williams said. “If we don’t score, we’re always playing – with this team right now – we’re always playing straight halfcourt man-to-man.”

The 12th-year UNC head coach said he’s had previous teams that were able to drop back into a zone after a missed shot, but that scenario has not been practiced with his current squad.

The extended 1-3-1, which works well with Williams’s preference to trap in the halfcourt, has been used on multiple occasions in numerous games this season and last. Last year, UNC utilized a 3-2 drop zone, which dropped its point man – typically James Michael McAdoo – to the playside block when the pass went to the corner.

Despite not using the 2-3 zone a substantial amount, the Tar Heels still practice their zones several times a week. For example, Williams said he devoted a 10-minute period on Tuesday to the 2-3 and 1-3-1- looks.

“It’s something that we don’t use a lot, but you have to practice it a lot because when we’re using it, it’s usually a critical part of the game,” Paige said. “We’re trying to get one stop or make them make one mistake, or something like that. We practice it a lot more than we actually use it.”

Williams has stressed in the past that his willingness to play a zone is due to personnel, or lack thereof. With Theo Pinson and Joel Berry injured, along with the aforementioned foul trouble, on Wednesday, the 2-3 zone helped protect the remaining available Tar Heels.

The zone will also be beneficial against teams that struggle shooting from the perimeter. Duke, for example, switched to a zone look against Louisville last weekend to capitalize on the Cardinal’s woeful outside shooting.

“Down the ACC stretch, you’ve got to be able to give other teams a different look,” Paige said. “We can’t stay man-to-man all of the time. We’ve got to be able to switch it up. We’ve worked on our 1-3-1 a lot and we put that in last year, but this year instead of playing the 3-2, we’re playing a 2-3 more consistently as our third defense.”

UNC’s zone may get some more work on Saturday against Florida State. The Seminoles rank 14th in the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage (.267) and 339th nationally.

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