CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The proper execution of help defense against Duke’s penetrate-and-pitch offense requires timing, spacing and knowledge of the individual opponent.
In the first meeting between UNC and Duke this season – a 74-73 Blue Devils victory – the boys in the lighter shade of blue erred on the side of caution, preferring to linger on the perimeter instead of dropping into the paint to help defensively. It was for good reason: Duke ranks 20th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (38.9) and 30th in 3-point field goals made per game (9.0).
UNC held Duke to 36.8 percent from beyond the arc on 7-of-19 shooting, albeit at the expense of Grayson Allen and Brandon Allen thriving in isolation down the stretch to rally their team from an eight-point deficit with under seven minutes to play. As a result, instead of harping on poor perimeter defense after the loss, Roy Williams highlighted his team’s slow reaction time in helping off the ball.
“It’s a fine line,” Williams said on Friday. “It really is, and that’s the reason I think Duke is so effective offensively because you’ve got to stop penetration, and at the same time, if you get all of the way back in there to stop penetration, that guy that you’re leaving is a 3-point shooter.”
Given his preference for man-to-man defense, Duke’s offensive counter is a difficult challenge, although UNC has fared well at times during the Williams era. The Blue Devils have shot below 50 percent in 22 of the 26 games since Williams returned to Chapel Hill, and they managed just 41.5 percent at the Smith Center last month.
The penetrate-and-pitch approach forces the defense to account differently for each offensive option.
“It varies not only from one team to the next team – guys probably don’t worry about getting in to stop when we’re dribbling because they think we’re not going to make the shot, anyway – but it varies from different player to different player,” Williams said.
Against Syracuse on Monday, the Tar Heels were tasked with faking early to help but staying put on 3-point shooters Trevor Cooney and Tyler Lydon, while collapsing to the post against others.
“It is a very thin line you’re operating on,” Williams said. “You want to be able to stop the penetration, stop the dribble, and still be able to get to the guy and get a hand up on the shot. Sometimes this year, a lot, more than I can imagine, we said, ‘boy, he did a nice job and he got a hand up and the shot still went in.’”
The Tar Heels rank 271st nationally (12th ACC) in 3-point field goal percentage defense (36.2), which underscores their help defense approach in the first matchup with the Blue Devils.
“You don’t want a guy to drive all of the way to the basket, but with a team like Duke, you kind of want them to,” senior forward Brice Johnson said. “You don’t want them to beat you from outside. That’s the one thing they want to do the entire game, is be able to shoot threes. Once they get hot, they can really knock down some big-time shots. We’d rather them make layups than shoot a bunch of threes and beat us that way.”
The solution for limiting exposure in help defense is by guarding the ball more effectively. Williams laid out a laundry list of coaching tips for defending penetration, ranging from providing more cushion, if needed, to keeping the shoulders square to avoiding turning sideways on the drive. For his big men, if they are to help, help at the rim, not up the lane, and for his other perimeter defenders, know the opposing wings’ tendencies.
“If you can guard the basketball without having to have any help, then it’s very difficult for the other team to get open threes,” Williams said.