PITTSBURGH – No. 8 North Carolina’s improved perimeter shooting has bolstered its offensive effectiveness against zone defenses, thereby negating the difficulty against such schemes that’s been prevalent in recent years.
Last season’s national championship runners-up shot 32.7 percent from 3-point range, the worst in school history. Those shooting struggles had occurred off-and-on since the 2008-09 title team blistered the nets from deep, and those issues allowed certain opponents to pack the paint with zone looks to contest UNC’s post advantage.
The Tar Heels have encountered plenty of zone this season, but as Pitt found out again in Saturday’s 85-67 Senior Day loss, their versatility in scoring from inside and out has a way of busting zones wide open.
UNC shot shot 41.7 percent from 3-point range against the Panthers, knocking down 10-of-24 attempts. Justin Jackson’s blistering touch from deep torched Pitt for five treys on 11 attempts, while Joel Berry added four 3-pointers.
Kevin Stallings’s squad had no option but to extend its 1-2-2 zone, which opened up the middle and increased its vulnerability on the boards. The Tar Heels shot just 46.9 percent from 2-point range, but took 25 more field goal attempts due to 24 offensive rebounds, thereby creating a 28-9 edge in second-chance points.
“Obviously, we have great bigs inside, but if you can’t shoot from the outside, they’re just going to pack it in and they’re not going to be able to get anything, either,” said Jackson, who is shooting 42.9 percent from three in his last 14 games. “So whenever we can stretch the defense and knock down some shots from outside, it opens it up more for them inside. There were multiple times that they had the ball and there was no one around them except for the one guy defending them.”
UNC assisted on its first 12 field goals and finished with more assists (23) than Pitt had made field goals (19). Theo Pinson led the Tar Heels with seven assists, while Isaiah Hicks dished out a career-high six assists. The senior forward downplayed his passing ability in the postgame locker room, highlighting the ease of picking apart Pitt’s defense from the high post.
UNC’s focal point against zones has long been the ACC logo scribbled just inside the free throw line.
“Setting ball screens and getting the ball in the middle,” said Kennedy Meeks, who scored 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds. “I think when we get the ball in the middle, they have a matchup zone, so you have one guard guarding and it’s either you go to the basket or kick it out for the open shot.”
UNC is shooting 37.1 percent from three in ACC play, which is good enough to force teams to play the perimeter honestly, especially with hot hands such as Jackson and Berry on the floor.
“Today there were times when Justin and I passed the ball off and they would try to expand and deny us the ball or try to come out and stop our threes,” Berry said. “That just opened up the middle.”
The Tar Heels haven’t been perfect against zone looks, although their success has been notably improved over recent years. While UNC struggled against Miami’s zone in Coral Gables, it lit up Syracuse for 51.5 and Virginia Tech for 49.3. In two games against the Panthers’ 1-2-2-, the Tar Heels have shot a combined 47.3 percent.