UNC-NCCU: In The Zone

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- According to many prognosticators, the smart defensive game plan against North Carolina this season should be to force the tallish Tar Heels to shoot from the perimeter. Thus, play zone – lots of zone, and make them win playing long ball.

Of course, outside shooting isn't the sole method to take teams out of a zone, although it certainly helps to shoot with accuracy from beyond the arc.

But if an offense is patient, understands the importance of movement – of its feet and the ball – and recognizes angles it can get open looks that don't come from 20 feet away. At least Wednesday night against North Carolina Central, UNC displayed a grasp of this, and as a result the Heels blistered the Eagles 89-42 at the Smith Center.

If you disregard UNC's 19 turnovers – an issue in the open court as much as against a set defense – only eight of Carolina's first 67 possessions before the walk-ons were inserted ended with a missed field goal attempt. Breaking it down even more, just three of the Tar Heels' first 49 possessions ended with a missed shot, a period that consumed 29 minutes as the Heels built a 70-26 advantage.

There is no doubt Carolina's advantage in talent was a key, but the team also deserves kudos for sticking with its intent on working the ball inside for the best shot available on nearly every possession.

Patient, quick hits into the high post, swing passes for very open 3-pointers, kickouts for open jumpers, and dumping the ball into the post against a rotating defense were very much on display and a major reason Carolina converted 59.3 percent of its shots, a figure that was well above 60 percent for most of the game, before mop-up duty commenced.

"We still had a couple of silly turnovers," Marcus Ginyard said. "But I didn't think we really tried to force anything, and just worked it around and tried to get the shot that we wanted."

Carolina usually got those shots, a reason it assisted on 29 of its 35 field goals. Equally impressive, especially for a young team, is that the Heels stuck to the plan even after hitting some early 3s and long conventional jumpers.

Perimeter shooting can be infectious, and that's not just converting them. Teams often get into stretches of settling for 3s early and often, yet Carolina showed maturity by not allowing early success to take it away from Roy Williams' structure.

Ginyard agreed before adding, "There's no question that a huge focus for this team is working it inside-out, pounding the ball inside. We had the advantage inside and I think that we did a pretty good job of taking advantage of it."

Williams was pleased with the zone offense, even though the deceptive numbers reveal that Carolina scored on only 24 of 41 possessions against NCCU's zone. Eleven ended with turnovers. But for the most part, the Heels got plenty of good looks, even when the ball didn't fall through the cylinder.

"I think that's two things," Williams said when asked what pleased him about the zone offense. "One, I think we got more movement. We missed a lot of shots, if you look at the shot chart we had a lot of shots in the lane that we didn't make and then we went and got it.

"And I've said all along, our goal on offense has got to be our offensive rebounding and that was big for us tonight."

That is the other aspect of why playing zone against this Carolina club might be dangerous. UNC's height certainly helped it grab 13 of its 24 missed shots, but it was about more than that.

"I think it was the zone," said Deon Thompson. "When you're playing on the weak side and box out when shots go up, it definitely made it easier for guys like (6-foot-6) Marcus and (6-10) John (Henson) to go to the glass on the offensive end."

There is only so much one can tell when facing an inferior opponent, but the intangibles of execution should always apply. And given that Thanksgiving is two weeks away and zone offense hasn't always been this program's strong suit, this effort should be regarded as a positive.

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