How UNC Stopped Duke

Hat tip to william for linking this excellent piece by Mike DeCourcy at the Sporting News on the defensive strategy that held Duke to 68 points on Saturday night.

This is what happened:

Assigned to assemble the scouting report for the Duke game, assistant coach Steve Robinson suggested to coach Roy Williams the Heels might want to consider switching on all of the Blue Devils’ screens. So when 6-8 forward Kyle Singler set a pick for Paulus, defenders assigned to those players changed assignments — even though that frequently meant Hansbrough having to deal with Paulus on the perimeter and Heels point guard Ty Lawson coping with a bigger player.

“We did not want to play them the same way we played them the first time,” Williams said. “They got so many open threes. They’d turn the corner, and we’d try to help, and they’d attack the big guy and got to the line. It was so many different things.”

In Duke’s 11-point victory in Chapel Hill on Feb. 6, it was precisely the Tar Heels’ struggle to defend screens that drained energy from their effort. The Blue Devils found themselves in the clear often enough to shoot 13-of-29 from 3-point range, including clutch jumpers from Paulus and Singler as Carolina attempted to conjure a late comeback.

What the Heels recognized from that game — and, Lawson admitted, from watching Wake Forest take a similar approach in its mid-February victory over Duke — was that the Blue Devils’ players are interchangeable. That’s mostly a tribute to their skill — they all drive, they all pass, they all shoot — but Carolina figured a way to turn that against them.

It made little sense to worry about who was matched against whom if Singler was as likely to jump up and hit a 3-pointer as Paulus, or if wing Gerald Henderson was as likely to drive the ball to the lane as guard Jon Scheyer.

Switching all crosses was unconventional enough Williams said he’d never done it in his coaching career. You don’t need to count up the neatly combed gray hairs on Williams’ head to realize “never” represents a long time. This was his 686th game as a head coach, his 553rd victory.

Duke did not react to the challenge with the maturity its coaches hoped to see. When the switches occurred, ballhandlers too often froze. Instead of taking advantage of small-on-big mismatches created inside, the Devils tried to stick with their strength on the outside but shot 5-of-14 from 3-point range in falling behind 42-31 at halftime.

On the few occasions Lawson was switched onto 7-1 Brian Zoubek, who played nine minutes, “They didn’t even look for him,” Lawson said. “And Singler — they didn’t look for the big man. They didn’t use that real well.”

An accomplished offensive team averaging 85.1 points and 47 percent shooting, the Devils failed to score after taking a 68-66 lead with 5:42 left. They got some decent shots and failed to convert, notably a baby hook from point-blank range with 2:46 remaining that Henderson normally would hit in the dark.

Nice having a HOF coach ain’t it? Of course kudos to Steve Robinson for suggesting it. Duke basically looks to get space and shoot threes because they get open looks one of two ways. The first is dribble penetration which collapses the defense and opens up shooters. This has not been discussed much but UNC did a great job of stopping penetration. Part of that was the switching on screens and part of that was UNC defenders guarded the ball including guys like Tyler Hansbrough and Alex Stepheson who slid their feet and kept Demarcus Nelson out of the lane. The other side of the equation was the switches themselves which seemed to confuse Duke since they are accustomed to finding open looks for the ball handler off the screen and even if someone comes over to cover they are good at making the extra pass to the open player. And even though the switches created mismatches, the players with the advantageous position such as Zoubek guarded by Lawson is not a normal part of the Duke offensive flow and therefore it was missed by the other Blue Devils on the floor.

UNC also did an excellent job of staying home even when Duke did get some penetration and making the Devils finish at the hoop. There were a few breakdowns such as Paulus getting all the way and getting fouled on the hoop. However some of the 15 UNC blocks is owed to the fact UNC brought help on the weak side after the Duke player was committed to the hoop and not before when he still had options available to pass. It was generally a well timed and well executed defensive set which worked because the Tar Heel players brought the intensity and effort to the court. The interesting thing will be if these two play in the ACC Championship and how much of this defensive set UNC uses plus what Duke does to adjust to it.

That being said, both teams have too much to worry about before then.

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20 Responses to How UNC Stopped Duke

  1. I thought the game plan worked very well (although we let them have a few too many offensive rebounds early in the second half). I do wonder how it would have fared if the refs had been calling anything inside…

  2. MinnyTarHeelFan says:

    Agree on the fouls. Hard to believe Tyler didn’t get to the line more, but also that some of those 15 blocks weren’t fouls.

    I couldn’t believe Dickie V didn’t even mention this point during the game. I saw it right away. I was surprised Duke didn’t have the screener slip or dive to the hoop. That would be the conventional attack against switches, especially when the big sets the screen for a small. Dive Singler, Zoubek, etc. to the block and get them the ball. Duke did this very effectively against UVa earlier in the week. The other way is to have the dribbler go opposite the screener after a fake to the normal path. Instead, they tried to isolate the mis-match with the ball handler, and our bigs did a great job of keeping the Duke guards in front of them and contesting the shots. The other point, as THF points out, is that our help defense didn’t rotate until the penetrator was committed to the drive. Last time, help came from the strong side and early, which is what you usually teach, but with so many good shooters, you can’t help off strong side because it’s an easy pitch-and-catch three from the wing/corner.

    If Duke-UNC meets again, you would think Duke will be well versed in how to handle Carolina switching those on-ball screens. I wouldn’t mind seeing our bigs “throttle up” on those screens and the guard slide behind the screener, ready for penetration. But, we haven’t done this very well all season.

  3. william says:

    That is why I get defensive when people criticize Roy. These guys have spent a lifetime studying the art and science of basketball and are constanting thinking about how to make our team and program better.

  4. Tar Heel alum and fan says:

    Last week many of us worried about Roy’s reluctance to use zones. Instead he found an even better way to defang the Duke attack. I suppose that’s the difference between a HOF coach and everyone else. The UNC defense in the Duke game, especially during stretches of the first half and the last 5 minutes, was smothering. Extend that to a half or even an entire game and UNC truly becomes formidable. As the DeCourcy piece points out UNC beat Duke with defense, and that’s how the Tar Heels can win a title. This team seems very willing to grind it out with teams, go on offensive streaks when available, but also be flexible enough to battle it out in the half-court, which I see as a bit of a difference from last year’s team, which seemed out of sorts when it couldn’t run.

  5. e22 says:

    Some observations on the Duke game:
    Q’s 3 pointer was a tremendous shot during the course of the game, if not the the most important. It was his fourth 3 pointer of his career.
    An old State coach said,” David Thompson is dead tired at the end of a game, and Burleson is still 7’4.” Jump shooters loose their legs. Remember JJ Reddick missing wide open shots at the end of the Marvin Williams comeback game.
    Deon Thompson’s activity with 9 rebounds and 5 blocks was a positive sign going forward.
    Carolina blocked nearly a third of the shots Duke attempted (15 blocks on 47 attempts)
    Duke needs to seriously consider scheduling State for senior night.

  6. william says:

    Who was that commentator who said, “You’re picking Carolina to beat Duke? At Cameron?

    Carolina almost has an even record against Duke in Durham.

    I was summing the contributions of Thompson and Stepheson to try to equate it to B. Wright last year and it came to around 12 points and 10 boards, which might be a wash but neither of them has the imposing presence that he had and we still had them to come in off the bench.

    Then, I have to admit that I underestimated the importance of Reyshawn Terry as both an offensive and defensive presence and we also had Wes Miller. This year we add Graves, who is a bit like a Wes Miller in terms of outside shooting, and we lose Frasor but Q steps up so maybe that is a wash. I don’t see Ginyard and Ellington and Lawson as having made huge strides forward, but Danny Green has become a gamechanger and maybe that is the difference: as Danny goes, so go the Heels?

    Anyway, it is hard to understand how this team goes 14-2, while last year’s team goes 11-5, unless this team was more lucky or the ACC was worse last year. I guess Kansas is in a similar position. It is interesting that Pomeroy had a far higher opinion of last year’s team, while the national polls have a far higher opinion of this year’s team. 6 losses got us a top seed last year, while four probably wouldn’t do it this year.

  7. Tar Heel Fan says:

    Steve Lavin was the moron who thought Cameron was going to beat UNC.

    There seems to be more parity at the top in college basketball this season but you are correct. The Heels lost at MD and GT and the beat Duke to close out the regular season but a fairly dominating run through the ACCT convinced enough committee members that a #1 seed was deserved. This season people are saying UNC needs to win the ACCT to get it despite only having two losses and being #2 in the RPI.

    I disagree on Ellington, I think he is a much more reliable scorer than he was last season and he is shooting the way we all expected him too. Likewise, I think Ginyard is better offensively but right now I think his injuries are bothering him more than is being told since he has had some foul trouble.

    You are right in that Danny Green has been that guy all season to turn a game on a dime with plays he makes. He ignited the comeback versus Clemson and Sat night the blocks and the shots he hit set a tone. It should be noted that UNC is undefeated away from the Dean Dome when Danny presumably does not dance. Obviously no connection but interesting to note.

  8. Tar Heel alum and fan says:

    A big difference from last year is that Hansbrough, Green, Ellington and Lawson, in particular, have all gained another year of experience. All three have improved their games – Ellington with his drives in addition to outside shooting, Hansbrough with his short outside jumper, Green in all areas and Lawson with pull-up jumpers. Q stepping up has also been very important because he can present a somewhat different look, particularly in the half-court. I think his 3-pointer in the Duke game energized the team. If multiple players in addition to Hansbrough are on offensively then this is a very tough team to defense. Add improved defense, which ignites the fast break, and UNC presents a lot of challenges.

  9. william says:

    I am not saying that Ellington, Lawson and Ginyard are not better. They are, but I am talking about a step-up maybe of a higher degree. If you saw the difference between Michael Jordan’s freshmand and sophmore seasons, you would know maybe what I mean. Phil Ford, on the other hand, was great the day he arrived and great the day he left–you never saw that sort of step-up that Jordan had. Vince Carter might be another who had this phenomenon, while Jamison was great from day one.

  10. Tar Heel alum and fan says:

    Perhaps that step-up is team wide. It just seems to me like this year’s team is better able to deal with adversity (maybe because they’ve had a fair share) and to deal with different styles of play. For instance, last year when UNC would get behind in the second half I started getting anxious (or more anxious than normal when they get behind) but this year they seem more poised and confident of their collective ability to pull together and win. The proof will be in the NCAAs.

  11. william says:

    Well, Except for Deon and Alex, you really don’t have to worry about free throws this year. Last year, Ty and Q and Wayne and Danny were not nearly as good at the line.

  12. Tar Heel alum and fan says:

    Those are the four I’m happy seeing shoot free throws, along with Hansbrough. Not sure about Ginyard – he doesn’t shoot many.

  13. Chris says:

    I think you will find that once we get to the final 8 that anything goes. We’ve got a good team which played exceptionally well at Cameron but another Georgetown type loss is not out of the question. Green can be great and Green can be bad. Tyler is always great. Are we a 1 seed? yeah. If we lose to duke in the ACC we still are a 1 seed, but it’s anybody’s guess after that. I think Deon’s and Alex’s production will make the ultimate difference. If they don’t step up and play well, I think we go down in the final 8/4.

  14. This team is just a lot tougher mentally than last year. We are much more comfortable in the half court than last year (even if we aren’t exactly smooth). I’d love somebody to find the actual statistics, but it seems like our record last year in close games was only around .500, but this year we have found ways to close those games out rather than folding.

  15. william says:

    This team, like last year’s team, should get to the Final 8 and I say that in terms of obligation given their talent. Anything less would be disappointing and honestly, most Tar Heel fans are expecting at least the Final Four.

    Beyond that, it is hard to know. We have no way really of judging how good UCLA or Kansas or Georgetown are. It is a shame that we didn’t get to play Louisville, although I can’t remember whether Padgett would have been available for that game. Overall, the top 8 or so teams seem stronger than most years.

    If Carolina and Georgetown meet in the Eastern Regional Finals, it would seem to be a pick ’em game. Both teams lost a key player but have had essentially comparable or slightly better seasons this year. Is there a reason why we would expect UNC to have an easier time with Georgetown this year? If any of you guys know why, please tell me but I will be hoping for GU to get upset.

  16. 52BigGameJames says:

    because Tyler has stated that is a burr under his saddle.

  17. Josh Bowling says:

    Remember that Georgetown didn’t beat UNC last year. UNC got beat by the Tarheels. Yes, that is correct. We beat ourselves. Taking quick jump shots with 4 minutes to go up by 10. That is not the recipe for beating a team in the tourney. You eat clock, take a shot with the clock around 10 seconds to go. And you get the ball inside. All of which we failed to do down the stretch. I think we have learned that lesson this year. Also Jeff Green is a big miss down low for Georgetown. We should beat them up in the paint. We saw in last year’s game that Hibbert couldn’t defend Hansbrough well, and really didn’t do that great a job against Thompson either. UNC by 8.

  18. william says:

    I mentioned Green but we are missing our longest player.

    I am not sure that I buy the notion that UNC beat itself. Just because the shots didn’t fall, doesn’t mean we beat ourselves. I just re-watched Carolina and Illinois and guess what Carolina did in the almost exact situation, after losing a ten point lead in the last several minutes? Carolina fired up a 25-foot jump shot, instead of going to Sean May down low and guess what? Felton’s shot swished while Ellington’s didn’t.

    Watch this year’s Clemson game. Instead of going to Tyler down low, Carolina settles for a three point shot by Ellington and guess what? It swished.

    Georgetown was an excellent team last year and their size gave us trouble and I expect their size to give us trouble again, but sometimes shots fall and sometimes they do not. Illinois missed its last 6 three pointers against UNC and Duke missed several at the end of the game the other night that were makeable but we say, “well, we made them tired with our defense, their legs were gone,” when it is every bit as likely that those shots simply missed. The luck factor is huge in a one game series. We all have to remember that.

  19. 52BigGameJames says:

    I’m not quite as confident as Josh, but I’ll take some of that action–I’ll give you G’town and six. To the winner goes a six of your favorite beverage (within reason).

  20. william says:

    I am not looking to bet against Carolina. I am just trying to keep everyone on an even keel. There seem to be an usually large number of competitive team this year and college basketball is one and done, not best of 7 and the luck factor is very important.

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