The Tar Heels, led by Joel James in his return from injury, hinted early at solving Miami’s defensive scheme, connecting on 3-of-5 field goals to start and building an 8-0 lead barely two minutes into their ACC home opener.
Shortly thereafter, however, the rims locked shut and there was little, if any, ability by the Tar Heels to create a sense of rhythm on offense. UNC scored just 15 points over the final 17:51 of the first half, missing 17 of its final 22 field goal attempts.
UNC shot 30.8 percent (20-of-65) for the game, including 23.8 percent from 3-point range (5-of-21). The 30.8 field goal percentage is the program’s lowest in 82 ACC home games under Roy Williams, according to ESPN.com.
Miami prevented the Tar Heels from getting out into transition for much of the night and its 1-2-2 zone did the rest. Williams reeled off a list of problem areas when asked about his team’s struggles against the zone.
“I think our motion, our movement wasn't very consistent,” the 11th-year UNC head coach said. “It wasn't very intelligent movement. Then we'd sort of pass and stand still for a second instead of moving immediately. We had some good looks and didn't make them. They had seven blocked shots. We had some things around the rim and they made it tough for us. So I think it was really a little of everything.
"We're limited in the number of people who can make three-point shots, so I still want to get the ball inside and then if it comes back out that's fine. But it wasn't a very good game for us offensively."
Freshman point guard Nate Britt told reporters the biggest challenge Miami’s zone presented was in finding lanes to penetrate.
“We weren’t as aggressive as we should have been, especially in the first half, in attacking the zone,” Britt said. “We took a lot of outside jump shots and I feel like we could have gotten into the paint a little bit more, gotten the ball to our bigs and broken down the zone a little bit better.”
Others echoed their head coach’s comments about being stagnant offensively.
“We didn’t move effectively,” sophomore forward Brice Johnson said. “We didn’t move enough inside as bigs and the perimeter guys didn’t move around enough on the outside, either. When you don’t move and stand in one place, you just strengthen their defense.”
UNC’s freelance passing game is the basis for its halfcourt offense, although it’s more involved against a zone defense. As Williams and his players alluded to, ball and player movement is critical to disrupt the zone’s spacing and intent on clogging the interior.
Against zone defenses, Williams encourages his guards to attack more off the dribble and moves his 3-4-5 men in specific fashion to create penetration lanes, angles for post entries and open looks on the perimeter, according to former UNC basketball manager and current InsideCarolina.com analyst Tyler Brooks.
Miami’s 1-2-2 zone is different in certain aspects from the 2-3 matchup zone UNC will encounter on Saturday, but the primary defensive goals are similar.
Syracuse currently ranks 18th nationally in defensive adjusted efficiency (93.9), according to kenpom.com, marking the fifth consecutive year the Orange have resided in the top-20 of that statistical category.
And while head coach Jim Boeheim stresses talent level in explaining why his 2-3 matchup zone is so effective, his scheme differs slightly from typical zones. Syracuse’s forwards flash to the wing on the first pass to cover the offensive player until a guard can slide over, and the center covers the high post to allow the guards to extend their defensive pressure.
Syracuse’s ability to get into the passing lanes has resulted in 9.7 steals per game, good for ninth nationally. The Orange are holding opponents to 41.5 percent shooting on the season.
When asked what UNC can do differently on Saturday against Syracuse’s zone, James Michael McAdoo didn’t have an answer following Wednesday’s loss.
“I really don’t know, to be honest with you,” the junior forward said.