Don’t be surprised that North Carolina lost to UNLV.
The Tar Heels had looked phenomenal in five blowout victories against mostly overmatched teams. But those wins masked an Achilles heel. And the Runnin’ Rebels fired a perfect shot to strike North Carolina in that vulnerable spot, sending the No. 1 team tumbling back to earth.
In short, North Carolina doesn’t do a great job of guarding the perimeter, doesn’t dominate the boards, and doesn’t have well-developed depth behind the front line.
All three of those weaknesses are related to UNC’s vaunted frontcourt, especially Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Those two make a perfect tandem, as Zeller’s offensive game is far more developed than Henson’s, while Henson is a defensive beast with his shot-blocking ability. On defense, they tend to rely on their height and length to stop driving opponents. Not surprisingly, North Carolina ranks among the Division I leaders in blocks, swatting more than 6 percent of opponents’ shots, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics.
But that affinity for blocks makes the team susceptible to penetrating guards who only intend to kick the ball out to good perimeter shooters. It makes perfect sense. A guard at the top of the key could sprint off a high screen into the lane, with his man in tow. Henson or Zeller would slide off his defender to get in position to reject a shot attempt into the third row. Someone else would rotate to cut off a pass to anyone else near the post. As the guard enters the lane, he should have at least one perimeter player open.
One pass to the outside might be enough to get an open look. If a Tar Heel defender could get out to the perimeter in time, the odds are that another rotating perimeter player would be wide open, and an extra pass should get a clean look. And that’s pretty much how UNLV attacked North Carolina.
In addition, the Runnin’ Rebels fought for rebounds. When the Tar Heels help out on defense, they occasionally move out of position for rebounds. Coach Roy Williams will probably preach on proper technique in practice during the next couple of days, which is necessary for a team with only middling stats for rebounds despite holding a height advantage over most opponents. Somewhat interestingly, North Carolina actually did better against UNLV at the defensive end despite allowing 13 offensive rebounds. The Tar Heels collected 68 percent of all missed shots at that end, which is slightly better than the 65 percent that they usually get. On offense, though, the Tar Heels grabbed only 24 percent of their missed shots, down from their season average of 32 percent.
Part of the reason that the rebounding was down is that Zeller and Henson’s minutes were down because of foul trouble. Zeller was on the court for 24 minutes in the loss. Henson also had to deal with foul trouble. Although freshman James Michael McAdoo is off to a strong start, there’s not much quality depth behind the starters right now.
UNLV outlined a strategy for taking down North Carolina that is clear and repeatable – for the teams that are actually equipped to execute that game plan. Five Runnin’ Rebels attempted at least 3-pointers, with Chase Stanback and Oscar Bellfield hitting four apiece. It will be tough to beat the Tar Heels without that kind of firepower.
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