A familiar look from an unfamiliar foe

COLUMBUS, OHIO — The scouting report Coach Steve Robinson prepared for the Tar Heels on Washington won’t be seen outside the walls of the UNC locker room in Nationwide Arena. But, one can probably bet it goes something like this:

  • Stop Jaylen Nowell from getting hot from three.

  • Get Noah Dickerson into foul trouble on the block.

  • And oh yeah, the Huskies’ defensive scheme? Almost exactly like that pesky zone at Syracuse.

Thanks to the efforts of UW’s head coach, Mike Hopkins, who was an assistant for over 20 years under Syracuse coach Jim Boehiem, the Huskies boast the 18th most efficient defense in the country according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. All thanks to the coach’s implementation of his mentor’s 2-3 zone, which suffocated Utah State in Washington’s 1st Round win on Friday, holding the Aggies to just 61 points.

“We run a very similar zone,” Hopkins said of Syracuse’s system. “We have different types of personnel, so we have to utilize it a little bit differently based on our personnel. But it's all -- the foundation is definitely what we did at Syracuse.”

The big difference, Cameron Johnson noted, is the Orange typically have a seven footer guarding the lane. The Huskies boast no such player in their regular rotation, and thus rely on their length a little more to be successful.

That familiarity, however, presents an advantage for UNC, who not only has seen the Syracuse style of zone several times since the Orange joined the ACC, but has thrived against it, scoring 93 points against Syracuse earlier this season in the Dean Dome.

Easier said than done, however, as the specific style of zone still presents some unique challenges, as Cameron Johnson broke down for Argyle Report.

Cameron Johnson gets harassed at the top of the key by two Syracuse defenders. The high guard pressure is key for a 2-3 defense both Syracuse and Washington run to be effective. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Cameron Johnson gets harassed at the top of the key by two Syracuse defenders. The high guard pressure is key for a 2-3 defense both Syracuse and Washington run to be effective. | Photo by Alex Kormann

“When you play a zone when you're little, you've got two guys up top, and three guys on the bottom,” Johnson said. “When you play Syracuse's zone, they've got two guys up top, but those three guys on the bottom, the two wings are really up in the passing lanes. And what they do is, Syracuse kind of wants you to get into that short corner hesitate, cause they'll trap you there. They just make you think twice about every pass. 

“That wing will get out so high, but they usually have a guy with good length there, so he can cover back if need be,” he continued. “But he just has a presence in that passing game to the wing that just kind of bothers you for a quick sec. And it might push the guard out off the three point line maybe three or four feet. So instead of catching the ball, flashing to the three point line, and making somebody play you head on, and really being a threat, you have the ball on the wing four feet out, and you're not as much of a threat, so then there they are again in the passing lanes.

“That's how they thrive.”

Roy Williams summarized the Huskies’ version of the zone in his press conference.

“They're long, athletic, quick to the ball. They're aggressive,” Williams said. “They'll probably double team in the corner maybe more than Jimmy's teams have done in the last couple of years.”

Noah Dickerson, the Huskies’ starting center, put the goals of defense in a very straight forward manner.

“We tend to try to take away the three completely,” Dickerson said. “We extend our zone out so we don't give up threes, and no layups. Our zone really takes into account how people are shooting and try to take them out of the game.”

The ways of beating a zone, however, remain the same, no matter what wrinkles or changes are added by different teams. Get the ball inside, play inside out, dump it to the post when they cover the high post touch, and knock down the open treys.

“When they play so high, you put somebody in the short corner area, you put somebody at the free throw line, and that's an easy dunk or pass for a layup,” Kenny Williams said. “That's the easiest thing, that our philosophy never changes no matter what the zone is.”

Getting inside against a zone is key. Here, Luke Maye goes up for two of his nine points against the Orange in a February win. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Getting inside against a zone is key. Here, Luke Maye goes up for two of his nine points against the Orange in a February win. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Easier said than done, though.

“They make it harder to get there,” Johnson said of a Syracuse style zone. “When you're playing against the zone in a rec, it's easy to move the ball. The zone is more of a you make a play, and the zone reacts to it. Syracuse likes to play their zone where they're making plays, and you're reacting to them.”

To win on Sunday, UNC will likely need to dominate the boards like they did against the Orange earlier this year (46-25). A good shooting night from Coby White or Johnson would help as well, but the high post touches from Maye and Nassir Little, as Kenny alluded to, will be key. If UNC can get Washington crashing to the free throw line, the rest of the offense will open up.

And with UNC’s speed and aggression, you have the like the Tar Heels chances.

@sjdoughton