Lucas: In The Zone
UNCASVILLE, Conn.--After 25 seasons as a head coach and ten seasons as the head coach at North Carolina, Roy Williams showed Saturday afternoon he can still try something new.
The Tar Heels shuffled defenses against Richmond, playing man-to-man for the majority of the game but mixing in occasional possessions of a 3-2 zone. The varied looks helped slow down a Spider offense that had been hot early, and Carolina held on for an 82-74 victory.
In all, the Tar Heels played seven possessions of the zone, and while Richmond did make a couple of three-pointers against it--capitalizing on some weak points of the defense in the corners--they also turned it over twice against the different look.
"We were so bad defensively against Belmont that we have to try some things," Williams said. "We have been working on zone more this year than any team I've ever had...We have to get a lot better at it, but we will play it some more, there's no question."
What's interesting about the zone is the particular variety Williams chose to play. The overwhelming majority of the zone possessions Carolina has played in his tenure have been the point zone, which looks more like a traditional 2-3. But after evaluating the Tar Heel strengths, he installed a 3-2, with a mixture of J.P. Tokoto, James Michael McAdoo and Isaiah Hicks playing the middle spot across the top.
That forced the Spider guards to have to see over the long, waving arms of Tokoto, in most cases, just to initiate the offense.
"They are a very long team," said Richmond guard Cedrick Hamilton. "They have a lot of guards and forwards with very good length."
Carolina's starting backcourt of Marcus Paige and Nate Britt isn't especially tall, so Williams' adjustment moved rangier players toward the top of the defense. And what's best for the Carolina defense also happens to be what's best for the Carolina offense.
The Tar Heels turned 17 Richmond turnovers into 27 points, and held a 10-0 lead in fast break points.
"We've got a lot of length on this team," said Tokoto, who rebounded from a tough day against Belmont to score ten points and play a solid floor game. "When we have active hands at the top, it makes it tougher for Richmond to get those passes to the elbow that their offense runs through. Overall, we like the zone, because we get a lot of steals out of it, and it creates some deflections."
Those steals and deflections are huge for a Carolina offense that isn't as effective in the halfcourt at this point in the season. Richmond had as much as a seven-point lead in the first half, but the Tar Heels began to trim it with a combination of blocks-Brice Johnson had a particularly ferocious one that ended up in the hands of Roy Williams on the UNC bench-and steals (one day teams will learn that McAdoo is a gifted pickpocket near midcourt).
The signature play for Johnson--who is turning into the big man version of Danny Green with his instant contributions off the bench--came with a minute left in the first half. First, he blocked a Richmond shot on one end. Then he beat the Spiders downcourt and recorded a game-tying dunk at the other end, outrunning the opposition and most of his teammates over the full 94 feet.
"Those kinds of plays are really important for us," said Marcus Paige, who was a steadying force over the hectic final three minutes. "It's what fuels us as a team, because it helps us get easy baskets that we don't have to work for."
Included with that fuel was Hicks, who went from two minutes against Belmont to 12 minutes against Richmond. And while he made just one basket and had only one rebound, he had a pair of blocks, and his length caused some issues in the Richmond passing lanes.
The win was a classic case of Carolina capitalizing on what this particular team is capable of doing well, and being put in position to do so by an adjustment from their head coach.
"This is the kind of team that feeds off big plays," Tokoto said. "The more big plays we get, the more we're able to get it going."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.