Photo Credit: Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune
Photo Credit: Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

By Josh Wasserman

Chris Collins had a lot to learn from Roy Williams and his 27 years of coaching as Williams’s #9 Tar Heels employed a up-tempo attack and hounded the boards on both sides of the ball en route to an 80-67 over the Wildcats Monday night in Kansas City in the CBE Showcase.

Six players scored in double figures for UNC, led by forwards Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson, who both notched double-doubles in points and rebounds. Guard Theo Pinson paced the Tar Heels’ ball movement with eight assists.

Tre Demps was back to his usual high-scoring self for Northwestern, shooting 7-16 from the field for 21 points, and Bryant McIntosh, who had a rough game from the field himself, tallied a career high nine assists to go with his own fourteen points.

UNC pulled away for a bit in the first half, carving out a ten-point lead six minutes in, but timely three point shooting and a three-point play from Olah tied the game at 27 with seven minutes left in the half. Scottie Lindsey was especially effective in the latter part of the first half, taking advantage of some Heels defensive lapses to score nine first half points as the Wildcats pulled ahead by 6.

However, UNC turned it around in a flash, erasing the six-point deficit and turning it into a seven-point lead for them by halftime in a 14-1 run. While Tre Demps tallied the first 12 points of the second half for Northwestern, that was just about all the Wildcats had going for them.  The Tar Heels dominated the second half.  Their lead ballooned to as big as 20 and North Carolina would cruise to the finish line.

Despite Northwestern matching UNC offensively throughout the first half, Williams and his observant coaching staff spotlighted the defensive and rebounding issues that plagued the Wildcats through their first three games. At the beginning of the game, Williams had forwards Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, or Kennedy Meeks slash to the free-throw line in front of Olah or van Zegeren in the middle of the 2-3 zone and catch quick passes from UNC’s guards. On the catch, the forwards would quickly shoot before Olah or van Zegeren could react, resulting in easy short-range jumpers for the Tar Heels.

Olah and van Zegeren tried combating this by jumping out quicker to the cutting forwards, but Williams then implemented the strategy his team had been using all year, a tactic that Columbia used to pierce Northwestern’s 2-3 zone Friday night: baseline, back-door cuts and quick, sharp passing.

Once Olah and van Zegeren started closing out forwards at the free throw line, Justin Jackson would make a secondary route from the wing behind whoever was left at the base of the 2-3 zone, usually Aaron Falzon, Lumpkin, or Scottie Lindsey, all of whom were undersized against the big bodies down low for UNC. If Jackson could not make the bucket himself, he found someone else making a cut to the basket, which resulted in a lot of easy dunks for Meeks and Hicks. The Heels only shot 28% from three-point range, but UNC’s 36 points in the paint made a significant difference.

In Northwestern’s 2-3 zone, Collins has the bottom corners of his zone (i.e. Lumpkin, Lindsey, Falzon) close out on shooters who get the ball on the wing. This leaves the baseline wide open. When a cutting forward like Jackson gets the ball on the baseline, since the corner of the zone is out of position guarding the wing, the central player of the 2-3 zone (Olah or van Zegeren) has to come out to face the forward on the baseline. With the Cats’ big man out of rebounding position, the area directly underneath the basket is open for cutters to get easy dunks and layups, as Meeks and Hicks did Monday night, and it also allows opposing centers to get easy rebounds over undersized forwards. UNC had numerous put-back points and outrebounded the Wildcats 39-26, demonstrating just how much Collins needs to adjust defensively.

But that’s a fact of life with the 2-3 zone. No defensive system is without holes. And while Northwestern could be better served to force a team like North Carolina to beat them from the outside rather than at the cup, a lot of credit simply goes to the Tar Heels.  They targeted the soft spots and executed flawlessly.

Despite Northwestern’s defensive and rebounding struggles, they put up an encouraging effort against the #9 team in the country, showing that they can shoot well enough to hang around with top-tier teams, at least for chunks of time.  Northwestern still has a ways to go if they want to knock off teams like UNC, but to stick with a preseason top ranked team is nothing to sneeze at for a team that is still adjusting to a Vic Law-less rotation.

The result Monday night was only a thirteen-point loss, and luckily for the Wildcats, there was plenty of silver lining and important takeaways for them to help build on their still nascent season.

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