Foul shooting, three-point defense doomed No. 12 North Carolina

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Just two days after struggling with Holy Cross for much of their 62-54 victory, No. 12 North Carolina faced a stiffer challenge in the form of the Belmont Bruins, who have made three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Armed with a plethora of players capable of hitting shots from beyond the arc, Rick Byrd’s Bruins more than held their own with the Tar Heels.

In the end a J.J. Mann three-pointer off of a dribble handoff with 13.1 seconds remaining proved to be the difference as Belmont knocked off North Carolina by the final score of 83-80 (the Bruins added a layup with two-tenths of a second remaining). And considering how much trouble North Carolina had defending the three-pointer, it’s fitting that Belmont won the game on a shot from beyond the arc. Belmont shot 15-for-37 from three on the afternoon, and while that certainly isn’t a great percentage (40.7%) by any means it was the way in which the Bruins found their looks that is a troublesome sign for North Carolina.

Many of those looks came by way of either “pick and pop” plays or dribble handoffs, with Mann (5-for-14) and Drew Windler (4-for-6) being the chief beneficiaries. For whatever reason the Tar Heels were unable to adjust with the exception of a 21-5 second half run that turned an 11-point deficit (55-44) into a five-point lead (65-60) with just under seven minutes remaining.

The key during that stretch: improved perimeter defense that included North Carolina switching every ball screen and dribble handoff, a move that made sense when considering how rarely the Belmont big men would roll to the basketball after setting a ball screen.

But on that last handoff, with Belmont deciding not to call a timeout after forcing a turnover, North Carolina didn’t switch and Mann made them pay. But that wasn’t the only issue for North Carolina, as they shot 22-for-48 from the foul line. Make those at an acceptable clip and there likely isn’t any talk of the Tar Heels suffering their first loss of the season. Was the poor foul shooting a one-game occurrence or something Roy Williams and his staff should be seriously concerned about? Against Oakland (65.0%) and Holy Cross (72.2%) the Heels made enough, but to be fair neither of those teams challenged them to the level that Belmont did.

There were some positives for North Carolina, however. The Tar Heels used their superior size to control the glass, finishing the game with an offensive rebounding percentage of 50%. And forward Brice Johnson gave UNC 14 points and nine rebounds off the bench, providing needed offensive production to supplement leading scorers James Michael McAdoo (27 points, 13 rebounds) and Marcus Paige (17, five assists).

But the little things are a big deal, especially when your best perimeter scorer (P.J. Hairston) is suspended and there’s no timetable for a return. And after doing enough to get past Holy Cross on Friday, North Carolina learned that lesson the hard way against Belmont.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.