On paper, it appeared that unbeaten No. 2 Syracuse would have a huge advantage over North Carolina during Saturday’s ACC contest because of the Orange’s signature 2-3 zone going against a perimeter-scoring-starved Tar Heel team. But could you really count out North Carolina after wins over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky earlier this season?
But the Tar Heels (10-6, 0-3) finally appeared sub par against a top-flight, ranked opponent as Syracuse (16-0, 3-0) cruised to a 57-45 win over North Carolina on Saturday at the Carrier Dome.
Despite shooting only 35 percent from the field, Syracuse maintained a double-digit lead for the entire second half because their 2-3 zone gave North Carolina fits. The Tar Heels struggled with the length and athleticism of the Syracuse zone and appeared discombobulated on many offensive possessions as North Carolina struggled with moving the ball from side-to-side and spacing the floor.
On the offensive end, Syracuse struggled to consistently knock down jumpers, but thanks to 15 offensive rebounds — and a stifling defense — Syracuse was never really challenged enough to have to score points. C.J. Fair (20 points), Trevor Cooney (10 points) and Tyler Ennis (10 points) combined to shoot 15-for-44 from the field, but a double-double from Jerami Grant (12 points, 12 rebounds) helped offset the poor shooting from Syracuse’s main scoring threats.
North Carolina falls to 0-3 in the ACC for the first time since 1996-97 and it matches their worst conference start in school history. Marcus Paige (17 points) and James Michael McAdoo (15 points) were the only Tar Heels to score more than four points and Paige struggled to a 4-for-13 start before making his final three field goal attempts as the game neared garbage time.
Syracuse’s offensive struggles are a tad concerning — especially Trevor Cooney’s 7-for-32 start from beyond the arc in ACC play — but it is very impressive that they cruised to a win in ACC play thanks to their defense.
Can North Carolina rebound after its rough ACC start? The Tar Heels did look okay on offense coming out of timeouts against the 2-3 zone, but when the Tar Heels had to fend for themselves in initiating the offense, they usually looked hopeless. They’ll need someone else to step up on the offensive end besides Paige and McAdoo if they hope to continuing beating top teams.
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.
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.