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No. 5 Duke’s inability to adjust to a zone a concern moving forward

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In the grand scheme of things, No. 5 Duke’s 74-66 loss at North Carolina on Thursday night isn’t going to mean all that much.

The Tar Heels are one of the hottest teams in the country, they’ve proven they can beat anyone this season — just ask Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville — and they were playing on their home floor two days after Duke played at Georgia Tech and two days before the Blue Devils host No. 1 Syracuse.

Duke’s chances of winning the ACC regular season title have been slim since they lost to Clemson and Notre Dame, and losing at UNC isn’t going to drastically alter their perception when it comes to seeding by the selection committee.

By Sunday morning, this loss will be nothing more than another chapter in one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.

But that doesn’t mean this loss wasn’t concerning for the Blue Devils.

Marcus Paige was terrific down the stretch for the Heels, closing out this game in a manner that would make Tyler Ennis blush. Leslie McDonald played his best game of the season, scoring 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting and hitting a number of clutch buckets down the stretch. The Heels pounded the offensive glass and got some key second chance points from their front court.

What changed this game, however, was Roy Williams throwing a couple of different zone looks at the Blue Devils.

I’ll have to go back and watch it to figure out what, exactly, they were playing, but midway through the second half, Williams switched to a zone. At times, when the Heels extended, it looked like a 1-3-1 and at times it looked like a point zone, which is essentially a 1-2-2 matchup zone that was invented by Dean Smith. Regardless of what it’s called, the effect it had on the Blue Devils is the reason North Carolina won.

Duke’s high-powered offense was suddenly stuck in the mud. When they weren’t taking quick shots they were forcing contested jumpers at the end of a possession. When they got open looks, they missed them.

How does that happen?

According to Synergy, North Carolina plays zone on roughly 8% of their defensive possessions. I know they have length and I understand that they are athletic, but when you play that little zone, you aren’t going to move that well in it. A couple passes, some dribble penetration, a touch in the high-post. That’s all it should take to be able to get a good shot, but Duke went almost nine minutes in the second half without making a field goal. In that time, the Heels cut 51-40 lead to just 53-51.

Duke did not prepare for that zone, and while they will be playing Syracuse on Saturday, what the Orange do in their zone is very different from what UNC was doing on Thursday. When you’re not expecting a defense, it can be tough for a team to react to a change that is that drastic.

So it’s understandable that the Blue Devils had some trouble.

But that doesn’t make it any less concerning.

Duke is not a good defensive team. Their best player is an atrocious defensive player. They have to put up a lot of points if they are going to be good teams.

They cannot afford to struggle making adjustments when junk defenses get thrown at them.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.