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Was Duke’s zone exposed, or did the Blue Devils run into a North Carolina team we’ve overlooked this season?


NEW YORK — The change was gradual.

Duke has forever been known as a man-to-man team. It was the ethos of Mike Krzyzewski’s defense. Pressure guards, deny passing lanes, dare ball-handlers to try and beat their defenders one-on-one, let them try and run ball-screens. That is who they’ve been for years and years and years.

But that wasn’t working this season, not when what makes the Blue Devils so damn good is the fact that their front court of two freshmen fives is unstoppable. Wendell Carter is a lottery pick, a workhorse on the block that can wall-up at the rim and pound the glass and overwhelm just about any defender that comes his way, and he’s clearly and undoubtedly the second-best big man on their roster. When you can force defenses to try and figure out how they are going to slow down Marvin Bagley III with a college power forward, you’re coming out ahead more often than not.

“He’s different,” said Nolan Smith, a four-year player for Duke that was a first-team all-american as a senior, a first round pick and could very well still an NBA point guard if his health hadn’t given out on him. He’s been around. He would know. “I’ve a seen lot of guys in the NBA, and his second and third jump is second to none.”

The problem is that they just couldn’t figure out how to make it work defensively, which is not an uncommon problem to have when dealing with freshmen. There is a reason that the saying among coaches is that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, but since becoming a one-and-done factory, Coach K no longer has that luxury. He doesn’t get a couple of seasons to teach his guys how to defend the way that he wants them do. He gets a couple of months, and by early February, it was obvious to everyone.

Their man-to-man defense?

It wasn’t working.

“We tried a lot of different things in man throughout the season,” Smith said. “Icing ball-screens to blacking ball-screens to switching ball-screens.”

They had to make a change.

“We never declared it,” Grayson Allen said of becoming a zone team. “It was just, OK, we’re going to play zone this game, so we prepared zone and man. The next game we prepared zone more than man. The next game we prepared all zone. And it started to work for us. We had a stretch where three or four teams couldn’t score against us.”

It stuck.

It turned Duke from one of college basketball’s top 80 defenses to one that has climbed all the way to 7th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The defense that they have played over the course of the last nine games is on par with the defense that the likes of Virginia and Cincinnati have played all season long. It’s why they are currently the only team to rank in the top ten of both offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom. It’s why there are many that believe Duke is not one of, if not the favorite to win the national title in San Antonio three-and-a-half weeks from today.

That was until they faced off with North Carolina on Friday night.

The Tar Heels are uniquely suited to being able to attack a 2-3 zone. The way that the Tar Heels play this season is different from any Roy Williams-coached team in recent memory. Thanks to the early and unexpected departure of Tony Bradley last year, the Tar Heels have had to embrace the small-ball ideal. Theo Pinson, a play-making wing by trade, is their power forward. Luke Maye, a stretch-four through and through, is their starting center. That’s a far cry from the UNC teams of yesteryear, when Tyler Hansbrough and Sean May and Kennedy Meeks turned the paint into a beefcake factory.

But it also allows UNC to slice up a 2-3 zone, and Pinson is the key that unlocks it all. His ability to pass from the high-post combined with the fact that the shooting ability of Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson on the perimeter makes them a nightmare offensively, one that cannot be overwhelmed by a front line the size of Duke’s. Bagley finished with 19 points and 13 boards against the Tar Heels on Friday night, but he had to work for those stats. Pinson — who stands 6-foot-6 with long arms, the physicality that comes with being a senior and the athleticism to boot — held his own on the block against a top three pick.

There aren’t a lot of college fours that are going to be able to do both of those things.

Which begs the question: Did North Carolina provide the nation with a diagram on how to beat Duke’s now-vaunted 2-3 zone, or was this simply a product of the Tar Heels being a perfect matchup for Duke at this point in time?

Let’s take a dive into the numbers, shall we?

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

According to SportVU, which is a service that provides spatial data on things like how open shooters are, 35 of the 42 jumpers that the Tar Heels attempted on Friday night were open jumpers, which is defined as having no defender within five feet of the shooter on the release. They made just 14 of those jumpers, a 40 percent clip and much lower than the average of roughly 60 percent shooting on open jump shots. Put another way, UNC scored just 1.02 points-per-possession against Duke’s defense, but that may had have as much to do with the fact that the Tar Heels missed shots that they usually would make more than the fact that Duke’s defense was impenetrable.

“If we were playing man and they shot 18 out of 24 from 3, then you’d be asking why didn’t you defend the 3 better,” Krzyzewski said. “But holding them to 74 points was good. They’re one of the explosive teams, as explosive as anybody. And they have two kids that can really handle the ball well in the middle of the zone in Pinson and Maye. So that’s good for us. The two games we played here, Colson can do that, too, so we got a chance to work our zone against probably two of the best teams that would work against us, and we gave up 70 and 74 points.

“The zone wasn’t bad. … It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.”

I would tend to agree with Coach K here.

Let’s work through some zone theory for a second.

When the point guard has the ball at the top, the idea is to brings the wing defender so high to force passes to the corner or short corner to be thrown with air under it to give the defenders a chance to recover. The center is supposed to stay at the rim to protect against a lob to the opposing center on the baseline, and it’s the guards job at the top of the zone to keep the pass from getting to the high post. It’s the last part of that paragraph that was the biggest issue on Friday.

“Defensively, me and Tre [Duval] up top needed to do a little bit better job of trying to keep it out of the middle,” Allen said.

So there are some issues there.

But more than anything, Duke ran into a team that is built perfectly to break down the defense that they are playing.

And they still found a way to erase a 16-point lead with 5:33 left on the clock, getting two possessions in the final minute with a chance to tie.

Duke is not without their flaws this season, and we could spend another 1,500 words talking about some of the issues they have on the offensive end of the floor with their spacing.

But more than anything, Friday night taught us that this North Carolina team is one that we need to take seriously.

Duke can still win a national title this season. They still might be the favorite.

And North Carolina can win it all, too.

Penny Hardaway to be named the next Memphis head coach

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The worst-kept secret in college basketball no longer appears to be a secret: Penny Hardaway is going to be the next coaching at the University of Memphis.

ESPN is reporting that a deal has been agreed upon. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal is reporting that Penny was waiting for his season to end with East High School before he made anything official. NBC Sports can confirm that an announcement is expected to be made early this week, likely as soon as Tuesday, to introduce the former Memphis and NBA star as Tubby Smith’s replacement.

The truth, however, is that we all knew this was what would be happening the second that Memphis formally fired Tubby Smith. Hell, we knew it a month before that decision was made final. This was always how it was going to play out.

What’s interesting to me is now the discussion of whether or not Penny will be able to handle being a Division I head coach, because it’s been hit or miss with basketball programs hiring legends of their past. Chris Mullin and St. John’s hasn’t exactly gone to plan but Fred Hoiberg was quite successful at Iowa State. Kevin Ollie won a title with UConn then fell off a cliff. Patrick Ewing’s start wasn’t great, but he was better than expected.

Where does Penny fall on this scale?

Well, let me just drop this section of a column from Geoff Calkins in here:

Hardaway isn’t a guy who woke up one morning and decided he’d like to be a Division I head coach. He’s not a former player who got bored with retirement and decided he’d like to do something other than play golf.

Hardaway started coaching at middle school. Middle school! Because an old friend needed some help.

Then he built one of the best AAU programs in the country. Then he spent years coaching a high school team.

Does that sound like someone who doesn’t want to roll up his sleeves and do the work? Does that sound like someone who is just in it for the glory and the glitz?

The truth is, if it weren’t for Hardaway’s iconic stature, he might be characterized as a grinder, as a guy who worked his way up from the lowest levels of basketball on the strength of his relationship with the kids.

I think that this is going to work out for both Penny and Memphis, especially if Penny hires a staff that can help him with the intricacies of running a college basketball program.

2018 NCAA Tournament: The All-First Weekend Team

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PLAYER OF THE WEEKEND: Jevon Carter, West Virginia

So Carter’s numbers themselves were ridiculous this weekend. He had 21 points, eight assists, six steals and five boards in a first round win over Murray State. He followed that up with 28 points, five assists, five steals and four boards in a win over in-state rival Marshall to advance to the Sweet 16. For the weekend, he shot 54 percent from the floor and 63 percent from three.

But perhaps the more telling state in regards to what Carter did this weekend are the numbers that the Murray State and Marshall stars put up this weekend. Jon Elmore — whose averages of 23 points, seven assists and six boards matched what Markelle Fultz averaged a season ago — was 4-for-12 from the floor with eight turnovers in Marshall’s second round loss. Jonathan Stark, who entered the tournament averaging 22 points, had nine points on 1-for-12 shooting in Murray State’s first round loss.

On Friday night, we get Jalen Brunson squaring off with Carter.

Buckle up.


  • ROB GRAY, Houston: Gray is the only guy on this list that didn’t reach the Sweet 16 — blame Jordan Poole for that — but he did put together one of the most memorable and impressive first round NCAA tournament performances I can ever remember when he dropped 39 points and a game-winner on San Diego State.
  • KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: Evans averaged 22.5 points in this weekend’s two games, but what got him on this list was that he averaged 16.5 points in the second half of those two games, closing out a come-from-behind win against Stephen F. Austin with drive after drive and hitting the go-ahead three in the win over Florida.
  • ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga: Not only did the Zags freshman averaged 21.5 points in two games — including a career-high 28 points, a career-high 12 boards, a career-high six threes and his first career double-double against Ohio State — but he hit the dagger in both of those games; a game-winner in the final minutes against UNCG and a three to put the Zags up six in the final two minutes against Ohio State.
  • SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER, Kentucky: We spent the entire season talking about how Kentucky didn’t have a star this year. That may not be true anymore. SGA averaged 23 points, 7.0 boards, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals as the Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 as the highest remaining seed in the South Region.
  • THE MARTIN TWINS, Nevada: Caleb was the hero in the come-from-behind win over Texas, doing bonkers in overtime, while Cody had 25 points, seven assists and six boards in the come-from-behind win over Cincinnati. But mostly they were both awesome all weekend.

The most memorable moments from the first weekend of the 2018 NCAA Tournament

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Contrary to what people that were caught up in the moment are going to try and tell you, this was not the craziest first weekend of the NCAA tournament of all time.

We may have had the single-craziest moment ever — we’ll get to that — and we did lose a number of the top teams in the bracket, but the insanity of this weekend wasn’t quite clinical. 

That said, we did get left with a number of memorable moments through out the first four days of the greatest sporting event in America. Here are the 12 that will stick with us for the longest time:


We’ve been trying to let you know about this guy all season long. The Texas Tech star averaged 22.5 points and 3.0 assists through the first two weekends of the event, and 33 of the 45 points that he scored came in the second half of two close wins. He hit the go-ahead three to beat Florida with just over two minutes left and made all the big plays in the come-from-behind win over Stephen F. Austin in the first round. He is a killer.

The best moment, however, might have been this lob that elicited memories of Kobe-to-Shaq:


If you’re not a gambler, you may not have noticed that the final, seemingly meaningless shot in Kansas’ win over Seton Hall in the second round had all kinds of weight behind it. Powell hit a running 30-footer as time-expired, cutting the Kansas lead to 83-79. Kansas was favored by 4.5 points in that game. The shot that he hit meant that the Pirates covered the spread. Millions of dollars — that’s not an exaggeration — changed hands as a direct result of that shot going in.


You may not have known who he was before this event started but you probably know who he is now. The Gonzaga freshman scored 15 points and hit the game-winning three as the Zags beat UNC Greensboro in the first round of the NCAA tournament, following that up by going for a career-high 28 points, a career-high 12 boards, a career-high six threes and his first career double-double in a second round win over Ohio State. He’s scored at least 14 points in each of his last six games. He will be the next superstar in Spokane.


Jim Boeheim, man. You have to give him credit. For the second time in three seasons, his Orange team has snuck into the NCAA tournament with a resume that didn’t deserve a bid and proceeded to make everyone seem like an idiot for saying they didn’t belong. The Orange are in the Sweet 16 after starting in the First Four and failing to score more than 60 points in any of their three games. Boeheim just packs in that 2-3, puts as many long and athletic people on the floor that he can and lets Tyus Battle go make plays. And it works. Sometimes basketball is an easy game, I guess.


One thing that I never thought that I would see in this event is a team with Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson getting run out of the gym. Those two dudes are so good and so tough and been through so much that I expected them to be in a dogfight every time they set foot on a court for all of eternity. Then Sunday happened, and Texas A&M — who spent four months flirting with the idea that maybe living up to their potential was a possibility — absolutely trucked them. They won by 21 points, and the outcome never really felt in doubt after the final TV timeout of the first half.


Remember when we all thought that this was going to be the most memorable upset for the first weekend?

Hahaha. That was fun.

But just because Virginia happened to go full Virginia and exactly one half of the top three seeds in the tournament were knocked out before the start of the second weekend doesn’t mean that what Buffalo did should be swept under the rug. The Bulls eviscerated an Arizona team that looked like they were ready to quit on this utterly forgettable season by the middle of the second half.


Xavier, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, looked like they were going to be able to cruise into the Sweet 16, as they led the Seminoles by 12 points with under 10 minutes left in the game. But that did not last, as they were outscored 18-4 to close out the game while Florida State reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011.

It’s the first time since 2004 that we head into the Sweet 16 with two of the nation’s No. 1 seeds sitting at home.


Eric Musselman and the Wolf Pack managed two thrilling wins in the span of three days. First, they came from way behind to beat No. 10-seed Texas in the opening round of the event before erasing the second-largest deficit in NCAA tournament history when they came back from 22 points down in the final 11:43 to second No. 2 Cincinnati back to the Queen City.


This shot, to beat Houston in the second round, will be the most memorable shot from this first weekend:

While this image is one that will forever epitomize what makes March Madness so special:

( Jeff Gross/Getty Images)


The shame in Poole’s shot going in was that it ended the tournament run of Houston star Rob Gray, who put together one of the best first weekend’s in tournament history as well as a performance that should have been iconic. In the first round, against No. 11-seed San Diego State, Gray finished with 39 of his team’s 67 points, including the game-winning bucket with 1.1 seconds left on the clock.

That game-winner capped one of the wildest finishes to a game that I can ever remember seeing. Check this out:

And that led directly to this:


I don’t even know where to start with this.

Twice in the span of three days, Loyola trailed 62-61 with less than 10 seconds left and twice in the span of three days they made a game-winner to advance to the next round of the tournament.

Sister Jean loves it.

1. UMBC!

Could it be anything else?

For the first time in the history of the world, a No. 16 seed has beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament as the Retrievers knocked off Virginia to get their shot to play their way into the Sweet 16. They lost to Kansas State on Sunday, but who cares? It would have been terrific theater to see them get their shot in the Sweet 16, but it was not meant to be.

We’ll have to simply settle for UMBC truck-sticking the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

2018 NCAA Tournament Conference Breakdown: ACC, Big 12 make up half of the Sweet 16

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With a crazy first weekend of the 2018 NCAA tournament in the books, it is time to examine the field’s conference breakdown heading into the Sweet 16.

While some multi-bid leagues like the AAC, Atlantic 10 and Pac-12 were shut out of the second weekend after miserable tournament showings, other leagues like the ACC and Big 12 lived up to the hype.

Here’s a look at the tournament’s conference breakdown before the Sweet 16.

4 — ACC

  • No. 2 Duke
  • No. 5 Clemson
  • No. 9 Florida State
  • No. 11 Syracuse

Notes: It’s not surprising to see the ACC with four teams in the Sweet 16 after getting nine teams in the Field of 68. What is surprising is that Clemson, Florida State and Syracuse are three of the four teams still left. The ACC could have dominated the field if No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 2 seed North Carolina held up their end of the bargain. Both were upset in blowout fashion. No. 6 seed Miami, No. 8 seed Virginia Tech and No. 9 seed N.C. State were all dropped in the first round as well. It’s also worth noting that three of these four teams (sorry, Florida State) reside in the Midwest Regional as the ACC will be guaranteed at least one Elite Eight team from Duke and Syracuse’s Sweet 16 matchup. The Blue Devils won the regular season matchup, 60-44, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in February as they’re looking like the best Final Four contender left from the bunch.

4 — Big 12

  • No. 1 Kansas
  • No. 3 Texas Tech
  • No. 5 West Virginia
  • No. 9 Kansas State

Notes: Many people considered the Big 12 the best (and toughest) top-to-bottom conference in America this season. By tying the ACC with the most teams still left in the field, the Big 12 backed up that sentiment with its first-weekend performance. Getting 40 percent of your conference into the Sweet 16 is a major accomplishment. It’s also notable that the top four teams in the Big 12’s regular season standings are all still playing basketball. The regular season results actually stayed true-to-form during the tournament. The league’s only disappointments stem from No. 6 TCU’s upset loss to No. 11 seed Syracuse, Trae Young and No. 10 seed Oklahoma falling in overtime to No. 8 seed Rhode Island and No. 10 seed Texas blowing a double-digit lead No. 7 seed Nevada.

2– Big Ten

  • No. 2 Purdue
  • No. 3 Michigan

Notes: This is a decent showing for the Big Ten as all four tournament teams won in the first round while two of the teams advanced to the second weekend. Purdue lost big man Isaac Haas to an elbow injury but the No. 2 seed Boilermakers still beat No. 10 seed Butler for the second time this season. Amidst all of the chaos on the left side of the bracket in the South and West Regionals, No. 3 seed Michigan is the highest remaining seed among that group of eight teams. It was stunning to see No. 3 seed Michigan State get bounced by a double-digit seed for the second time in three years as they fell to No. 11 seed Syracuse. The Spartans were a credible national title threat, as their early exit does tarnish some of the Big Ten’s success. No. 5 seed Ohio State also finds themselves out after losing to No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the Round of 32. The Big Ten was certainly down this season. Michigan State’s loss is a major letdown. But it could have been much worse. At least the Big Ten might have a dark horse Final Four contender pan out in red-hot Michigan and Purdue is still dangerous without Haas.

2 — SEC

  • No. 5 Kentucky
  • No. 7 Texas A&M

Notes: The SEC finally might have showed its true colors after a bizarre regular season that nobody could have predicted. Only two of eight NCAA tournament team are still left as the SEC was gutted after losses. After both failing to live up to preseason projections for most of the season, No. 5 seed Kentucky and No. 7 seed Texas A&M are both peaking at the right time. It’s hard to believe, but the Wildcats are now the favorite in the South Regional now that the top four seeds have all been eliminated. And after the Aggies earned a blowout win over defending champion and No. 2 seed North Carolina, they should also be taken seriously. It’s the rest of the SEC that is hard to take seriously after this weekend. Co-conference regular season champions No. 4 seed Auburn and No. 3 seed Tennessee were both ousted — the Tigers were flat-out embarrassed by No. 5 seed Clemson. No. 6 seed Florida and No. 9 seed Alabama both won openers before bowing out in the second round. No. 7 seed Arkansas and No. 8 seed Missouri both exited the event after the first round. With only two of eight teams left in the field, this wasn’t what the SEC had in mind after a resurgent season for basketball. The two remaining teams could still salvage the SEC’s season with a deep tournament run. Both of those inconsistent teams could implode at a moment’s notice.

1 — Big East

  • No. 1 Villanova

Notes: The 2018 NCAA tournament has been brutal for the six-bid Big East. The Wildcats have shot the ball at an extremely high level for two games. The rest of the conference was a disaster. Xavier, the league’s second No. 1 seed, was upset by No. 9 seed Florida State. No. 8 seed Seton Hall and No. 10 seed Butler were both bounced in the second round as well by No. 1 seed Kansas and No. 2 seed Purdue, respectively. Creighton and Providence couldn’t even make it out of the first round after losses to No. 9 seed Kansas State and No. 7 seed Texas A&M. This was a year to forget for the Big East.

1 — Missouri Valley Conference

  • No. 11 Loyola

Notes: The Ramblers advancing to the Sweet 16 is important for the Valley because it signifies that the league can still make noise in March without Wichita State. It probably feels even better for the Valley knowing that the Shockers also lost in the first round to No. 13 seed Marshall. One Valley head coach even made sure to mention all of that on Twitter.

1 — Mountain West

  • No. 7 Nevada

Notes: The Wolf Pack are in the Sweet 16 for the second time in program history (2004) as the tournament’s comeback kids are a dangerous bunch. With two double-digit second-half comebacks already, Nevada is a team that you can never count out. No. 11 seed San Diego State, the league’s only other tournament team, got Rob Grayed against No. 6 seed Houston in the first round, but the Aztecs at least made a respectable second-half comeback before losing.

1 — West Coast Conference

  • No. 4 Gonzaga

Notes: Back in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season, Gonzaga has remained one of the tournament’s most consistent teams in recent years. Even after losing multiple pieces from last season’s national runner-up, the Zags managed to be the last Final Four team from last season still in the 2018 field.

Sweet 16 betting lines, point spreads, over-unders

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Here is the full TV schedule, with spreads, over-unders and betting lines, for every game for final day of the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

Odds via



  • 7:07 p.m.: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 7 Nevada (-2.5), CBS (143.5)
  • 9:37 p.m.: No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 5 Kentucky (-5.5), CBS (138.5)


  • 7:37 p.m.: No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 3 Michigan (-3), TBS (134)
  • 10:07 p.m.: No. 9 Florida State vs. No. 4 Gonzaga (-5.5), TBS (154.5)



  • 7:07 p.m.: No. 5 Clemson vs. No. 1 Kansas (-4), CBS (143)
  • 9:37: No. 11 Syracuse vs. No. 2 Duke (-11.5), CBS (133.5)


  • 7:27 p.m.: No. 5 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Villanova, TBS
  • 9:57 p.m.: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 2 Purdue (-1.5), TBS (137.5)