Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense has traditionally produced some of the best defenses in the country. Including his three-year stint at Washington State, Bennett’s teams have been in the top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency nine times in his 11 seasons as a head coach. Six times Bennett has fielded a top-10 defense, including four top-5 defenses in the last six seasons. This year, the Cavaliers lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. So, suffice it to say, the way that Bennett teaches his pack-line principles is very effective (including hard hedges, immediate big-to-big doubles on post entries, and clogging driving lanes with help defenders rather than overplaying the wings).
Let’s take a closer look at some of the Carolina offensive struggles on Monday night.
On Monday night, the UNC shot distribution looked as follows:
- Close: 9-21 (42.9%) –> 44% of FGAs
- 5-10′: 2-6 (33.3%) –> 13% of FGAs
- 10-20′: 2-5 (40.0%) –> 10% of FGAs
- 3-pointers: 4-16 (25.0%) –> 33% of FGAs
On the season (entering last night’s game), the Heels’ distribution of FGAs was:
- Close: 60.2% –> 42% of FGAs
- 5-10′: 41.4% –> 14% of FGAs
- 10-20′: 35.3% –> 13% of FGAs
- 3-pointers: 37.3% –> 30% of FGAs
Carolina created the same shots it always does—in fact, a slightly higher proportion at the rim, and a slightly lower fraction from the low-efficiency mid-range. The rate of 3-pointers was up a tick, but only due to a few late-game, desperation attempts. The obvious discrepancies between the Monday night and year-to-date numbers, of course, are the shooting percentages—particularly at the rim and from behind the arc. Of UNC’s 16 3-pointers, I classified two as open, 11 as lightly contested, and three as contested. The Heels’ two primary shooters, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry, combined for 11 of the 16 attempts behind the arc (including a Berry attempt that was erroneously credited to Kennedy Meeks). It was a different story at the rim, however, where Virginia blocked eight of Carolina’s 21 attempts. Many of the non-blocked close attempts were also well-contested (often using Bennett’s signature style of going straight up with the hands while using the lower body to bump/displace the shooter). The Cavs’ rim protection was excellent on Monday night, but close attempts are exactly what Roy Williams’ offense is trying to create. Those weren’t shot selections issues—just a combination of stellar UVa. paint defense and some problems finishing through contact for the Heels. Overall, the shot selection for Carolina was satisfactory. Jackson took a couple contested 3s, plus a very bad, off-balance long 2. Britt had a contested mid-range attempt that UNC can probably live without. There was only one late-clock situation that required a tough shot (a Seventh Woods’ pull-up jumper). But, in general, the Heels got the shots they needed to in order to win the game. Based on season averages, Carolina will score about 43 points on 21 close attempts and 16 3-pointers. Against Virginia, the Heels managed only 30 points on those 37 attempts.
Even given the UNC turnover issues (the Heels turned it over on 25% of their possessions, including 40% in the first half—their year-to-date average entering the game was 16.3%), it did enough to win the game had it simply knocked down a couple more 3s and finished a couple more close attempts. In just 56 offensive possessions, Carolina threw a staggering 30 post entries (it averages about 23 per game on the season). Those passes resulted in eight made field goals, 10 missed field goals, eight turnovers, one foul (non-shooting), and three offensive resets. The glaring number there, of course, is the eight turnovers. Most of UNC’s miscues were a function of trying to feed the post (and the subsequent action following the hard post-to-post Virginia double teams). Let’s take a closer look at how Carolina handled the big-to-big doubles:
UNC vs. the Big-to-Big Double
I charted 13 times in which the Cavaliers immediately send a big-to-big double following a UNC post touch. Let’s see what happened on those plays, in chronological order:
- Meeks, left block: Meeks attempted to hit a diving Hicks at the front of the rim, but a helping Kyle Guy was able to disrupt the play from behind to force a turnover. This is exactly how the Heels wanted to attack the double. Meeks’ pass was a split-second late, and Hicks needs to be stronger with the catch. Had this been successfully completed, however, it’s an easy layup/dunk.
- Hicks, right block: This time, Hicks was able to successfully complete the pass to the diving Meeks. With UVa. point guard Ty Jerome helping down (and giving up five inches and 70 pounds), Meeks simply needs to finish this opportunity at the rim. Good execution, bad finish.
- Hicks, right block: Hicks, after catching the entry pass too far off the block, used an escape dribble to reset the offense.
- Meeks, left block: Following the Hicks escape dribble/reset, UNC immediately entered the ball to Meeks on the opposite block. He was stripped by a doubling Devon Hall while trying to make a pass. This is a case of Meeks needing to be stronger with the ball.
- Meeks, right block: Meeks immediately turned baseline (away from the approaching double) to bank in a short jump hook. This was a quick decisive move by Meeks, who, given his proclivity for turning left shoulder, will generally do better against post doubles when receiving it on the right block.
- Meeks, left block: Meeks was forced to pass it back to Britt in the ball-side corner here, a win for the UVa. defense since the ball stayed on the same side of the court. With the possession sputtering following the post double/kick-out, Britt settled for (and missed) a contested mid-range jumper.
- Maye, left block: Maye kicked it to the opposite wing here to Seventh Woods. Had this been Berry at point guard, it would have resulted in a clean 3-point look. Woods, a reluctant perimeter shooter, shot-faked, then traveled on his drive to the hoop. This was well-executed by Maye/UNC on the post double, but just a personnel issue in this particular lineup.
- Meeks, left block: Again, Meeks passed to the opposite (right) wing—this time for a clean inside-out Britt 3-pointer. This is Carolina’s bread-and-butter—a post touch leading to an inside-out look.
- Meeks, left block: For the third consecutive post double, a UNC big (Meeks again) on the left block looked diagonally to the right wing. This time, it was Berry receiving the pass and missing a lightly contested 3-pointer. Can’t argue with the execution or shot selection here.
- Meeks, right block: Like his earlier make, Meeks again spun quickly to the baseline to attempt a jump hook. This one was better defended by Virginia, but still a strong, decisive move by Meeks by attacking before the double can arrive.
- Hicks, left block: Hicks used an escape dribble to relocate to the left wing. Meeks then filled in Hicks’ vacated spot on the left block to receive a post entry from him. Meeks turned it over by trying to spin around Jack Salt (setting a solid wall) in the paint. This was vintage Roy Williams basketball; Meeks just needs to be more efficient in the paint.
- Maye, left block: Maye used a single escape dribble to create some space, then kicked it opposite to Berry on the right wing. This time, Berry knocked down the clean look. Great work by Maye here against the post double.
- Meeks, left block: Meeks, this time spinning middle, was able to get off a clean jump hook in the paint. He missed, but no issues with the shot selection here.
So on 13 post doubles (and 12 possessions), Carolina scored eight points. Meeks made 1-of-3 shots while fighting through doubles/shooting before they arrived. The Heels also made 1-of-3 3s created from inside-out passes following a big-to-big double team. After attempting to hit the diving big on the first two tries, UNC got away from that option later in the game. While it certainly wasn’t a clinic on defeating Virginia’s post double (Brice Johnson was much more effective in last year’s match-ups, creating more close opportunities for his diving fellow post), Carolina’s execution here was adequate. It certainly wasn’t the reason the Heels lost the game. More problematic, perhaps, was UNC’s execution on its ball screens (against Virginia’s hard hedging strategy).
Attacking the Hard Hedge
Bennett’s defensive philosophy includes hard-hedging of ball screens, meaning the help defender aggressively moves into the ball-handler’s path to force him laterally (or even backwards) while the on-ball defender recovers. This technique used to be (as recently as the middle of last season) Roy Williams’ preferred one against the ball screen, too. But due to some physical (Meeks) and mental (Brice Johnson and Hicks’ proclivity for picking up cheap fouls by bumping the dribbler) limitations, Williams moved to a flat hedge technique designed to curtail dribble penetration and force mid-range jumpers. One could, of course, argue that if Johnson/Hicks were allowed to be as physical with their hedges as Virginia’s big were last night, Carolina would still be employing the hard hedge. But that’s a bit of a digression.
“Attacking” is probably the wrong word for how UNC responded to the Cavs’ hard hedge last night. To successfully beat this technique, ball-handlers generally need to turn the corner or split the defenders to get into the paint. The Heels did neither consistently last night, instead allowing the Virginia helping big to force them laterally (or, too often, backwards) and force an offensive reset/turnover. This Carolina team, while having a variety of guards/wings that can get to the basket off the bounce, lacks that Ty Lawson-style attacker who can turn the corner on anyone, As such, it’s sometimes susceptible to an aggressive ball screen defense like Bennett used on Monday night. Another way to beat the hard hedge is by slipping screens. This is a core option of Carolina’s secondary break, but the Heels only slipped a single screen on Monday (resulting in a Hicks travel after a great Virginia help rotation).
Carolina used 31 high screen against Virginia (the vast majority of which were hard hedged). Those actions resulted in the following outcomes: 3-of-10 shooting, three drawn fouls (one shooting foul drawn by Brandon Robinson), five turnovers, and 13 offensive resets (where UNC just had to restart its offense, generally as a result of being pushed out deep by the hedger). On 31 ball screens, the Heels created only seven points. Breaking it down by Carolina ball-handler:
- Berry: 11 screens—4 missed shots (Jackson pick-and-pop, Hicks missed lay-up as after pocket pass to roller, Britt missed 3 after drive-and-kick, Pinson missed 3 after perimeter pass), 4 resets, 2 fouls (when Berry aggressively drove into the hedger to force the whistle), and 1 TO (a Berry ball-handling turnover near the UVa. bench)
- Pinson: 9 screens—4 resets, 3 TOs (Bradley charge after a pocket pass, Hicks charge after a pocket pass, Hicks travel after slipping a screen), 2 made shots (pick-and-pop with Hicks who hit a 12-footer, pass to Maye who entered the ball for a Bradley layup)
- Jackson: 8 screens—4 resets, 2 missed shots (a Jackson long, contested 2 off the bounce, a missed Bradley layup), 1 made shot (a Bradley dunk after Jackson hit Pinson as a pressure release, who whipped it in to a rolling Bradley), and 1 TO (a Jackson ball-handling turnover when trying to split the defenders)
- Robinson: 1 screen—1 foul (successfully split the hedge to draw a foul at the rim)
- Woods: 1 screen—1 missed shot (a Maye pick-and-pop 3)
- Britt: 1 screen— 1 reset
The Heels only tried to split the hard hedge three times: Robinson’s foul, Jackson’s turnover, and another time by Jackson when he found Meeks in the paint, but the ball was deflected out of bounds. And, as mentioned, there was only one attempted slip (the Hicks travel). What did happen was plenty of side-to-side dribbling. If Carolina meets Virginia again in the ACC Tournament, it will be interesting to see what (if any) adjustments it makes in attacking the hard hedge.
Virginia’s obviously a very disciplined and well-drilled defense. It executes its pack-line principles excellently, while also trying to take away its opponents’ go-to sets. In Carolina’s case, that meant shutting down the secondary break by bumping/holding cutters and hard hedging ball screens. The Heels got an early lob to Meeks off of a secondary back screen, but otherwise the Cavs shut down most of the initial looks via physical defense/keeping UNC from getting to its spots in a timely manner. Rather than continuing to run secondary without creating good scoring chances, Carolina could have tried more quick hitters out of its 1-4 set. Very early in the game (to make the score 4-0), the Heels ran Jackson off an elbow curl to create a short floater for him. As he was being guarded by the smaller London Perrantes, going back to that curl repeatedly might have made sense. UNC didn’t run it again after that early Jackson hoop. Virginia was also well-scouted on Carolina’s use of the box sets. The Heels didn’t have a ton of success with its box formations, as physical defense and scouting conspired to take away most of the options. Carolina, anticipating Virginia’s help defense/hedge, was able to slip Bradley (after he screened in an attempt to free Jackson coming through the elevator doors) on the final play of the first half. This was a nice call by the bench, but resulted in a missed Bradley attempt at the rim following another good Cavalier help rotation.
While it’s easy to be critical of the coaching staff after the team lays an egg offensively, I actually thought Carolina got a lot of the shots it wanted. Plenty of post touches/close attempts, as well as clean looks for its best 3-point shooters. Certainly the bigs need to be stronger with the ball, and with finishing through contact. A few wrinkles against the hard hedge (more slips, or pressure release passes) might be a nice adjustment, as would be moe quick hitters/Jackson curls in the early offense (rather than such a steady diet of secondary break). Really, though it’s easy for us as Carolina fans to view things through a Heels-centric lens, the Virginia defense deserves a ton of credit for its tremendous effort and execution of Bennett’s defense. He’s a terrific defensive coach and, sometimes, you just need to tip your cap to the opponent (even if it’s a physical, hand-checking, body-bumping one that maybe took advantage of some favorable officiating).
I’ll be back later with a bit on Carolina’s defense (spoiler alert: I actually thought it was even better than against the Cavs in Chapel Hill), then we’ll be on to Duke!