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While too many turnovers continue to plague Carolina, and the Tar Heels continue to be surprisingly inconsistent shooting the ball so far this season (only 43.2 percent from the field against Pitt), perhaps the most important thing to watch against NC State is Carolina’s pick-and-roll defense. The Tar Heels have made a mess of things against the pick-and-roll at times this season, most notably against Michigan, which repeatedly got wide-open layups from that look.
Markell Johnson gave Carolina fits as the ball handler on pick-and-roll action last season in Chapel Hill, and you can be sure both coaching staffs have emphasized that aspect in preparation for this game. Carolina’s front line (Maye, Brooks, Nassir Little, and Cam Johnson) will have to do a much better job hedging against the screen and then getting back into position quickly against the roll than they have through much of this season. If Carolina has to help from the perimeter to compensate for the big men being late, that would open catch-and-shoot opportunities on the wing, something Roy Williams and the Tar Heels definitely don’t want to allow in this one.
ZONE PROVING EFFECTIVE
After an up-and-down and experimental nonconference slate, Carolina passed its first conference test, running away from Jeff Capel’s Pittsburgh squad on the strength of solid defense and transition play.
After weeks of harping on the need for increased defensive intensity, even Williams couldn’t find much negative to say about the defensive performance, as the Tar Heels pressured the Panthers into 30.6-percent shooting from the field. One wrinkle that Carolina showed in this one: lengthy stretches of zone defense, a departure from Williams’ preferred man-to-man pressure defense that Carolina also employed at times last season.
Williams explained in his Monday press conference that foul trouble (Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, and Kenny Williams III each finished with four) was the main reason for the switch, though he did note that Carolina has practiced more zone this season than in the past.
Of note, the way Carolina is executing its zone has the effect of allowing perimeter players to switch on all screens and stay home on outside shooters, reducing the number of quality perimeter looks. This approach should give Carolina a quality option against opponents lacking an outstanding interior presence. This is especially noteworthy given the looming matchup in Raleigh against rival N.C. State on Tuesday night, which employs a four-guard offense with lots of movement.
Given that Carolina’s best lineups also seem to be of the small ball variety, Tuesday’s matchup should be a must-watch for those who enjoy fast-paced and high-scoring basketball (Virginia fans might want to skip this one).
FOOTBALL STAFF TAKING SHAPE
For a moment, it appeared Mack Brown had his new staff fully intact. Carolina has added Scott Boone as a defensive assistant and special teams coordinator; Boone was an offensive analyst at Wake Forest last season, but has spent most of his 35-year career as a defensive assistant, including time as a defensive coordinator at Nevada and William & Mary.
To make room for Boone, Carolina has parted ways with Chad Scott, a holdover from Larry Fedora’s staff who was announced with the rest of the staff at halftime of December’s basketball game against Gonzaga. Robert Gillespie will be retained to coach running backs, as he did in Chapel Hill last season.
Those hires would’ve completed the on-field staff, but newly-hired offensive line coach Brandon Jones is now the former offensive line coach, leaving UNC to join former West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen’s new staff at Houston. Brown will now look to replace Jones with another line coach familiar with the Air Raid offensive scheme to be employed in Chapel Hill.
Also of note: Brown has hired Brandon Hess to run the strength and conditioning program in Chapel Hill — one of the most important hires any head coach can make. Hess previously held the same job at Army, where he worked with new Carolina defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and was instrumental in helping transform a previously struggling program into Army’s first-ever 11-win team.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK
11–13, 213 yards passing, 15 yards and a TD rushing. That’s Sam Howell’s stat line from the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, an impressive showing for the recently crowned Associated Press offensive player of the year in the state of North Carolina. As of this week, Howell enrolled and on campus for his first semester in Chapel Hill.
Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.