The book on N.C. State early in the season was simple. Among opposing coaches, it was a best-seller. Zone defense, played early and often, would all too easily stymie the Wolfpack.
N.C. State’s improvement against the zone is one reason for the Wolfpack’s overall improvement – six wins in the past nine after a 1-4 start to ACC play. That includes two strong performances against teams that played exclusively zone, a win at Miami and the near-miss at Syracuse.
Even hard-core man-to-man coaches like Pitt’s Jamie Dixon and Northwestern’s Chris Collins went that route, and N.C. State continues to face at least some zone in almost every game. That’s likely to continue Wednesday when North Carolina visits PNC Arena.
The Tar Heels have always played predominantly man defense, but have mixed in more zone this season and unveiled a new 1-3-1 zone Thursday in the second half against Duke with surprising results. How much zone the Tar Heels play, and how the Wolfpack fares against it, could be a deciding factor.
While noting N.C. State’s improvement against the zone, North Carolina coach Roy Williams made it clear Tuesday it was still very much an option for his team.
“It’s probably not as effective,” Williams said, “but we would consider it.”
Zone defenses aren’t as effective against N.C. State for several reasons. Perhaps most notably, a young and inexperienced team now has more experience against zones. (Certainly, the Wolfpack hasn’t lacked for practice). But it’s also in part due to the switch to Tyler Lewis at point guard and in part due to more minutes – and more production – from Ralston Turner, the team’s best 3-point shooter.
“We saw a lot of zone and we didn’t have success, and I think we had our confidence shattered a little bit,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “And then we got a little bit older. We started seeing more zone. We got more comfortable playing against it. Now, when we see zones, our guys are very confident. They welcome it now. Maybe early in the year we didn’t have that same mindset.”
Lewis, more of a distributor than a driver, has fewer of his strengths neutralized by zone defenses than Anthony Barber, whose main weapon is his quickness and penetration. He’s also a better outside shooter, which gives the Wolfpack another weapon shooting over a zone.
Combine that with Turner’s increasing willingness to pull the trigger – he’s averaging 7.4 3-point attempts over the past nine games, up from 4.3 over the first 18 – and it isn’t as appealing an option as it once was to opposing coaches.
“We’re starting to realize our strengths, and that’s helpful,” Turner said. “The main thing is, we’re getting it inside more, and that’s forcing the defense to move. We’re allowing ourselves to make plays off of that.”
North Carolina didn’t play much zone against N.C. State in the first meeting, primarily because the Wolfpack offense was so out of sorts in the first half the Tar Heels didn’t need to deploy any bells and whistles.
But the Tar Heels have played more zone than usual this season, as many teams have to help avoid the foul problems caused by the new rule interpretations designed to limit contact. That includes 2-3 and 3-2 variations as well as the 1-3-1 that gave Duke so much trouble during the Blue Devils’ second-half drought, which N.C. State has now seen on tape.
“We’ve seen some 1-3-1 this year from some other teams, but I thought in that game, it was a great move by Roy,” Gottfried said. “It was big for them.”
Against N.C. State, any zone North Carolina plays is likely to be more a change of pace than the go-to option it was for some teams early in the season, but the Wolfpack will be tested at some point either way.