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Why North Carolina has had success against Syracuse’s stingy zone defense

UNC’s Roy Williams after win over Florida State: ‘We had 10 turnovers, I thought we had 103’

Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over Florida State.
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Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over Florida State.

Syracuse is consistently one of the best defensive teams in the country.

Its 2-3 zone has been a staple for Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. The Orange currently have the 16th-most efficient defense, according to KenPom.com.

“Syracuse plays the zone a little differently than other people and a heck of a lot better than just about everybody,” UNC coach Roy Williams said Monday.

But since Syracuse joined the ACC before the 2013-14 season, North Carolina (22-5, 12-2 ACC) has had success against the zone.

The Tar Heels are 7-1 against the Orange since their Jan. 11, 2014 meeting. The two teams have played each other in Chapel Hill three times, in Syracuse three times and twice at a neutral site in postseason play.

On Tuesday night at 9 p.m., they will face each other again at the Dean Smith Center.

Why have the Tar Heels had success?

There are a number of reasons why the Tar Heels have been successful, but one of the biggest is the their ability to get to the glass and score second-chance points after a miss. In all but one game, the Tar Heels have had more second-chance points than the Orange. In the one game that the Orange had more, the Tar Heels had just only two second-chance points and lost 57-45.

The Tar Heels have averaged 13 second chance points against the Orange in their last eight meetings.

Boxing out in a zone is more difficult than boxing out in a man defense. When you’re playing a zone you are not guarding one man, you’re guarding a spot, so it can take longer to locate an offensive player when a shot goes up.

The Tar Heels have outrebounded the Orange in six of the eight games they have played in the last five years. And again, in one of the games that the Orange outrebounded the Tar Heels, the Tar Heels lost.

Opponents rebound 31.6 percent of their misses against Syracuse (18-9, 9-5), which is ranked 298th in the country out of 353 Division I teams.

The Tar Heels, which have traditionally been one of the best rebounding teams in the country, rank 25th in the country in offensive rebound percentage, rebounding 34.6 percent of their misses this season.

Offensive boards crucial to UNC’s success

Against Duke last Wednesday, UNC scored 14 second-chance points. Against Florida State on Saturday, UNC had 15 second-chance points. This has been crucial to the Tar Heels’ success, especially as they have struggled shooting 3-pointers in their last two games. The Tar Heels have made nine of their last 40, 3-pointers.

Syracuse is stingy on defense when guarding the 3. Opponents shoot only 31 percent from 3 against the Orange.

“When you play zone its five guys,” Boeheim said. “If one guy breaks down, the defense breaks down. We have to have five guys playing defense every possession. When we do that, our defense has been very good.”

The Tar Heels have been on a roll recently. They have won 10 of their last 11 games and are tied atop the ACC standings with Virginia and Duke.

But UNC, which has risen from No. 8 to No. 5 in the latest AP Poll after wins over No. 1 Duke on the road and No. 16 Florida State at home, will have a tough test ahead.

Against Syracuse on Tuesday, they’ll likely have to replicate what worked well against Duke and FSU.

Crashing the boards.

UNC vs. Syracuse

When: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, 9 p.m.

Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill

TV: Raycom Sports

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.


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