The UNC Tar Heels have won the ACC, leaving Duke and every other team in the ACC wondering: how do we beat them (and How do we beat Duke)? Two multifaceted and interconnected suggestions:
Exploit Outside Shooting
For all its strengths, UNC does not shoot well from the perimeter. Tyler Zeller’s automatic baby hook and John Henson’s ever-evolving post moves starkly contrast with the team’s 32.3% clip from outside the arc (good for 267th in the nation—tied with Alcorn State). Sophomore sixth man Leslie McDonald shoots 40% from the three-point line and freshman point guard Kendall Marshall hits 38% of the modest number of threes he takes—most of which are wide open. Nobody else on the team is worth worrying about. Furthermore, UNC’s big men—for all their strengths—are not prolific passers. When double-teamed, Tyler Zeller has a penchant to panic and display weak hands. John Henson is usually able to capitalize on his length to kick the ball out, but with such futile three point shooting, good coaches will have their guards dig on UNC’s post players immediately, forcing the Heels to win from the outside.
On the other side of the ball, Carolina’s strength is again on the inside. Allowing Henson to linger around the rim forces almost every drive to finish in some sort of floater or runner—and plenty of these get tossed back and lead to Carolina’s patented fast break. A team that can place four respectable shooters on the floor at once (BYU or Duke, for example) can pull Henson, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, away from the rim.
In Carolina’s victory over Duke last Saturday, guards Seth Curry and Nolan Smith combined for 50 points, 32 of which came from beyond the arc or the free throw line. The rest of the team scored only 17 points, including a combined line of 7 points and 9 fouls for the woeful Plumlee brothers. A sharp-shooting power forward (Ryan Kelly, Duke’s perimeter-oriented power forward, went 0-6 and could not hit the water from a boat) could have forced Henson to the perimeter, limiting his shot-altering and rebounding abilities. In sum, the logic is this: if you can hit your threes and lure Carolina’s defense away from the basket, it will 1) open up easier opportunities to score later in the game; 2) limit UNC’s transition opportunities, where especially Strickland, Barnes and Zeller thrive; and 3) allow your defense to set up and force UNC to execute in the halfcourt.
Capitalize on UNC’s Lack of Depth
Much has been made of Carolina’s thin roster after David and Travis Wear opted to transfer, Will Graves was kicked off the team, Larry Drew II defected to the watchful wing of his overbearing mother (and freestyled about it), and streaky freshman scorer Reggie Bullock was shut down for the year with lingering knee issues. Kendall Marshall has been nothing short of magical since taking over the starting point guard job; however, the backup options at the position are scary for UNC fans. Dexter Strickland, starting two-guard, is inept in the half court, taking air out of the ball and settling for his middling mid-range J all too often—which is to say “ever with more than two seconds on the clock.” Injury or foul trouble for either player would most likely put point guard duties in the hands of preseason All-American small forward Harrison Barnes—a situation UNC fans have not seen and would rather not imagine.
Yes, Carolina is John Henson-thin at point guard, but lost in all the Larry Drew/Kendall Marshall hoopla is an even more troublesome potential: foul trouble or injury to John Henson himself. The recently-named ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Henson’s impact goes beyond the comical block totals he often amasses. He allows perimeter players to play tighter defense, realizing that a true shot-alterer waits behind them. He keeps blocked shots in play, often initiating the fast break as if the block were an outlet pass. He has developed a respectable post game that seems to evolve every game, and vacuums in rebounds with either hand. And his free throw shooting is, well, improving.
Simply put, on a team with no other shot blocking threats (the seven-foot Zeller seemingly has no shame taking a charge from a six-foot guard), John Henson is the most vital player on the team. Credit goes to him for his outstanding personal statistics—his 9.7 RPG, 3.1 BPG, 51.4 FG%—but he also deserves partial credit for more subtle team stats—Opponents’ 3PT 31.6%, ACC Opponents’ FG 39.9%, ACC Opponents’ 66.6 PPG.
While Kendall Marshall may conduct the Tar Heel Express, John Henson is the engine that keeps it running. Any team tasked with taking out Carolina in the ACC or NCAA Tournament would be well-served to attack early and amass a few early fouls on one or both.