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Why UNC basketball must learn an open shot vs. Syracuse may not be a good shot

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 1/12/2021 C.L. Brown, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Jan. 12—North Carolina coach Roy Williams has preached the importance of shot selection to his freshmen guards probably as much as he has about not turning the ball over this season. With Syracuse coming to the Dean E. Smith Center on Tuesday, he'll have an idea on just how much they've listened.

UNC (7-4, 2-2 ACC) has faced some zone this season, but none of its opponents have played it exclusively like the Orange does. And Syracuse (7-2, 1-1) has a way with its 2-3 zone that can dictate what shots its opponents take. It ranks fourth in the ACC in field-goal percentage defense, allowing teams to make just 39.3% of their shots.

That's why Williams wants his young players who have never faced the Orange to understand an open shot against the zone is not necessarily a good shot.

"For freshmen, it's like hitting you in the mouth," Williams said of the Syracuse zone on the ACC coaches call Monday. "And I do believe that it'll be a challenge for us. We can try to simulate it in practice, but we don't do a very good job because it's not who we are and not what we do."

According to Synergy, the Heels have run 111 possessions against zone this season. They have an overall rating of good, shooting 48% (43-for-89) on those possessions. But the key to being effective against the zone isn't just good shooting. It's good passing.

Carolina has won the last eight regular season meetings against the Orange and in all eight games, it had assists on at least 60% of its baskets. In last season's 92-79 win over the Orange, the Heels had assists on 25 of their 33 made field goals. When they lost to the Orange in the ACC tournament, they had just nine assists on 20 baskets.

"I don't think you ever get comfortable, but you just realize how significant it is," Williams said. "You can't make the borderline passes. You can't make the soft, casual, careless passes or anything like that."

Nothing has been a bigger headache for Williams this season than the soft, casual, careless passes Carolina continues to make no matter what defense it is facing. The Heels rank last in the ACC in turnovers per game, averaging 15.9 per contest. That's a turnover rate of 22% of their possessions, according to KenPom.com.

They've overcome turnovers and poor shooting to win their last two games, beating Notre Dame and Miami on last-second baskets after shooting 35% from the field. Junior guard Leaky Black said even though they haven't played well, it was better than the alternative of losing games like they did last season.

"Then again, we got to play much better," Black said after their 67-65 win over the Hurricanes. "You compare our guys it's just like, we're loaded. We just have to play like it and hopefully we get above that hill soon."

The Tar Heels take on the Orange at 9 p.m. Tuesday, in a game that was originally supposed to take place Jan. 2. It was postponed after Syracuse was forced into contact-tracing quarantine when a previous opponent tested positive for COVID-19.

The new time slot was announced Friday just as the Heels learned their game against Clemson would be postponed. Williams said the Heels were taking the court for practice on Friday and about to go over their Clemson scouting report when they learned the game wasn't happening.

"We sort of tried to scramble and stopped working on the Clemson walkthrough for sure," Williams said. "We just tried to do some things to make our own team a little bit better and did the same thing on Saturday and Sunday practices."

SYRACUSE AT UNC

— When: Tuesday, Jan. 12

— Time: 9 p.m.

— Where to watch: ACC Network

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