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Inside North Carolina's Zone Offense

This guest post is from The Mikan Drill, a blog devoted to screengrab breakdowns of college basketball plays and schemes. Mikan Drill's Friday topic: Examining two sets North Carolina ran for John Henson against Long Island's 2-3 zone in a 102-87 victory.

In an attempt to mitigate No. 2 North Carolina's massive frontcourt size advantage, No. 15 Long Island spent the majority of Friday's game in a zone defense. The Blackbirds still failed to stop the Tar Heels' big men, though, as the 3-4-5 trio of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller combined for 84 points. Here, we'll look at two successful set plays UNC ran to get open shots for Henson against the zone.

Carolina Zone Set No. 1

To start this set, Zeller passes the ball to Henson at the top of the key and then cuts through to the right block. Henson reverses the ball to point guard Kendall Marshall, whose first look is into Zeller in the post. Since Zeller is not on the block to start the play, LIU's Julian Boyd steps out to the wing to help on Marshall. This forces the middle defender, Arnold Mayorga, to guard Zeller on the block. Mayorga prevents an entry pass from being made, so Marshall's next look is to Barnes.

UNC Play 1.1

While Zeller flashes to the block, Henson simultaneously sets a screen for Barnes to curl to the top of the key. If the screen is successful, Barnes will be open, because one of the high defenders will be focused on Marshall while the other is removed from the play by Henson's screen. LIU's Jason Brickman does a good job of fighting through the screen and not letting Barnes get an open look, but this leaves Henson open to slip the screen into the paint.

UNC Play 1.2

Let's examine how the defense would have looked had Henson flashed from the baseline to the top of the foul line, instead of slipping the screen to make the foul-line catch. If he came from the baseline, the middle defender, Mayorga, would have had the responsibility to cover Henson and not let Marshall make the easy entry pass. Boyd would have stepped back to defend Zeller (after briefly defending Marshall) and Long Island would have been in position to properly guard the set.

UNC Play 1.3

Since Boyd does not see Zeller cutting to the block right away, Boyd does not recover quickly enough back to the block to allow Mayorga to step up to Henson.

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This leaves Mayorga in a bit of a bind. If he leaves Zeller to defend Henson at the high post, Marshall will dump the ball into Zeller for the easy two. Since Zeller is closer to the basket than Henson, Mayorga makes the right decision to stay with Zeller, but it leaves the paint wide open for Henson. Marshall finds him on the slip of the screen; Mayorga is too late to cut him off without fouling, and he sends Henson to the line.

With the combination of Zeller cutting through from the opposite wing to the block and Henson making his way to the high post from the top of the key instead of the baseline, Henson is unguarded and the paint is wide open. This is a well-designed play to spread the defense and get Henson open in a favorable position in the paint.

Carolina Zone Set No. 2

About a minute later, UNC runs another nice set, time time leading to a Henson alley-oop. This play is keyed by a cutter from the opposite side of the court, similar to Zeller's cut in the previous set. This time, Barnes cuts through from the opposite wing (shown below in red). Notice that Zeller is floating in the middle of the paint, occupying the defender in the middle of the zone. It appears from the start he might crowd the play, but his positioning is crucial in taking the focus of the defender off of Henson while he uses the screen.

UNC Play 2.1

Barnes cuts baseline to set the screen on LIU's Kyle Johnson, the bottom-left defender in the zone. With Zeller occupying the middle defender, as shown above, this eliminates both defenders from being able to stop Henson from receiving the alley-oop. From there, all it takes is a pass delivered from Marshall to complete the scoring play. A simple screen leads to an easy alley-oop, but it's Zeller's positioning that really makes the play work.

UNC Play 2.2

If Zeller sets up on the opposite side of the basket, Boyd has the responsibility to defend him, leaving Mayorga to bump Henson coming off of the screen and break up the alley-oop. Instead, Mayorga still has responsibility for Zeller and can't step off of him quickly enough to challenge the pass. With Barnes setting a great screen, Henson is left with a wide-open lane to the rim for the dunk.

The Mikan Drill can be found on Twitter @TheMikanDrill.