4 Questions UNC’s Defense must answer vs. Duke: Starting with Caleb Love and the pick-and-roll

Whenever Duke and North Carolina play in basketball, it’s a big deal. This year, however, offers a unique angle into the rivalry: Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement tour. On Saturday, for the last time in his 42-year tenure with Duke, Coach K will lead his team into Chapel Hill.

Meanwhile, Hubert Davis experienced the Duke-North Carolina rivalry for the first time as a player back in Jan. 1989 —  and then for over a decade as an assistant coach with Roy Williams. Now, Davis will get his first crack as North Carolina’s head coach.

As intriguing as the narratives may be, this game will be played on the floor. This may not be a traditional UNC roster, but there’s still a lot of talent for the Tar Heels. Duke has five NBA Draft picks on its roster, including two of the top overall prospects in the country: Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin. That mix of player will compete for bragging rights and first place in the ACC.

This game features several compelling matchups and scheme decisions. For a contest that’s projected to be a competitive, tight affair, the team that wins most of these mini-skirmishes could come away victorious. With that in mind, let’s dive in on four questions North Carolina must address when Duke has the basketball.


Quick Fundamentals

First, let’s take a quick look at North Carolina’s defensive fundamentals.

This defense doesn’t force many turnovers; the Tar Heels rank 356th nationally with an opponent turnover rate of just 13.3 percent. However, this group — in lieu of generating turnovers — does a nice job closing possessions with a defensive rebound.

Led by Armando Bacot, North Carolina ranks No. 3 nationally in defensive rebound rate: 79.8 percent. Bacot, who is averaging 12.5 rebounds per game (16.8 per 40 minutes), has an individual defensive rebound rate of 31.1 percent, a top-10 number nationally.

The Kentucky game was an outlier performance for the Heels. Oscar Tshiebwe grabbed four offensive rebounds; as a team, the Wildcats rebounded 45.9 percent of their misses. Going through Bart Torvik’s database: since the 2007-08 season, UNC has allowed an opponent offensive rebound rate above 45 percent in a single game just 14 times. (Four of those occurrences were in the 2009-10 season, too.)

Similar to Duke, North Carolina manages to play aggressive, uptempo basketball while not fouling all too often. North Carolina’s defense ranks 15th in the country in terms of opponent free throw attempt rate: 21.6 percent. Only 13.5 percent of opponent points vs. UNC’s defense have come from the free throw line.

Duke’s defense has an opponent free throw attempt rate of just 17.7 percent — No. 1 nationally. Less than 12 percent of opponent points vs. Duke originate from the free throw line.

According to KenPom, UNC ranks 79th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The defense has allowed an opponent to score above 1.20 points per possession six times this season. The Tar Heels have a record of 1-5 in those games — with the lone win coming vs. Brown, back on Nov. 12.


What to do in the pick-and-roll?

As far as North Carolina’s defense goes, everything starts with the pick-and-roll: how will the Tar Heels defend these actions? And: how effectively can they apply those strategies?

Bacot and Brady Manek are a wonderful fit together on offense; they’re complementary pieces, with skill sets that amplify one another. Defensively, though, well, it’s not ideal. Neither player is very quick laterally. Both guys can struggle in space vs. quicker guards, too.

Dawson Garcia is mobile and has shown the ability to move his feet in space — going back to his time at Marquette and during the pre-draft process in 2021. Unfortunately, Garcia will miss Saturday’s game. Garcia is away from the team and with his family.

So, for the most part, it’s up to Bacot and Manek to handle these tasks. That hasn’t always gone well this year. In fact, North Carolina’s defense has been most combustible against spread pick-and-roll offenses that feature good lead ball-handlers or elite downhill drivers.

When UNC’s tried to guard pick-and-roll by bringing the screen defender all the way up to the level of the screen, it’s been too easy for certain opponents to turn the corner or change directions and get into the paint.

Here, Kentucky’s Tyty Washington smokes Caleb Love with a crossover. Bacot is at the level of Tshiebwe’s screen and the paint is wide open. Garcia helps on the drive, which leaves Keion Brooks open for the dunk.

Opponents are shooting 61.6 percent on close 2-point attempts vs. UNC this season — in part because they can be susceptible to giving up the lane.

Here’s a similar breakdown vs. Tennessee and Kennedy Chandler. It appears as though Bacot was hoping to show some force against the star freshman point guard with a hard show or a trap. Either way, Chandler rejects the screen and races by Love for a layup.

This has been an issue with Love this season, too. Opposing guards hit him with a crossover or an inside-out maneuver and instantly gain advantage.

Of course, Alondes Williams lived in the paint during Wake Forest’s win over North Carolina: 5-of-7 attempts at the basket.

Now, to be fair, Chandler, Washington and Williams are excellent players. These are some of the best pick-and-roll guards in the country. (Chandler’s performance during a December win at Colorado is one of the best games for a prospect, regardless of position, so far this season.)

However, the process isn’t very good at the point of attack.

Solid pick-and-roll defense relies on more than just the big man and what coverages the defense deploys. It’s a collective effort. At times, Love leaves his teammates out to dry.

Jake LaRavia sets this screen pretty high here — on top of the mid-court logo. This allows Williams to gather some steam and fly by Manek — sans resistance.

When the big men have played further off the screen, the point-of-attack defense doesn’t offer enough initial punch on the basketball. Even if ball handler can’t pressure the rim, they’re able to settle into pull-up jumpers.

Of course, good offense will usually beat good defense. Washington makes a pretty tough shot here.

These drops can also open up the lane for the screener to roll in the direction of the rim.

During this possession vs. Tennessee, Manek initially comes to the level; Tennessee flips the screen and Chandler drives off of it to his right. Manek drops deeper the second time, while Loves gets stuck on the re-screen. Chandler snakes the screen and the roll man is wide open.

When UNC lost last month up in South Bend, the Tar Heels were blitzed by Notre Dame’s continuity ball screen offense.

Notre Dame has very good offensive personnel, including two quality ball handlers: Prentiss Hubb and Blake Wesley, one of the most talented guards in the country. Time after time, Notre Dame generated efficient looks from all over the floor.

This type of empty-side pick-and-pop is tough to defend, especially when you give up the middle; there’s just no natural help to run at the 3-point shooter.

North Carolina’s had issues with 5-out sets and pick-and-pop shooters this season. Notre Dame’s Nate Lazewski got good looks. So, too, did Miami’s Sam Waardenburg. The 3s Waardenburg got, however, came in the middle of the floor — with a poor showing from North Carolina’s weak-side defenders.

Early on in the Notre Dame game, Davis opted to have Manek and Bacot switch. By using the switch, in theory, UNC could keep the ball in front and avoid back-side rotations.

In application, though, this approach made things all too easy for Notre Dame. The Irish could quickly scramble the matchups, then go 1-on-1 with a guard vs. a post player 22 feet from the rim.

North Carolina may want to switch on Paolo Banchero-Mark Williams pick-and-rolls, which is a pet play for Duke. Banchero can be coaxed into pull-up midrange looks when that happens. He’s an excellent midrange scorer, but P5 shooting from 19 feet is better than him driving downhill and tearing the rim off.

In general, though, it’s likely not a winning strategy for North Carolina to switch Bacot and Manek on Wendell Moore Jr., Trevor Keels and Jeremy Roach, especially if that puts, say, RJ Davis in the post vs. Banchero.

Instead, when the ball screen comes in the middle of the floor, UNC can try to play to the level or drop into the paint. In this case, it’s vital that UNC take away the roll man; weak-side defenders must be ready to bump and tag, then rotate back out.

Duke has good pull-up shooters, but a defense can’t take away everything; pushing the Blue Devils into off-dribble jumpers could be considered a win, of sorts. Regardless: Love, Davis and Leaky Black must be ready to set the tone and fight hard on those middle screen-roll actions.

Bacot has blocked 11 shots over the last three games; his back-line rim protection was very good against NC State. The junior center may be tempted to get involved at the rim defensively vs. Duke, too.

However, if Bacot over-helps, that leaves the rim exposed for 7-footer Mark Williams, who leads the ACC with 50 dunks in 21 games.

Williams ranks inside the top 50 nationally with an offensive rebound rate of 14 percent. He’s also shooting 72.7 percent on non-post-up attempts at the rim, according to Synergy Sports.

If Bacot leaves his feet to challenge a drive at the hoop, he’s essentially rolling out the red carpet for Williams: drop-off passes or put-back dunk opportunities. This will be a fine line for Bacot to walk.


Can UNC’s Ice cool off Duke’s fire?

Last weekend’s matchup with NC State was an interesting litmus test for North Carolina’s defense. The Wolfpack entered the game shorthanded; however, with Dereon Seabron, Kevin Keatts has a dangerous pick-and-roll driver. Freshman guard Terquavion Smith has also come on strong as one of the ACC’s most explosive perimeter scorers.

These are the types of players that have given North Carolina trouble. Smith had a big game (34 points); however, Seabron, an elite creator of rim pressure, was held in check. The future All-ACC wing scored a season-low two points. He shot just 1-of-6 at the rim.

Right from the jump, it was obvious that North Carolina wanted to take away the middle from Seabron and Smith. The Tar Heels “iced” ball screens on the side of the floor. To do so, the on-ball defender (Caleb Love), would step in front of the screener and angle his body parallel with the sideline. On the back side, the screen defender (Bacot) would drop and eliminate a baseline drive.

The plan here is to keep the ball on one side of the floor, deny the driving lanes and force passes over the top of the defense to get a ball reversal.

This is the type of point-of-attack defense UNC needs from Love vs. the Blue Devils.

NC State uses a variety of pick-and-roll concepts to create its half-court screening actions; however, the Pack are a little boxed in with the lack of a playmaker or shooter at center.

When opponents “ice” these side pick-and-roll looks, the screener/center is open on the pop. During the 2017-18 season, the first of the Keatts era, Markell Johnson and Omer Yurtseven (50 3P%) would punish these types of coverages. That’s not in the repertoire for Jaylon Gibson, though.

Gibson isn’t a threat to shoot from deep; he’s also unlikely to make a play as a passer. When he catches the outlet pass from Seabron, UNC has time to rotate back and reset the defense, while precious seconds drip away on the shot clock.

It’s not just Gibson. Those same issues occurred with Manny Bates and DJ Funderburk, too.

For Saturday’s matchup: Will UNC be able to keep Duke pinned on one side of the floor?

This process starts with the screen defender (Bacot or Manek) making sure he’s positioned properly: down low, between the ball handler in the basket. On this possession, Bacot gets caught high and Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler wins a race to the rim.

Next, it’s up to the on-ball defender to angle his body and keep the ball handler on that side. The no-middle approach works only if, well, the defense doesn’t let the ball handler get to the middle of the floor with a live dribble.

When that happens, lanes to the rim can widen, quickly.

When Duke won in Winston-Salem last month, the Blue Devils crushed Wake Forest’s ice scheme. Duke runs a lot of slot pick-and-roll, which Wake Forest tried to keep on one side of the floor. However, that’s nearly impossible to do when Banchero is the screener and passing outlet.

With some advantage, Banchero can catch in space — with room to drive. Banchero can get to his midrange game, look to make a pass or shoot a 3-pointer from the slot.

Given the interior power of Bacot, it’s logical to assume that Duke will want to play a traditional center for matchup purposes: Mark Williams or Theo John. When Bacot sits, though, Coach K will have an opportunity to go small — if he wants it: move Bachero to the 5 and get an extra ball handler or shooter on the floor.

It’s incredibly difficult to defend the Blue Devils when they downsize around Banchero. This includes attempts to ice ball screens.

When Williams is on the floor vs. ice coverages, he still wants to get to the front of the rim. That’s why it’s imperative to tag or bump Williams and make sure help-side assignments are sound.

Duke’s ball handlers will patiently probe the defense, all the while keeping an eye on the slow-burn roll from Williams.

If the help defense is too worried about weak-side shooters, then Williams can slide in for a high-percentage finish.

Who will Leaky Black guard?

Leaky Black is North Carolina’s top defender and an important card to play for Hubert Davis. The 6-foot-8 senior wing can be a force on the basketball. When he’s locked in, Black can be really good guarding a variety of player types. Black drew the primary assignment on Seabron, which was a major win for UNC.

With that said, Black isn’t a Reece Beekman-style on-ball stopper. There are lapses with his coverages.

Black can also be used as an off-ball chase defender. During the Notre Dame game, Black covered Dane Goodwin, while Caleb Love took on Wesley, primarily.

When Virginia Tech came to Chapel Hill, Black spent a lot of time guarding Hunter Cattoor, a dynamic off-ball mover and 3-point shooter. There were some good moments in this role for Black.

However, Black also has some bad off-ball tendencies. His screen navigation can be shaky — with Black getting caught on a screen as an offensive player runs free into space.

Other times, Black will loose touch with his assignment. He has the length and skill to correct these mistakes, but that type of reactive defending can lead to trouble, too, especially against a quick-release shooter like Cattoor.

Duke’s offense features multiple ball handlers. When Trevor Keels missed time due to a leg injury, Jeremy Roach took on more playmaking duties. Given the positional and size similarities, it seems likely that RJ Davis would match Roach.

Depending on who’s on the floor, this means putting Black on a creator — like Wendell Moore Jr. or Trevor Keels — or an off-ball shooter: AJ Griffin.

Despite some midseason regression, Moore is Duke’s top perimeter creator: 21.2 percent usage rate, 23.1 percent assist rate. He’s an excellent mix of size, passing and shooting (40.3 3P%). Moore is a logical starting place for Black, although if Keels gets rolling then things may need to shift.

Davis gives up a lot of weight and power to Keels; however, he’ll likely need to defend him on certain possessions.

Duke has looked to post Keels at time this season. Once again, that’s something they could look for vs. Davis: Keels outweighs Davis by like 40-50 pounds. UNC may just have to live with that.

A case can be made that Black should cover Griffin, an elite wing talent who finds offense coming off pindowns, relocating for 3-pointers or cutting to the rim.

Griffin is an underrated cutter; he’ll happily move without the basketball, and he has a knack for timing his cuts to take advantage of unsuspecting defenders.

Moreover, the Blue Devils have started to call more plays for Griffin coming off screens, including this baseline runner action.

Griffin’s shoots with a wide base; his release isn’t nearly as quick as Cattoor’s. There’s a little more margin for error in that regard; however, if he gets too much space, Griffin (33-of-66 3PA) will make a defense pay, badly.

Black may also see time against Banchero, especially when UNC switches or if the Tar Heels elect to play some smaller lineups (Leaky at the 4) vs. Duke. With Puff Johnson seeing more playing time in recent games, UNC can go small and still have two rangy 6-foot-8 hybrid wings on the floor together.

That’s risky, though: UNC would be exposed on the glass and, given Banchero’s ability to draw contact (drawing 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes this season), it could endanger Black to foul trouble. Johnson is new to the rotation, too. It’s hard to gauge his role for this type of game.

Hubert Davis could go with this tactic right from the jump. If that happens, then Brady Manek would need to chase Griffin, which seems less than optimal for UNC. That alone may be a deal-breaker.

If Leaky gets the Griffin assignment, though, that means Love likely takes on Moore. That’s a potential concern as well. Love has good size to defend on the ball, but his screen navigation is problematic. He’s liable to being taken off the dribble, which creates all kinds of other problems. Plus, Moore is plenty capable of rejecting screens and getting downhill.


Caleb Love: Can he lock in as a chase defender?

Assuming Black gets assigned the Moore assignment, this probably pushes Love out to Griffin, away from the ball. During his two seasons with UNC, Love has now doubt had some highlight reel plays as a defender. He’s eager to jump passing lanes and has shown some nice flashes of defensive anticipation.

Love has a career steal rate of 2.3 percent, which is nothing to sneeze at. He can be a playmaker on defense, which is used to ignite North Carolina’s go-go transition offense.

When opponents put Love in pindown actions, however, he’s guilty of taking bad paths to find his way back to his man.

Those problematic flights patterns for Love also occur when he’s asked to chase around a flare screen, for instance.

Often, he loses touch with his man and it puts North Carolina’s defense in bad spots.

Love has a troublesome tendency to want to cheat over the top of screens — possibly an effort to get into passing lanes with his wingspan.

This leaves North Carolina exposed to open 3-point attempts when the off-ball mover fades or ducks behind the screen.

Going back to his freshman season, Love has been prone to ball-watching. It doesn’t take much for a cutter to seize this opportunity and dart into space.

When his man relocates and catches the ball along the perimeter, Love’s closeouts aren’t always sharp either, which can create secondary driving lanes against UNC’s half-court defense.

All of this is to say: Love is capable of locking in and playing impactful two-way basketball. Anything short of that on defense can cause trouble, though.

Griffin is young, but he’s a savvy, industrious wing. If there’s an opening, he’ll pounce. Duke’s offense hits another level when Griffin starts floating around for 3s and cutting to the rim for dunks.

The margins are slim in this game. The effectiveness of Love as a defender, along with the assignment he draws, will play a key role in determining the outcome.


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