What happened to UNC vs. Miami and why it matters going forward

The roller coaster ride that is the 2021-22 basketball season for UNC made a harsh turn down in South Beach. Following two straight wins, things went topsy-turvy vs. Miami.

Once again, the Tar Heels struggled defensively, which is a theme of the season, highlighted by a several high-profile defeats. North Carolina now has five defeats on the season; in all five of those games, the Tar Heels have allowed more than 1.20 points per possession.

The Miami matchup was a little different, though, as North Carolina put together its least-efficient offensive performance of the season: 0.82 points per possession. North Carolina was loose with the basketball — turning it over on 20.2 percent of the offensive possessions. UNC also struggled mightily from beyond the arc: 6-of-30 on 3-point attempts (20 3P%).

Now, over the course of a long season, any team is liable to have at least a couple off nights on offense, including a particularly bad outing, such as this. However, the larger concern centers on a defense that doesn’t generate turnovers and allows far too much freedom for opposing pick-and-roll attacks.


Miami, At A Glance

Miami features an incredibly functional half-court offense, which presents a lot of issues for all opponents — not just North Carolina. They have multiple ball handlers, multiple floor-spacers in the frontcourt and don’t turn the basketball over.

In fact, the Hurricanes often have three experienced ball handlers on the floor together. Isaiah Wong, Kam McGusty and Charlie Moore have played 413 minutes together this season. Miami has an offensive rating of 120 points per 100 possessions with that trio on the floor, according to Pivot Analysis.

The upshot: it’s hard to limit the Hurricanes, or take more than one thing away.

You have to do more than control your own turnovers and limit transition opportunities; the Hurricanes are happy to play in a possession-by-possession game. Once you get it to a half-court affair, it’s hard to speed Miami up with pressure. They have multiple creators and it’s in their DNA to take care of the basketball.

Currently, Miami ranks No. 5 nationally in turnover rate: 13.5 percent. That’s on pace to be the program’s best mark since the 2014-15 season.

As UNC discovered, trapping is a precious option vs. Miami. Once the ball handler hits his outlet pass, the trap is in trouble. Miami is patient and comfortable playing in 4-on-3 scenarios.

When Miami plays a more traditional center, the Hurricanes are more palatable to trap against, although there’s still enough shooting to offset the difference. Led by McGusty, Miami ranks fifth in the ACC with a spot-up efficiency of 1.0 points per possession.

To be clear, Miami can hurt you in transition; however, Jim Larranaga’s club doesn’t need those transition buckets to make the offense hum. According to Synergy Sports, Miami’s scored 0.98 points per half-court possession vs. man-to-man defense this season, which is a top-20 number nationally and good for No. 1 in the ACC.



Miami’s non-traditional approach to offense this season features more 5-out looks. With a healthy Sam Waardenburg, the Hurricanes are able to open to the floor and dot the arc with five shooters, which I wrote about a few weeks back.

Currently, Waardenburg is one of only six high-major players — 6-foot-9 or taller — shooting 40+ percent from beyond the arc (35+ 3PA), along with Jabari Smith (Auburn), Pete Nance (Northwestern), Isaiah Mobley (USC) and Notre Dame’s Nate Laszewski.

Early on vs. UNC, Miami ran a lot of 5-out sets from its Delay package. It starts as a symmetrical look: Waardenburg catches the ball in the middle, with two perimeter players on each side. Those pairings will engage in some off-ball exchange. Frequently, this means Chicago action: a pindown screen into a dribble handoff with Waardenburg.

This time, though, McGusty doesn’t take the handoff. Instead, Miami flows into empty-corner two-man game with Moore and Waardenburg. Moore drives and collapses the defense; Miami sprays the ball around and an overextended UNC defense allows an open 3.

Waardenburg drained five 3-pointers vs. UNC. In total, the sixth-year stretch-5 scored 21 points on nine field goal attempts.

Here’s more of that Delay Chicago action from Miami. With Waardenburg as the axis, the Hurricanes reverse sides of the floor. Moore penetrates and kicks out for another Waardenburg 3.

The empty-corner looks out of Delay can be really tough to guard. Even when you defend the actions correctly, Miami still has a couple of game-breakers that can save the possession.

Wong is one of top tough shot-makers in the country.

So far this season, Wong’s shot 55.6 percent on his 2-point attempts — with 88.1 percent of his 2-point field goals coming unassisted.

He has the ability to turn the corner off this Chicago action, too.

UNC: Trouble vs. Screen Roll or Pop

North Carolina mixes up pick-and-roll coverages. For the most part, UNC wants to defend with a higher drop — keeping Armando Bacot and Brady Manek a little under the screen. When a less threatening shooter is running the ball screen, UNC will drop deeper in the paint.

Unsurprisingly, both of these options are susceptible to pick-and-pop action.

Waardenburg is above the arc when he catches this pass from Bensley Joseph, while Manek’s right foot is on the foul line. That’s a lot of space.

During the second half, Miami runs simple spread pick-and-pop with McGusty and Waardenburg. Bacot plays just below the screen. McGusty’s dribble penetration pushes Bacot into the paint. Leaky Black trails in rearview pursuit. Once again, Waardenburg is open on the pop.

This is an easy pitch-and-catch; RJ Davis doesn’t come hard enough on the stunt. It’s another open 3-ball for the best shooter Miami has to offer.

After Waardenburg hit a handful of 3s, Bacot understandably started to get jumpy. Here’s another pick-and-pop look. With Bacot basically at the level of the screen, Moore drives by Davis. Instead of hanging in the lane to curtail the drive, Bacot lunges out at Waardenburg.

Moore’s rim pressure forces back-line help, which puts North Carolina’s defense in rotation. Jordan Miller can’t stick the jumper; however, the result is another wide-open 3-point attempt.


Icy Times

If the screen takes place on the side, UNC can Ice those looks. However, Ice coverage can be vulnerable to pick-and-pop action with a stretch-5. On this possession, RJ Davis and Bacot down/Ice the screen. Waardenburg pops; after a nifty behind-the-back pass from Moore, look how much ground Bacot must cover to closeout on the jumper.

Kerwin Walton stunts and contests Waardenburg’s 3-ball, which is technically correct. Unfortunately, the stunt doesn’t come with nearly enough force. The 6-foot-10 Waardenburg can bomb over this all night.

This is something that all ACC foes must be ready for: if you drop or Ice Miami, while Waardenburg is on the floor, the Hurricanes will look for the pop 3.

Horns Twist

Later in the first half, Miami went to one of its go-to sets: Horns Twist.

This is a mostly standard pick-and-roll play type, which starts from of a Horns set. To launch the action, the ball handler will receive two ball screens. First, the ball handler will drag the action toward the sideline, off the initial screen. After that, the second screener will run over and the ball handler will dribble off that pick — moving in the opposite direction.

Wong is an absolute force from this look, too. Wong comes off the first screen from Waardenburg, then twists back off another screen from Miller. Caleb Love goes under the second screen, which proves fatal. Wong uses the space and gets to a step-back 3-pointer.

A few possessions later, the Hurricanes use the same Horns Twist look to close the first half. North Carolina blitzes Wong and Miller slips into space as the outlet target. Miller isn’t just a spot-up threat; the George Mason transfer can play with the ball some as well. As Miller drives, UNC gets put into rotation, the ball pings around and finds its way back to Wong.

During Miami’s comeback win over NC State last month, the Hurricanes milked this play down the stretch. The Hurricanes ran Horns Twist on eight consecutive half-court possessions over the final eight minutes, scoring seven times for a total of 17 points: 2.13 points per possession.

When all else fails, Miami can dial up this action. It’s a low-turnover possession type, too. Most of the time, the ball won’t leave Wong’s hands. He’ll just dribble until he gets fouled or shoots the ball.


Zip It Up And Zip It Out

Early in the second half, the Hurricanes went to another package that’s been a staple of theirs all season. The action starts for Miami with a loose box set; quickly, either Wong or McGusty will perform a zipper cut up the lane, come off a brush/pin screen and receive a pass from the point guard.

As that happens, the other wing will come off a pindown and (usually) receive a dribble handoff (DHO) from the player who caught the initial pass.

During this possession, Wong zips up and is the initial receiver — with a pass from McGusty. On the weak side of the floor, Joseph comes off a pindown from Waardenburg. The freshman guard enters into a DHO with Wong and gets a ball screen from Anthony Walker. (Quick note: the DHO into a ball screen can be referred to as “Miami” action.)

As Walker rolls to the basket, McGusty replaces him above the arc. With UNC’s defense moving around, McGusty smokes Justin McKoy’s closeout and gets to the rim for an and-one.

This is a lot of movement and pieces flying around in different directions — handoffs, screens, slips. Miami isn’t lining up and running rote spread pick-and-roll action. There’s a lot to account for, including plenty of decoy/dummy action.

Now, it’s Wong’s turn to use the dribble-handoff/ball screen action. Wong turns the corner and creates a decent look for Waardenburg, which he turns down. Waardenburg and Wong flow into another DHO; Dawson Garcia drops, Walton fights over the top and Wong drains another triple.

Lastly, Miami runs this same set again. This time, however, McGusty doesn’t hand the ball off to Wong. Instead, McGusty fakes the DHO and keeps the ball, which the Tar Heels were unprepared for: the result is pull-up 2 for McGusty.


Next Up for UNC: Wake Forest

Throughout the course of this season, North Carolina has experienced issues with powerful pick-and-roll offenses. A few weeks back, Notre Dame gutted UNC with its continuity ball screen attack.

Once more, there were issues with how North Carolina defended 5-out looks and pick-and-pops, especially vs. Laszewski (43.1 3P%).

Eventually, Hubert Davis had his team switch on those side-to-side ball screen actions. That strategy keeps the ball in front and avoids some rotation efforts; however, if the solution involves switching Manek on Blake Wesley, well, is it actually a solution? (The answer: no, it’s not.)

Look, not every teams has dynamic pick-and-roll creators; Wong, McGusty and Wesley, especially, are great talents. Very few teams have legit stretch-5s, like Waardenburg and Laszewski.

However, Wake Forest is next up on the schedule for UNC, which could spell trouble.

The Demon Deacons feature the ACC’s top downhill driver: Alondes Williams. The Oklahoma transfer plays will fury and grace; he’ll tenaciously attack the rim, draw fouls and spray laser-beam-type skip passes all over the floor.

At the forward spots, Steve Forbes has two 6-foot-8 guys that can really shoot: Isaiah Mucius and Jake LaRavia.

LaRavia doubles as an excellent playmaker and passer, which is put to use in a variety of contexts, including when the Deacons shift to 5-out looks.

Wake Forest doesn’t have a stretch-5 that’s the same caliber of Waardenburg, but Dallas Walton (6-of-29 3PA) and Khadim Sy (11-of-32 3PA) aren’t afraid to let it fly. (Forbes plays those two together a lot, too.)

The Demon Deacons run a fair amount of Ram pick-and-roll, which is screen-the-screener action into a ball screen for Williams. This can scramble up assignments and be tough to defend.

Complicating matters, the threat of the pop opens the floor up for Williams. If you give Williams an inch, he’ll take a mile.

During the 2020-21 season, Wake Forest ran a lot of continuity ball screen offense. That’s been a much smaller piece of the portfolio this season, though.

Instead, Wake Forest runs more Chin pick-and-roll this season. UNC must be ready for Chin looks and 5-out/motion sets from Wake Forest, which can be used to lift opposing defenses and create back cut opportunities.


UNC: No Flex, Zone

Wake Forest is on the horizon, but Alondes Williams isn’t the only pick-and-roll guard in the ACC that could present challenges to UNC. Two Saturdays from now, North Carolina will host NC State and Dereon Seabron, a super-talented 6-foot-7 downhill driver. Of course, matchups with Wendell Moore Jr. (currently in a rough patch), Trevor Keels and Duke loom, too.

Switching Bacot and Manek on guys like Williams and Seabron is a huge risk.

Ultimately, for North Carolina to jump a level this season, the Heels will need to improve defensively. If North Carolina maxes out as a top-75 defense, how good can this team really be? The ACC is down this year; UNC has lots of skill on offense. They can still win games in the league. Beyond that, though, the ceiling feels murky, currently.

This is where I circle back to the prospect of Davis mixing in some zone coverages. I’ve written about this plenty; it certainly doesn’t seem like something North Carolina’s staff wants, which is fine. The Tar Heels have played one possession of zone defense this season, per Synergy Sports.

As Davis builds this thing out, he can recruit and use the transfer portal to construct a more potent and flexible defense.

In the interim, however, this is the roster. No doubt, there’s talent here, but there are also certain limitations. When Bacot and Manek play together, this is a slower frontcourt. North Carolina’s guards struggle at the point of attack guarding ball screens and on weak-side stunts.

One very obvious way to eliminate these coverages concerns would be to play zone.


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