@ North Carolina 2/25/2023

A struggle on the road following a grim performance on the road. I will, fortunately or unfortunately, have to write a shorter Cut for this game as I’ll be travelling unexpectedly later today through the rest of the week (won’t have a Clemson recording but we’ll see what clips are out there after that and may be able to write from the road). So, I’m going to have to pick my poison re: what I want to highlight.

To be frank, it was mostly the same issues that have been plaguing us since February; struggles defensively and offensively mostly as a result of being undersized on both ends compounded by teams adjusting to our offensive strategy; which lead to harder shots (and the continuation of lack of shooting confidence) for us and easier shots for them. When you give up 15 collective inches across your starters, that simply makes everything harder on both ends. You have to double team more defensively, creating advantage for them and hoping they don’t take advantage of it, shots are easier for them as they don’t need as much space to fire away (and their much higher than average shooting percentage demonstrated this). Offensively, our shooting struggles remained. Most of that was a result of lower quality looks; far too many in the mid-range and far too many forcing shots up against the trees inside when it wasn’t open. Some of it was a result of lack of shooting confidence as a result of those things. You get punchier trying to finish around the rim when you’ve been blocked several times, you second guess your outside shots whether or not their length will bother you or if you haven’t been seeing the ball go through the net. This is what we’re struggling through right now as defenses like UNC have made a concerted effort to take away the clean drives and outside looks for our shooting guards that we thrived on earlier in the year. This will be what I spotlight in a moment.

The narrative about the game (especially because CTB championed this in his postgame interview) is that we played much better in the second half. While it’s definitely true – we were down 16 going into the half and made up 8 points in the second half – we were still down 16 with 3:31 to go in the game. They basically held onto their margin and then we put in the rarely used 4-guard lineup with Gardner, UNC was a little unsure of how to handle it and, simply, wasn’t playing with the same intensity at that point in the game as we were in frantic comeback mode and they were just salting away the game. Basically, we played them about even in the second half when you look at what was likely to be repeatable in a contest moving forward. Certainly an improvement, and I’ll talk about a few of the things we did better/more aggressively offensively below, but it still wasn’t what we’ve seen from this team at times this season. And, mainly, it was because we could never string together enough defensive stops to get back into the game after conceding such a large lead. We gave up too much around the rim, we gave up too many open outside looks because we were so invested in trying to stop the advantage they had inside, RJ Davis has great success with Clark guarding him, and we often didn’t have help back there to be able to help. Between Shedrick’s 7 minutes and Dunn’s 10, we had true rim protection on the floor less than half the game. Dunn, as effective as he was in some areas on defense, still isn’t able to match up with Bacot, so Gardner would still have to do it when they played together. Less than ideal. Regarding Shedrick, he barely played in the second half. His one sequence where he was really involved in the half was a rough one that I’ll just show right here:

Now, this is a bad sequence for plays, there’s no denying. The out of bounds play is run to get him a look in the pick and roll going to the rim. He gets the pass, but just doesn’t have control of his body, it’s like he was going to jump at the rim to dunk but when the contest came from Bacot tried to alter to shoot like a running jump shot style layup that missed badly. Then coming back the other way, he was late to position and just got out muscled/umbrellaed with his arms instead of going straight up. I can understand being frustrated with this sequence, especially down only 9 and having designed a play for him – it was a bad sequence. But, I’m here to tell you that the 6-7 minutes he played in the first half were the best we played as a team in that half; especially defensively (I’ll talk about the offense later). UNC turned the ball over several times and had much less success going inside with the ball. Other players took worse shots and made worse mistakes than this in this game; why can’t we let him play through these? It certainly seems like getting into a rhythm and not being worried about a constant hook would help his confidence. It certainly couldn’t hurt us worse than letting Bacot clean up on the offensive glass or Pete Nance go for 22 shooting over much smaller players.

The quick hook for Kadin has created this narrative that CTB “can’t” play him. It’s simply untrue.

Alright, won’t continue to belabor that point as I’ve already written so much about it, but let’s do take a look at how UNC played us defensively and how that impacted what we were doing.

Digesting the Offense

I’ve written in the past and it’s cropping up again over the past month or so, that Jayden Gardner being our offensive workhorse is usually a bad sign for how well we’re playing offensively. Don’t get me wrong, Jayden has been fantastic for several games now. He thrives with rhythm and volume, has been really hustling and laying it all out on the floor, and has very much improved his shooting in the mid-range as the season has progressed. The problem is, those increased opportunities are a result of not being able to find the higher quality looks we were getting more of earlier in the year, around the rim and from three. His offense becomes a fail safe for when other things aren’t working, which is good, but it also serves as a proverbial “check engine” light.

In this game Hubert Davis had a very clear strategy on the defensive side of the ball that was clearly a result of scouting what we were doing very well. It was designed to aggressively help on drives in the lane. It switched much of our screen actions and allowed their collective size advantage to play almost positionless in that way. They focused, especially, on not allowing our best shooters (IMK and Franklin) clean looks from outside, while being highly focused on being aware of our clear out attempts for the guards on the inside. And, finally, it was comfortable giving up the midrange jump shot. We saw Gardner make (but also miss) a good number of these. Clark, Franklin, Beekman, McKneely, BVP, everyone settled for these shots far too often because they couldn’t get open outside and the lane was usually clogged with superior length. Now, sure, we could have hit more of these shots than we did when they presented, but these are some of the least efficient shots in basketball. Obviously are they worth one point less than threes when you make them, but they’re also so variable in distance that you don’t have the same muscle memory that you do from three, where most of your shots come from near the line and a similar distance. UNC was fine with letting someone like Jayden, who shoots these shots all of the time, take these and was thrilled to have the rest of our guys pulling up in the midrange with such regularity.

Here’s an initial look, and we’ll build out some examples to illustrate some of the variables here. We’re running Sides out of the gate so, I’m excited to report that we seem to be moving toward integrating all of the offenses we’ve run this year. BVP sets a ball screen for Beekman and immediately Nance switches onto him and Love stays with BVP. There’s no pressure to do this, they opt to do it and it’s clearly by design. Beekman passes it over to Gardner in the high post and BVP attempts to make himself available for a lob pass over Love. We did hit that pass once early in the second half but, for the most part, a big part of the problem against UNC is that BVP wasn’t reliably able to take advantage of these switches. We’ll showcase that a little more later. The ball goes to Franklin who runs a two-man game with Gardner, but Bacot just drops deep to cut off the driving lane for Armaan while easily stepping back out to Gardner when he gets the ball. The ball resets to Kihei who runs a pick and flare with BVP, still with Love on him, who probably should have taken that look as soon as it got to him given where we were in the shot clock. Instead, he cycles the ball back to Kihei who passes it into Gardner in the high post, still really unable to create much himself vs. Bacot who can just give him a few feet of space and still contest. Gardner decides not to try anything, passes back out to Clark who then has the unenviable task of trying to create something himself with four seconds left on the shot clock. It goes predictably. Some timid offense here but, also, just not really much opportunity to exploit, especially if BVP couldn’t take advantage of Love in the post.

This next clip is another great example of how they were prioritizing our threats. We’re in the Triangle now (notice the use of both so early in the game). BVP sets a pin down screen for Franklin at the top of the key and Nance immediately goes with him, a 6’11” hand in his face. The people wondering why Franklin didn’t shoot a three until later in the game? This is why. He had a player 4 inches taller than him in Leaky Black following him around the court most of the time and, when we did set a good screen for him, UNC just switched almost 7 footers out to deny the shot. BVP carries Black into the lane and Bacot stays low to make sure there isn’t a mismatch there. Gardner pops out just inside the three-point line and Franklin hits him for an open shot on the Bacot recover. It’s a good shot by Gardner but, again, UNC made the decision that they were comfortable with us getting these looks, just not others, and it’s a low percentage shot, in general. Long twos. You never want your offense to have to feature long twos.

Here’s a look below from 5-Out (all of the base offensive looks we’ve given this year within the first three clips!). How many times this year have we seen Kihei Clark abuse his man to the tune of a wide-open layup at the rim? Instead, Bacot is very aware of this set/look and sags aggressively off of Gardner to make sure Clark isn’t able to finish at the rim. Clark astutely finds Gardner who hits another midrange jumper but, again, this is the look UNC was comfortable with us having/taking instead of the easier drive and finish in close. It’s smart strategy and it’s what teams are doing more comfortably with us. It’s also a symptom of neither Gardner/BVP being great at following a drive like this to the rim for an easier finish when Clark draws the help. Either would likely still face a strong contest from Bacot (as we see later), so the midrange for Gardner is a necessity here.

Now, UNC has blown the lead out to 8 as we start to miss some of our challenging looks and they start to hit more of their clean looks. Shedrick comes in at first for Gardner and immediately, we get a steal and the lone shotty violache in no small part to his presence inside. But this is about offense, so here’s one of the first looks. First note: teams typically try hard not to switch off of Shedrick. I’ve mentioned this point in the past, but it’s a huge deal, especially in the Triangle, when teams have embraced a switching defense. IMK gets a pretty clean look on a pin down screen from Kadin but opts not to take it. The offense continues moving the ball around without creating a clean opportunity after that until the shot clock tries to run down. So, with the wrinkle of the Triangle where the post player screens for the wing, Shedrick sets a ball screen for Beekman and rolls to the hoop. UNC has to sag to help on the Beekman drive but, instead of flaring into the midrange, Shedrick can just run to the rim and punish the UNC big not staying home. He catches the lob and draws the foul. Sure, you’d absolutely love for him to finish this, but it’s still a much higher percentage shot generally than a two-point jumper and it’s a way to punish this defense that we don’t have with anyone else on the floor.

Now Gardner is back in. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about why Gardner is best paired with Shedrick in the past. Here’s a great example below. Through designed ball screen action UNC switches D’Marco Dunn onto Gardner, while only giving up one inch, Dunn is no match for Gardner inside. This is where he eats. Gardner gives him a delicious up and under move for the easy layup but note, Bacot is right there. He’s standing there the entire time on the other side of the lane, but he refuses to leave Shedrick to attempt to help because of the lob/offensive board threat. He knows he can’t recover to that in the same way he could anyone else. All Shedrick has to do is stay on the opposite block and it creates spacing/opportunity for Gardner with his mismatch, which he is much better at taking advantage of inside than BVP.

We’d trimmed the lead a little, then BVP came back in for Shedrick to pair with Gardner and UNC immediately blew the 6 point lead out to 13. Defensively, we just didn’t have the presence. Offensively, here are a couple of looks below. On this one, just watch how mindful Bacot is being of the potential Clark drive. We start in 5-Out, Bacot is WAY off of Gardner, just not worried about him shooting from out there at all. That deters Kihei trying anything and we get into our offense, eventually lending to Gardner setting a ball screen for Clark. Bacot, again, camps the lane, so Clark settles for the pull up midrange jumper. Now, this is certainly a shot Clark can hit, but it’s also a shot that UNC loves him taking. Clark isn’t an elite midrange pull up jump shooter. He is elite at punishing open space around the rim off of the bounce. They were determined not to give him that.

In this next clip, we see BVP attempt to exploit the mismatch he’s been getting on the switch with Caleb Love on him. But, again, this isn’t really his game and it’s very slow developing off of the bounce. He’s got a huge size advantage on Love but ends up taking a fall away jump shot that misses front iron. This goes back to the personnel issue and (again, please remember the defensive issues on top of this) our not being able to reliably punish the switch at this slot.

Shedrick came in for like one more possession as Davis hit a three over Clark, and then we put Dunn into the game to close the half. Most of the damage had been and was done with the Gardner/BVP pairing. As mentioned, with Dunn, the defense did improve, but it still wasn’t as good as with Shedrick in, on the whole. We will take a look at a few possessions in the second half that illustrate how the offense looked with Dunn on the floor.

In the second half, the offense did improve some. For one, we started trying to punish the switches by having Beekman and Clark drive to the rim when they had a big man on them. This resulted in a lot of blocks for UNC, but also resulted in some fouls generated and some opportunities for other players. In this clip below, we see Nance sag to help with the Beekman drive after the Gardner ball screen. In the first half, this was often a midrange jumper from our guards or our post player, or we thought better of attacking the big inside and reset. Here, Beekman goes ahead and pushes the ball into the lane forcing Nance’s attention and drawing him deeper. Gardner then, always effective inside when covered by a smaller player, pushes into the lane on Love and finishes easily over him when taking the pass from Beekman. Note, Dunn is on the floor for this play and his presence isn’t deterring our offense in any way. It’s just a philosophical shift in how we were attacking what they were doing, while allowing him to help our defense on the other end.

This type of pressure at the post player allowed some of our guys to finish better at the rim. But, on the whole, it was still pretty tough sledding throughout the bulk of the half (until we had a few things break our way to close the game).

Here’s another look with Dunn in where IMK drives baseline after rejecting a ball screen. Bacot helps off of Gardner and between he and Black, they completely erase the shot attempt at the rim. Now, Gardner is wide open near the elbow and IMK should have ideally spotted him for an open look. IMK is still not as polished at identifying opportunity to create for others when taking his man off of the bounce. But, even still, it’s still the kind of look we’ve been discussing where Gardner wouldn’t have been able to finish in close, he’d have needed to shoot a little jumper there. Note, though, that this opportunity was there and could have easily been created with Dunn on the floor all the same.

Below is a good highlight of the logical conclusion to the play above, illustrating why Gardner often has to stay in the midrange. He gets a quality pass from Beekman in the pick and roll with advantage toward the hoop but, rather than pulling up with a little push shot or jumper as he normally has been, this time he tries this time to take it hard to the rim. Nance is able to pretty easily recover and blocks the shot, showcasing the difficulty Gardner faces when trying to get those inside shots against length instead of mismatches. I kept the play going to show Franklin forcing the shot over Love at the end just to illustrate the desperation that we were starting to play with because the quality looks were so hotly contested.

Here’s a look from a pairing that I do like, generally, in Dunn and BVP. They weren’t often paired in this game. When Dunn was in, it was more often with Gardner, likely just because Gardner was playing the best of anyone on our team. Now, this clip shows a couple of things. For one, UNC switches the screen and Nance rides Beekman into the lane. This seems to confuse Davis, who initially comes with, leaving BVP wide-open for the pop from three – a situation where the spacing and pairing create a quality opportunity. Beekman doesn’t see it, though, and instead drives through the lane with Nance shadowing him, hits a cutting Dunn, who draws both his man AND Nance, who hits Beekman cutting again, but who is swatted out of bounds by Nance. Notice, Nance just camps all of this action. He switches the pick and roll and then just hangs out in the middle and is there to deter the Dunn opportunity and the return Beekman opportunity. Another situation where it’s clear the UNC bigs were told just to switch and then stay home to defend the paint. Missing the look outside for BVP ended up costing us the only clean opportunity of the play.

Lastly, here’s another look late in the game that really caught my attention because it’s Leaky Black with the block helping off of Franklin and not one of their bigs helping off of a non-three-point shooting threat. We’re in the 5-out look that we give at the beginning of a possession. Clark fakes a dribble handoff with Beekman and UNC immediately switches Davis for Love. Clark gains advantage from the fake and drives the ball to the hoop. Franklin is attempting to set a decoy screen for McKneely to go to the corner, for no other reason than to occupy the attention of their men. But UNC has scouted this look hard, and Leaky Black is well-aware of what’s going on. He immediately recognizes what Clark is trying to do and flat out abandons Franklin to fly in for the block. This is nothing but them being very familiar with what we’ve been doing and being determined to take away the most efficient offense that comes from our sets, as they were all game.

In Conclusion

It’s still much of the same as it’s been, but hopefully this better highlights how/why just hoping that we “shoot it better” isn’t really the answer. Sure, if we hit more shots, we’ll have better results, but teams are effectively taking away the higher percentage shots that we’ve been getting through our offensive execution, thus putting more burden on individual playmaking which, in turn, makes lineups that are so undersized much less effective.

There’s more that we can do to be aggressive against these kinds of defensive looks, and much of that has to start and end with Beekman. But, especially when teams are playing us this way, it still comes back to us getting a huge boon from playing the player who often teams WON’T switch off of and who more often can threaten the rim/cheating. At the very least, it reiterates the importance of having one of Dunn/Shedrick in the game to improve our defense while we work through our offensive issues. Either BVP or Gardner can help carry us offensively, but neither need each other to get going on offense and neither takes advantage of what the other provides. Both need that help on the defensive end, though.

I know, I know. Same story, different day… but perhaps this was a more illustrative look at how teams have changed their defensive approach and how those challenges associated relate to this theme.

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