UNC Basketball: Full Breakdown of UNC’s Pick and Roll Defense


Keeping It Heel takes an in-depth look at UNC Basketball’s failing pick and roll defense in games against Maryland and Texas.

The North Carolina Tar Heel defense is allowing opponents to shoot 38.4% from three-point land this season, a mark that ranks 300th in the country, per kenpom.com. All in all, the other aspects of the Tar Heel defense have been fine — UNC is allowing teams to shoot 43% on two-pointers, which ranks 48th in the country and is protecting the rim well, blocking four shots per game. But the three-point shooting defense has been atrocious. UNC ranks one spot ahead of UMass Lowell and one spot behind Long Beach St. in that statistical category, two teams that the Tar Heels do not normally find themselves next two when it comes to basketball statistics.

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Why? Some of it is probably small sample size and luck. Fans and announcers love to say that teams “always play their best against UNC” or “give UNC their best shot,” and that probably accounts for a little bit of it. Also remember the Tar Heels ranked 14th in the country in opponent three-point field goal percentage a season ago, and this is basically the same roster as last year. Expect team’s shooting percentages against the Heels to fall just as UNC plays more games.

But, this Tar Heel team is also struggling to defend simple high pick and rolls, causing the defense to hemorrhage easy three-point shots and looks at the basket. If you watched the Tar Heels last three games, you probably don’t need an example of poor pick and roll defense, but here’s one anyway from the Maryland game…

Tremble crosses the timeline, moves towards the pick set by the Maryland big man and then hits a three-pointer, even picking up a foul call in the process. That was a four point play for Maryland, one that was entirely too easy for Mr. Trimble.

Let’s take a look at more examples of the Tar Heel pick and roll defense, trying to dissect what is going wrong and even offering some potential solutions for the team going forward.

Here is an example from the Texas game on Saturday. Texas point guard Javan Felix has the ball and is waiting a pick from the Texas big. Justin Jackson is guarding the PG.

Below is a screenshot from the point that the pick is set. As you can see, Kennedy Meeks is already late getting out to employ a basketball tactic know as a “hard hedge.” From Oklahoma State basketball coach Travis Ford’s instructional video on the hard hedge, the big man doing the “hard hedge” has two goals…

  1. Slow him down
  2. Change his direction

Kennedy Meeks has to get out and at the very least, either slow Felix down or change Felix’s direction, preferably do both. Instead, Meeks does neither.

In this screenshot below, Felix is going to split the screen, sneaking through the space between Meeks and the Texas big. Part of the blame for this goes on Jackson, who doesn’t do a good enough job of fighting through the screen. But part of the blame also goes on Meeks, who failed to either slow or change the direction of the ball handler.

Now, Felix is in a very dangerous position. Nate Britt has to help extra off of his man standing in the corner to slow Felix, and Felix responds by making the correct read and throwing the ball in the corner. The result is a wide open look for Texas.

Forget for a second whether or not the shot went in. This is just too wide open of a look to allow as a defense. This is Britt’s man, but the blame for the open three falls on Jackson and Meeks for failing to do a better job as the first line of defense.

Here is another example from the Texas game. This time, Joel Berry II is on defense against Felix. Watch as the screen comes to Berry II’s right side.

The defense this time is better from Berry. Watch him fight off of the screen to stay with Felix. Meeks also does his job this time, slowing down Felix and changing his direction. However, there is a lot of space in the middle of the floor, and the Texas big slips down into the space that Meeks vacated.

The high pick and roll is stopped, and Felix swings the ball to the other side of the court. But watch now how the big man has established excellent position in the post.

The Texas big man receives the ball in prime position with plenty of space.

Again, this isn’t the ideal defensive outcome for the Tar Heels. The defense on the pick was better, but Meeks was too slow getting back in position on defense and Texas still got a great look.

Here is an example from the Maryland game. Melo Trimble, Maryland’s excellent PG, has the ball and prepares to drive.

The UNC defender at the point of attack allows himself to be stopped by the screen, and Kennedy Meeks is again late getting to the ball handler. Remember the two rules of ball screen defense for the big man: 1. slow and 2. change direction of the PG. Meeks is too slow getting out and thus can’t do his job as the defender.

As you can see from this frame below, Trimble zooms around the pick, leaving Meeks in the dust, and now the Heels are really in trouble.

The spot in red is all the space that the Maryland big man has to operate in. Trimble can easily slip a pass into that space…

and the Maryland big takes the ball to the basket for an easy two points.

That’s an example of not a three pointer but an easy look at the rim resulting from poor pick and roll defense.

Two more examples, both of open threes. First, a familiar look — Meeks late getting out to help his point guard defend the P&R.

Meeks does well here to change his direction and slow him down, but this time the problem lies with the Tar Heel guard Joel Berry II, who gets caught up in the screen.

The result in this screen shot looks really bad — Meeks has his head turned to the ball handler and Berry II is almost screened by Meeks as Trimble takes and hits the open three-pointer.

Here’s the last example, coming only a possession later.

Berry II gets caught up in the pick and Brice Johnson is a step slow in support.

This time, both Tar Heel defenders try to follow Trimble, but that just leaves Brice’s man wide open. Again, the reddish shading on the image shows how much space the Maryland big has to operate in. That’s entirely too much space for the defense to allow.

The result? A wide open three-point shot for the Terrapins.

There are two main problems with the Tar Heels’ pick and roll defensive scheme this season. First, just to reiterate, UNC wants its big men to hedge the screen, running out beyond the three-point line to 1. slow and 2. change the direction of the ball handler. However, this season, the scheme isn’t working, for two reasons.

One, all the big men, from Joel James to Kennedy Meeks to Brice Johnson to Isaiah Hicks, aren’t doing their jobs. All are a step slow when going out to hard hedge the ball handler, allow the ball handler to slip the screen or lose their own man in the process. Two, UNC’s primary defenders at the guard positions are getting caught up in picks too much and not getting back in front of their men.

The results of UNC’s poor defensive schemes can be seen in all the breakdowns outlined above, and by watching any of the highlights of point guards Melo Trimble or Javan Felix.

It’s time for the Tar Heels to at least think about trying a new strategy on defense.

Stay tuned for part two of this article where I suggest a different strategy for the Tar Heels on pick and roll defense.