University of Washington

North Carolina familiar with Huskies’ brand of zone defense

Utah State’s Neemias Queta, right, cannot hold onto a pass under pressure from Washington’s Noah Dickerson in the second half during a first round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, March 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Utah State’s Neemias Queta, right, cannot hold onto a pass under pressure from Washington’s Noah Dickerson in the second half during a first round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, March 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) AP

Luke Maye couldn’t quite remember Matisse Thybulle’s full name, but he knows the numbers.

The North Carolina forward also knows that it’s Thybulle — along with Washington’s overall length and athleticism — that sets the Huskies’ zone defense apart from the Syracuse version the Tar Heels face every season.

“I think the biggest thing is how active the top two defenders are,” Maye said Saturday. “I think one of their players is leading the country in steals and does a great job. I think it’s Thybulle .... (he) does a great job of getting in the passing lanes.

“We have to make sure that we make good fakes and get it into the middle of the zone and try our best to attack.”

Husky head coach Mike Hopkins spent 22 seasons as an assistant to Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim., and he brought the signature zone with him when he took over at UW.

This year, North Carolina topped Syracuse 93-85 on Feb. 26. They beat the Orange twice last year: 78-74 in the regular season and 78-59 in the ACC Tournament.

“We have different types of personnel, so we have to utilize it a little bit differently based on our personnel,” Hopkins said. “But the foundation is definitely what we did at Syracuse.”

While head coach Roy Williams said UW’s version is certainly familiar, there are some wrinkles that differentiate it.

“They’re long, athletic, quick to the ball,” Williams said. “They’re aggressive. They’ll probably double team in the corner maybe more than Jimmy’s teams have done in the last couple of years.

“But for us we try to get the shot that we want, not just the shot that they want us to take. And so for us it’s got to be a balance. We want to get the ball inside and attack the basket area and shoot open 3s, but not just be content to just pass the ball around the perimeter and do what they want us to do.”

Senior Noah Dickerson said UW’s goal is to eliminate the 3-point option completely.

“We extend our zone out so we don’t give up 3s and no layups,” Dickerson said. “So the way basketball’s going nowadays, people can shoot the ball from all over the place, all over the court, very deep. And so our zone really takes into account how people are shooting and tries to take them out of the game.”

Still, Williams and Maye both acknowledged that playing Syracuse twice a year gives them an advantage.

“The good news is that we have played Syracuse, because it would be hard to get ready for this type of defense with just half a practice, which is what we’re going to have today,” Williams said.

“But at the same time, some other teams have played the zone, and (Iona) played some zone against us yesterday and we didn’t handle it very well in the first half, particularly.”

More familiarity

While both coaches answered several questions about the zone, Hopkins also stressed how well he knows Williams and the Tar Heels.

“Very familiar with North Carolina,” Hopkins said. “I was very familiar with Coach Williams at Kansas. We had played them multiple times. One of the great coaches to ever do it and one of the great programs, college basketball programs of all time.”

In 2015-16, Boeheim served a nine-game suspension for NCAA violations. Hopkins served as Syracuse’s head coach during that span> The Orange went 4-5, including 0-3 in ACC play, under Hopkins.

Williams recalled a conversation he had with Hopkins shortly after Boeheim returned.

“The first game that they played when Jimmy came back was against us at their place,” Williams said. “And I remember grabbing Mike before the game and saying, ‘Hey, I know that hadn’t been the most pleasant experience but you did a great job. It’s a hard job. It’s unusual circumstances. Just put it behind you and one of these days it will be a very small blip on what you’re doing.’

“And I don’t know if he remembers that, but it was very comfortable for me to say that to him. And I think he’s one of the good guys.”

Player-coach relationships

While discussing some of Hopkins’ most comical antics, Dickerson and senior point guard David Crisp were asked about Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s confrontation with freshman Aaron Henry during the Spartans’ NCAA Tournament first-round win.

Video of the incident started spreading immediately and it has been a nation-wide topic of conversation. Izzo has been chastised and defended. On Saturday, Dickerson and Crisp agreed that outsiders don’t understand the relationship between coaches and players.

“It’s crazy to me because coaches yell at you, you know what I mean?” Dickerson said. “Like (Izzo) said in his press conference, if you weren’t doing your job, you would be criticized about it, too. You’re 18, 19, 20. Like, get over it. It is what it is.”

Crisp stressed that nobody sees what happens behind closed doors.

“You don’t see the team meetings at coach’s house,” he said. “You don’t see the long conversations you have in the coach’s office. You don’t see how much coach is there for you. They don’t see that love that’s always there.

“And when somebody loves you, you’re willing to let them push you to your limits. And that’s what brings greatness out of people.”