Tar Heels seeing a lot more zone defense

Best believe after Notre Dame held Marcus Paige to a season-low seven points Monday night, North Carolina’s upcoming opponents in the ACC and NCAA tournaments will look for ways to mimic Mike Brey’s game plan.

During the Tar Heels’ 12-game winning streak, Paige is averaging 17.1 points and shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point range. He has been Carolina’s leading scorer and has had just five games this season when he was kept from reaching double figures.

He’s now had back-to-back games under 10 after the Irish limited him to 2-of-8 shooting from the floor and just 1-of-5 from behind the arc. (Paige was 3-of-7 from the field for nine points against Virginia Tech.)

Brey, who said his objective was to make somebody else beat them, was aware of Paige’s tendency to come alive in the second half, too. That’s why he went to the zone defense.

“He knows his team needs him sometimes and they do a great job of running stuff for him ball-screening or stagger-screening,” Brey said. “That’s why we went diamond-and-1 just so somebody else takes the shot. [Nate] Britt took two of them and I’m going to live with that and he made them.”

Paige has seen tailored defenses before. Back in nonconference play, Texas ran a triangle-and-2 on him and Leslie McDonald, daring the Heels to shoot from outside. Even teams that primarily play man-to-man have spliced in use of zone against Carolina.

“If you look at our percentages, we’re not a good 3-point shooting team,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Really, it’s the first time in 26 years coaching I’ve ever been concerned about a zone. I always loved it when teams played zone because we had great movement and we could shoot the crap out of the ball. Zone never bothered us. This year, people think that’s the way to play us.”

Carolina has become more effective against zone defenses, starting with its shooting. In the last eight games, J.P. Tokoto is shooting 56.9 percent from the field and is averaging 11.2 points.

His 7-for-11 performance against N.C. State helped carry the Heels during the stretches when Paige wasn’t on. Tokoto was also 5-for-5 against the Irish.

Better passing has also helped. The Heels had assists on 17 of their 25 made baskets against Notre Dame.

They will need to continue to do both well against zones if they expect to continue their winning streak throughout March.