COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s been eight years since North Carolina and Washington last met on the basketball court, coincidentally, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
But that doesn’t mean the Huskies are an unfamiliar opponent to the Tar Heels.
In fact, if you dressed them in orange instead of their traditional purple and gold, they’d look a lot like ACC rival Syracuse.
That’s because their coach, Mike Hopkins, played at Syracuse, was an assistant there for 20 years and employs the same trademark 2-3 zone defense as his former boss and mentor Jim Boeheim.
It’s a familiarity that could work to UNC’s advantage as it prepares for a quick turnaround following Friday’s opening-round Midwest Region win against Iona. Tipoff for the game between the top-seeded Tar Heels and the ninth-seeded Huskies at Nationwide Arena is Sunday at approximately 2:40 p.m.
“The good news is that we have played Syracuse,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “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 (Saturday).”
The even better news for the Tar Heels (28-6) is that they haven’t just played Syracuse, they’ve been able to beat it consistently. UNC has won its last eight meetings with the Orange, including a 93-85 victory in Chapel Hill on Feb. 26.
While that doesn’t guarantee success against Washington, especially given the stakes, it does at least give Williams’ team a proven game plan for attacking the zone and advancing to the Sweet 16 next week in Kansas City.
“Ball movement and player movement” is the key, said freshman point guard Coby White. “When we’re moving on a string, moving the ball and don’t hold it, we can get it into the middle of the zone and that opens things up.
“Luke (Maye), Cam (Johnson) and Nas (Little) are very good playmakers and make good decisions. So when you have players like them who can shoot and pass, it really helps us out.”
Although there are many similarities between the Orange and the Pac-12 regular season champion Huskies (27-8), there are some subtle differences in the way they play.
“We have different types of personnel, so we have to utilize it a little bit differently,” Hopkins said, adding that the basic foundation of his defense is the same as it was at Syracuse.
“We extend our zone out so we don’t give up threes and no layups,” senior forward Noah Dickerson said. “The way basketball’s going these days, people can shoot the ball from all over the court. So our zone takes into account how people are shooting and we try to take them out of their game.”
The biggest difference from Syracuse’s zone is in the length of the defenders at the back end of the Washington set. While the Orange usually has at least one 7-footer taking up space in the lane, the Huskies’ biggest starters are 6-foot-9 sophomore Hameir Wright and the 6-8 Dickerson.
They make up the difference with quickness and athleticism, especially on the perimeter where 6-foot-5 senior Matisse Thybulle is is a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year finalist and the only player nationally averaging at least 3.4 steals and 2.3 blocks per game.
“Thybulle does a great job of getting into passing lanes,” said senior forward Maye, who figures to be a key element in UNC’s ability to exploit the soft spot in the middle of the Washington defense. “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.”
The Tar Heels didn’t always do that in the first half against Iona’s zone on Friday and they trailed by as many as eight because of it while going 3 for 10 from 3-point range. They did a better job in the second half, thanks in part to the aggressiveness of Little — who scored 19 points in just 17 minutes off the bench.
As a team, UNC shot 62.9 percent over the final 20 minutes to catch up with and pull away from the plucky Gaels.
“We try to get the shot that we want, not just the shot they want us to take,” Williams said. “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 threes, not be content to pass the ball around the perimeter.”
While UNC might have an advantage in that it has played against a similar zone and knows what to expect, the edge is offset by the fact that Hopkins is just as familiar with what it likes to do.
Because of that, Maye said the game — as it usually does this time of year — will ultimately be decided by which team executes its game plan best.
“I think playing Syracuse has helped us and it will help us moving forward,” Maye said. “But then again, every team is different. Every team has their strengths. We’ve got to find our strengths against a good team like Washington.”