In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.
When the Kansas Jayhawks came out of a timeout with 6:32 left in Sunday's regional final against the North Carolina Tar Heels, head coach Bill Self made the strategic change that helped propel the Jayhawks to the Final Four. With Thomas Robinson returning to the floor after his final chance to rest, Self called for Kansas to go into its triangle-and-two defense, a junk version of a zone rarely seen at this level.*
Previously, the Jayhawks used the triangle-and-two during last Sunday's come-from-behind win over Purdue, but that move came out of desperation after Boilermaker forward Robbie Hummel scored 22 points in the first half. This time, Kansas went to the triangle-and-two to exploit North Carolina's weaknesses--in particular, true freshman point guard Stilman White, who was forced into action with starter Kendall Marshall sidelined by a fractured scaphoid bone in his right wrist. White did an admirable job Sunday, playing 28 minutes of turnover-free basketball and handing out seven assists, but he posed little threat to the Jayhawks as a scorer.
In its version of the triangle-and-two, Kansas used wings Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson to match up one-on-one with North Carolina counterparts Harrison Barnes and either Reggie Bullock or P.J. Hairston, with bigs Robinson and Jeff Withey manning either edge of the paint and point guard Tyshawn Taylor assigned to defend the perimeter--mostly point guards White and Justin Watts, but also big men John Henson and Tyler Zeller when they strayed away from the basket.
When the Tar Heels' posts were in the paint, the triangle-and-two actually looked like a standard man-to-man:
It was only when Henson and Zeller lifted to the perimeter that the zone became clear:
The most important thing the triangle-and-two accomplished for the Jayhawks was taking away the threat North Carolina presented in the post. Aside from reserve big man James Michael McAdoo, Henson and Zeller were the Tar Heels' most efficient options, combining for 22 points on 11-of-23 shooting. The rest of the starting five shot just 8-of-25 from the field. Still, the two players got just one post touch between them over the last 6:32.
At first, North Carolina did a solid job of attacking the triangle-and-two. One weakness of having both big men sagging back in the paint is that it is difficult to defend screens set by post players. Since White was not really an option in the pick-and-roll, the Tar Heels focused on setting screens for Harrison Barnes. Over the first three possessions of triangle-and-two, Barnes drew two fouls and was responsible for both North Carolina scores--two made free throws after Withey was called for a blocking foul, and a putback by Zeller of a Barnes miss in the paint. A Barnes pick-and-roll also got the Tar Heels' last good look before the game got out of hand, a driving miss that Zeller was unable to clean up.
When Barnes was not involved, North Carolina had a much tougher time getting clean shot attempts. Bullock was essentially taken out of the game by the triangle-and-two defense, leaving the responsibility for creating offense to the Tar Heels' untested point guards and big men from the perimeter. Watts missed a three and turned the ball over against the triangle-and-two before he was replaced by White. The freshman point guard had a shot blocked when he penetrated the paint and missed an open three within the last two minutes as Kansas put the game away. The play before that, Henson attempted to drive only to run into a waiting Withey, who avoided what would have been his fifth foul and blocked Henson's shot attempt.
All told, North Carolina shot 1-of-9 against the triangle-and-two, scoring four points over a span of seven half-court possessions at a crucial part of the game.
After the game, Roy Williams had a confusing explanation for how the triangle-and-two had affected the game.
"I know they did (play triangle-and-two) for one possession, and they may have for a second possession. I'm not sure about that," he said. "We got a very good shot. It just didn't go in the first time, and then again, I'm not sure if they were actually in it the second time."
Based on both observation and the postgame quotes from the Jayhawks, that's not accurate. However, I'm not sure how much the Tar Heels could have done differently given their personnel limitations. The triangle-and-two was successful in large part because it dared Watts and White to become playmakers off the dribble and shooters, roles in which they struggle. Had Marshall been on the floor, I doubt Kansas would have given much consideration to switching to the triangle-and-two.
The one change Williams might have made was keeping his big men in the paint and using the post. Zeller had success one-on-one against Robinson early in the game, and North Carolina had the opportunity to manufacture that matchup depending on which side of the court Zeller chose. Some kind of a cross-screen involving both posts might have gotten Zeller the ball with deep post position. Even in that scenario, Taylor would have been able to drop down and offer help because the Jayhawks weren't worried about White beating them from three-point range. That's exactly what happened the one time the Tar Heels did enter the ball to the post against the triangle-and-two:
White turned down a relatively clean look at the basket, blowing up the play and forcing Williams to take timeout.
Marshall's injury ultimately proved too much for North Carolina to overcome against an opponent every bit its equal. At the same time, Self deserves credit for having an effective triangle-and-two available. Kansas has practiced the hybrid zone and used it at times through the season. On Sunday, the junk defense made the difference.
*Actually, Kansas may have played a possession of triangle-and-two defense before the timeout, but the players themselves seemed a little mixed up as to what they were doing and power forward Kevin Young followed Henson to the perimeter, so it was safer to say the change was made at the timeout.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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