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Post-Pontrello Tar Heels Surviving Off Pick-and-Rolls

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The defending national champions are replacing one player with multiple operators with different skills.

In terms of wins and losses, the reigning national champion North Carolina Tar Heels find themselves exactly where they were on this date last spring: 5-3, though all of their losses have been at the hands of ranked opponents (#5 Hofstra, #12 Richmond and #17 Johns Hopkins).

How much noise the Heels make in May will depend on its offense. Steve Pontrello (49G, 21A) was their alpha attackman in 2016. Having a player with the speed and strength to create his own shot seemingly at will is a luxury. It keeps the off-ball defenders focused on the ball at all times and can even help you fend off shot clocks in those close fourth quarter matchups.

Replacing Pontrello hasn’t been a direct process; it rarely is with a player of that caliber. The keys to the Heels’ offense now belong to a series of pick-and-roll operators behind the cage. Anyone from Andy Matthews to Timmy Kelly to Chris Cloutier will serve as the ball-carrier in the pick game, and each brings his own wrinkle.

Matthews is the most frequent initiator, and his vision is a huge reason why. The sophomore from the Gilman School has 15 assists (and only 12 turnovers), many of which are high-level cross-field passes.

That action is more scripted than the furious picking and shallow cutting sequences you’ll find from a team like Penn State. Where the Nittany Lions thrive through the chaos, the Tar Heels are most efficient when there’s a plan in place. Offensive coordinator Dave Metzbower’s offense is orchestrated like Mike D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll system. Seals like Michael Tagliaferri’s on that last clip lead you to believe that the Heels know the defense’s next move better than their opponent does.

Here’s another pick-and-roll, again with Matthews operating and Cloutier picking. There’s a tiny bit of miscommunication between the two defenders. Cloutier’s defender seems to think they’re going to trap Matthews off the pick; Matthews’ defender expects to stay on his matchup. Cloutier rolls and isn’t touched until he’s already at the island. Last year’s Memorial Day Weekend hero is so physical at the point of attack that he will earn a yard or two from where you meet him -- if you’re regularly meeting him at high quality shooting areas, then he’s going to fill the net.

Want one more Matthews-Cloutier pick-and-roll? This time it’s a big-little that the defense switches from the start. Everything is okay until Matthews’ original defender tries to sneak up on him and get back to his matchup. When you make Matthews a feeder, you’re creating offense for your opponent. His eyes are always up.

The only thing more dangerous than an attackman whose eyes are always up is one whose teammates stay one step ahead of the defense too. Luke Goldstock may not have the dodging repertoire of Marcus Holman, Joey Sankey, Jimmy Bitter and Steve Pontrello, but there’s a reason he has scored 104 goals at Chapel Hill. Goldstock can find seams in the defense, whether that’s cutting to ties above the cage or slipping picks behind them. That both Matthews and Goldstock are able to recognize the defense’s pick-and-roll scheme in real-time is a byproduct of hammering these same actions repeatedly over the course of a game.

One of my favorite wrinkles from Metzbower is using Matthews as a picker. Anytime you can get this kid’s hands free, he’s going to find the open man. Hofstra communicated through their slides while this pick set up, and they still had two defenders bite when Matthews pushed the cage. However, Matthews had little intention of driving toward goal-line extended. He moved it to Cloutier who moved it one more to Goldstock for a step-down rocket.

An added bonus of this look is that it keeps Goldstock and Cloutier above the cage. Both can sling it — and their respective right-handedness and left-handedness balance the field wonderfully.

The Heels found success with this same action in Denver. As soon as two Pioneers drifted wide with the ball-carrier, Timmy Kelly, the Heels had a 5-on-4 developing. This time, Matthews got credit for the assist, as Goldstock followed the slide to the doorstep.

Another wrinkle which I think we’ll see a ton of during conference play: letting Cloutier operate the pick-and-roll. As we saw with him picking, it’s impossible to keep him away from the middle of the field if you aren’t on his hips before he crosses goal-line extended. Picking for Cloutier gives him time to gain the momentum of an 18-wheeler with the brakes cut. Good luck to any defender trying to move that.

The missing element of this offense (ranked 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency by analyticslacrosse.com) is the midfield. Losing a lefty in Patrick Kelly (27G, 11A) to graduation and a speedy, long dodger in Shane Simpson (8G, 14A) has removed some of the dimensions that made the 2016 Heels’ run possible.

So far, the midfield production has not been at a championship level. The Heels are leaning on young midfielders. Freshman Justin Anderson, sophomore Timmy Kelly and freshman William Perry have combined for three assists and 18 turnovers. Michael Tagliaferri (27G, 26.0 sh% in 2016) has been in a shooting slump: 5-for-41 (12.2%).

Anderson, Kelly, Perry, Tagliaferri and Brian Cannon are combining for 4.5 goals and 1.0 assists per game. Last year’s top five midfielders tallied 4.7 goals and 2.4 assists per game. If BOSS Breschi is going to be dabbing on Memorial Day, his Heels will need to find forms of initiation that complement their pick-and-roll game behind the cage. For as beautiful as their one dimension is right now, it’s still only that: one dimension.