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No. 2 Syracuse’s zone stifles North Carolina’s offense for an easy win

Jan 11, 2014, 2:05 PM EDT

North Carolina v Syracuse Getty Images

On paper, it appeared that unbeaten No. 2 Syracuse would have a huge advantage over North Carolina during Saturday’s ACC contest because of the Orange’s signature 2-3 zone going against a perimeter-scoring-starved Tar Heel team. But could you really count out North Carolina after wins over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky earlier this season?

But the Tar Heels (10-6, 0-3) finally appeared sub par against a top-flight, ranked opponent as Syracuse (16-0, 3-0) cruised to a 57-45 win over North Carolina on Saturday at the Carrier Dome.

Despite shooting only 35 percent from the field, Syracuse maintained a double-digit lead for the entire second half because their 2-3 zone gave North Carolina fits. The Tar Heels struggled with the length and athleticism of the Syracuse zone and appeared discombobulated on many offensive possessions as North Carolina struggled with moving the ball from side-to-side and spacing the floor.

On the offensive end, Syracuse struggled to consistently knock down jumpers, but thanks to 15 offensive rebounds — and a stifling defense — Syracuse was never really challenged enough to have to score points. C.J. Fair (20 points), Trevor Cooney (10 points) and Tyler Ennis (10 points) combined to shoot 15-for-44 from the field, but a double-double from Jerami Grant (12 points, 12 rebounds) helped offset the poor shooting from Syracuse’s main scoring threats.

North Carolina falls to 0-3 in the ACC for the first time since 1996-97 and it matches their worst conference start in school history. Marcus Paige (17 points) and James Michael McAdoo (15 points) were the only Tar Heels to score more than four points and Paige struggled to a 4-for-13 start before making his final three field goal attempts as the game neared garbage time.

Syracuse’s offensive struggles are a tad concerning — especially Trevor Cooney’s 7-for-32 start from beyond the arc in ACC play — but it is very impressive that they cruised to a win in ACC play thanks to their defense.

Can North Carolina rebound after its rough ACC start? The Tar Heels did look okay on offense coming out of timeouts against the 2-3 zone, but when the Tar Heels had to fend for themselves in initiating the offense, they usually looked hopeless. They’ll need someone else to step up on the offensive end besides Paige and McAdoo if they hope to continuing beating top teams.