Busting Brackets

North Carolina Tar Heels: Secondary Break 101


The titans of college basketball all have something they are known for on the court. Players come into the program and leave for the professional ranks, but the program’s head coach leaves a mark on the style of play that is his program’s trademark year after year.

Michigan State has the relentless rebounding that Tom Izzo emphasizes in every game and every practice. When you watch the Kansas Jayhawks you soon notice the High-Low Offense of Bill Self. Turn on a VCU game from last year, this year or next year and you will see Shaka Smart’s HAVOC in full effect.

The North Carolina Tar Heels (11-4) under Roy Williams are no different. From his days at Kansas to this year’s Tar Heel squad you see the same thing – the secondary break. Williams implores his team to run after opponents’ made or missed shots. And run hard they do, and as the defense is recovering the Tarheels run action at them that leaves defenders with difficult choices to make.

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That formula has worked for Williams for years and it is working for the Tar Heels now. Though they have not quite lived up to preseason expectations after dropping home games to Iowa and Notre Dame, the Heels do run the break and run it well.

Let’s examine the secondary break and look at examples from a recent 74-50 ACC road win over Clemson that illustrate how the Tar Heels get out and run then seamlessly get into early offense.

You are what you emphasize and Williams emphasizes running the floor and transition offense. It is no coincidence that they excel in these areas. In terms of adjusted offensive efficiency, the Tar Heels are a Top 20 club due in large part to their tempo.

The Tar Heels want to take advantage of scoring opportunities before defenses are set. It all begins with two critical elements: the outlet pass and the “rim run.”

North Carolina will run the same break off of a made or missed basket and it is all triggered by a quick outlet. This example is after a Clemson miss. The point guard, Marcus Paige in this clip, is coached to get wide to the sideline nearest the rebound.

A rapid outlet is key to an easy basket and Williams wants the target away from the clutter of the retreating defense in the middle of the floor. Brice Johnson secures the rebound and makes the outlet pass towards the sideline to Paige.

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  • The post who did not rebound the ball sprints to the front of the opposite rim then establishes post position. Here we see Joel James make the critical rim run then establish inside position. Williams wants the Heels to be a top speed within their first three steps.

    If the Tar Heels can mount a quick attack they will often pass the ball up the sideline to the wing and he enters it straight to the post, but in this example, Clemson has recovered and the Heels are facing a set defense.

    It is here that the Tar Heels enter the “secondary” part of their break. Williams wants the ball to change sides of the floor quickly, so Paige passes to Johnson who is trailing the break. Johnson reverses the ball to the weakside wing and the low post follows to the ballside block.

    In this pass reversal secondary action the ballside wing has a hard and fast rule to sprint through the block and set a backscreen for the trailer. Here we see silky freshman Justin Jackson set a great backscreen resulting in a lob for Johnson. The Tar Heels went from rebound to dunk in eight seconds.

    The the next clip we see the Tar Heels on the break again triggered by a Johnson rebound. This time the rebound was made on the other side of the floor so the outlet goes to Paige on that sideline. This outlet is made high and wide and Paige gets out ahead of the wing.

    Williams wants the guards to be interchangeable and the Heels demonstrate this.   Paige takes the ball to the corner and Nate Britt fills the spot typically occupied by the point guard. Paige begins ball reversal with a pass to Britt.

    The Tar Heels swing the ball and get another Johnson dunk on the backscreen lob action. Rebound to dunk in 12 seconds.

    If you are playing a Williams-coached team stopping the secondary break is at the top of the scouting report, yet opponents frequently fail. In an effort to slow the secondary break action opposing coaches will attempt to disrupt ball reversal. For that, North Carolina has many counters and here is one they used against Clemson.

    Paige brings the ball into the frontcourt and begins pass reversal to the trailer Isaiah Hicks. Hicks wants to make the full reversal to Jackson, but Clemson is denying that pass.

    The ballside wing, J.P. Tokoto, is following his rule of sprinting through the block and then setting the backscreen for the trailing post. The fact that the Heels did not fully reverse the ball does not affect his assignment.

    Hicks goes back to Paige when reversal is denied and uses the Tokoto screen in what amounts to give-and-go action. The result is a thunderous dunk by Hicks.

    After a few backscreens resulting in alley-oop dunks, opponents tend to overextend their help on the trademark backscreen. That is one of the tough choices opposing coaches must make, for if you hedge too long the screener can and will step out for an open three.

    This example comes after a made field goal by Clemson. As stated, the Heels run the same break off made field goals as they do off the defensive rebound.

    As the ball is reversed you see the same action from the ballside wing as he follows his rule and sprints through the block and sets the backscreen. At this point in the game the Heels have connected on several lobs off this action. Therefore, the Clemson defender hedges on Hicks as he comes off the backscreen to take away the lob.

    They defend that successfully, but in so doing they leave room for the screener to step out for the open three. The result is a long-range shot by Britt.

    North Carolina is able to seamlessly flow from primary break, to secondary break and into their motion offense. Opponents often stop all the secondary options and force the Tar Heels into halfcourt action.

    The upside of the Carolina secondary break system is the Heels can flow through these phases without having to stop down to call a play in the traditional sense.  The Williams system is based on reading the defense and taking the options the opponent gives you.

    In the final example, North Carolina runs through all the aforementioned secondary break options. Clemson defends the backscreen lob action and forces the Heels deeper into the playbook.

    When James comes off the backscreen he is looking for the ball to be in the air for the lob. Williams teaches that if the ball is not in the air the cutter then sets a block-to-block screen. James follows the rule and screens for Hicks.

    When Jackson steps out and catches after setting the backscreen, the Heels are essentially into their motion offense. But the cross screen action from the secondary break and some Clemson confusion allows James to get good post position and the Heels find him on the low block for a basket. Carolina was able to go from primary break, to secondary break and into offense without interruption.

    The Tar Heels are coming off a narrow home loss to Notre Dame and are entering a tough stretch in the ACC beginning with a battle against Louisville Saturday in Chapel Hill.

    Gigantic dates with Duke and Virginia as well as the rest of the ACC loom ahead. Conference opponents know one another backwards and forwards and it will be interesting to see who can slow the Carolina break and just where it can take them.