By R.L. Bynum
Many say that Coach Hubert Davis’ more spread-out brand of Carolina offense, which sometimes includes four players outside the 3-point arc, is something Tar Heels fans have never previously seen from Tar Heels teams.
That’s true, given that using a more NBA-style offense places shooters outside the arc and opens the driving lanes throughout the game.
But many older Tar Heels fans can give you a two-word response if you say that spreading out the offense is new to the program: Four Corners.
It wasn’t the primary offense for Coach Dean Smith the way the sometimes four-out offense is for Davis, but it was undoubtedly a signature part of his strategy for much of his career. With the shot clock in place when Davis played for the legendary Hall of Fame coach, he didn’t get experience in the Four Corners.
Coach Roy Williams, another legendary Hall of Fame coach, briefly used it in 2015 against Georgia Tech shortly after Smith passed away, giving the controls of the Four Corners to Marcus Paige. Just like with the Four Corners tradition when it was run by talented guards such as Phil Ford, Jimmy Black and Kenny Smith, the play produced a basket.
Opponents and neutral fans hated to see Dean Smith or Ford hold up those four fingers but Tar Heels fans loved it because it usually meant a Carolina victory. The anxiety level in a tight game for the Carolina faithful suddenly fell a few notches.
N.C. State coach Norm Sloan, whose 1974 team won the NCAA title, sometimes ran a modified version of it but called it “The Tease” so that he wouldn’t be perceived as copying Smith.
It was even more of a spread offense than Davis uses today, with two players in the half-court corners and two big men at the baseline corners. The point guard served as the “chaser,” and would dribble around the middle and pass to open teammates, with another guard sometimes taking a turn as the chaser.
Many think of the Four Corners, which Smith perfected in the 1960s, as only a stall tactic to preserve a lead. That certainly was a significant part of it, but it was also a tool to get the opponent out of the zone defense, particularly when they had a dominant center.
Far from only a stall tactic, it produced a lot of easy baskets with talented chasers such as Ford running the Four Corners. He would drive in for an easy basket or dish off to a forward or center breaking on backdoor cuts from one of the corners.
He ran that offense so well that many referred to it at the time as the Ford Corners. He would fake a pass one way and either throw another way or cut to the basket, frustrating opponents on a nightly basis. Ford would deftly pass before the double-team arrived.
Chasers such as Ford dominated the basketball by handling most of the dribbling, creating shots for teammates and consistently getting the better of one-on-one situations. The offense revolved around Ford attacking the middle area around the free-throw line and the top of the key, where he had several options. That often led to either easy layups or fouls, which were good considering Ford was an excellent free throw shooter.
Imagine a guard such as Coby White running the Four Corners!
There are many obvious differences between Davis’ spread offense and the Four Corners, including that jump shots were rare in the Four Corners.
Davis likes to create spacing in his offense and that was the main job in the Four Corners for the backcourt corner players so that they were open when the chaser got double-teamed.
Sometimes it was a brief tactic to get the opponent out of a zone defense. Once that was accomplished, Smith often reverted to his regular offense, which was anything but a spread offense like we see from UNC today.
Without the 3-point field goal, the regular offense was more compact. Sometimes there were numerous passes before a high-percentage shot went up with the board covered for a potential rebound. Smith’s offense was usually run within the current 3-point arc.
The Four Corners worked to perfection many nights but didn’t always work out well, such as in the 1977 NCAA final against Marquette when part of the reason to deploy it was to get the Warriors (the school’s nickname at the time) out of the zone. They featured 6–10 center Jerome Whitehead and 6–9 forward Bo Ellis (No. 31 below).
The Tar Heels went to the Four Corners with 12 minutes left and the game tied at 45 (47:00 in the below video) after rallying from a 12-point halftime deficit and taking a 45–43 lead. When Carolina finally took a shot two minutes later, they missed and the momentum seemed to shift. Marquette took the lead, Smith scrapped the Four Corners and UNC eventually lost 67–59. It should be noted that Ford was playing with a hyperextended elbow.
A good example of it working shortly after not working was a pair of games against Duke a week apart in 1979.
In a Feb. 24 game at Duke, Smith started the game in the Four Corners despite Duke scoring on the opening possession. He wanted to get the Blue Devils, the preseason No. 1 team, out of a 2–3 zone so that center Mike Gminski couldn’t camp inside.
UNC ran the Four Corners for the next 11 minutes before a Rich Yonakor turnover. Later, a Yonakor baseline shot was long, perhaps triggering what may have been the first “air ball” chant. After trailing 7–0 at halftime, Carolina went to its regular offense in the second half but lost 47–40.
In the ACC Tournament final a week later, the Tar Heels used the Four Corners aggressively to score, going to it with eight minutes left and leading 48–44 on their way to a 71–63 victory. A week later, Duke and UNC lost on Black Sunday in Reynolds Coliseum in their first NCAA tournament games.
With the shot clock, you won’t see Davis use the Four Corners. But his offense to spread the floor and create spacing isn’t the first in Carolina basketball history.