Going Small: Defensive Pros & Cons

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's four-guard lineup has delivered a 3-1 record while rejuvenating a team that had long struggled to find an identity. As with most changes, though, there are positives and negatives to sort through.

Roy Williams made it clear on Wednesday that rebounding is a primary concern with his new lineup, as evidenced by the Tar Heels being outrebounded in three of their four games. Field goal percentage is also down – UNC is shooting 42.0 percent compared to 42.7 percent in ACC play prior to the switch.

Most striking, however, is North Carolina's play on the defensive end. It's understandable that ACC opponents would shoot a higher percentage inside with P.J. Hairston playing out of position in the post, and that has been the case thus far. UNC's last four opponents are shooting 46.5 percent compared to 44.3 percent for the first 10 conference foes.

But that quartet was also more effective from 3-point range, shooting 41.9 percent compared to 38.5 percent. UNC's opponents since the lineup change are netting nearly one more 3-pointer per contest.

"We've still got to do a better job protecting the basket and not letting teams shoot higher percentages against us, either from the 3-point line or around the rim," Williams said. "This is probably – and I haven't looked at the stats because, frankly, it makes no difference – but it's probably the worst defensive field goal percentage team in conference play that we've ever had."

Williams is close. UNC's current 45.0 field goal percentage defense mark in ACC play is the highest since his first season in 2003-04 (45.8).

"It's a scoreboard - they keep score," Williams said. "And if you allow teams to shoot a good percentage, it usually hurts you. So we've got to do a better job of that, there's no question."

If North Carolina is suffering on the boards, shooting a lower percentage and allowing its opponents to shoot a higher percentage with this small lineup, how is it that UNC is 3-1 and seemingly playing better basketball?

Statistically speaking, the answer can be found in the turnovers column. The Tar Heels posted a plus-24 turnover margin through their first 10 ACC contests. Since going small four games ago, UNC is plus-28.

North Carolina has forced its last four opponents into 14 or more turnovers, including three with 17 or more.

"We're more active; we have a greater sense of urgency," Williams said. "And if you have a 6-5 guy guarding a 6-9 guy, you better get some sense of urgency out of it from a quickness and harassing kind of standpoint."

Former UNC basketball manager and current InsideCarolina.com analyst Tyler Brooks points to the smaller lineup's ability to pressure the ball more and be more aggressive in the passing lanes as reasons for the increased odds in creating turnovers on a per possession basis.

"This give and take is evident in comparing UNC's new starter to its old starter," Brooks said. "Desmond Hubert is a great defender. He has the length, technique, timing, and quickness for a big to seriously hinder the quality of opponents' shots. However, he won't force many turnovers.

"On the other hand, Hairston is at a clear disadvantage in defending other 4's when his man is able to gain sound positioning close to the basket. James Michael McAdoo faces this same dilemma in now having to guard the other team's 5. But each of these players can much more easily use their feet to wreak the kind of havoc that periodically forces turnovers."

UNC has outscored its last four opponents 77-38 in points off turnovers.

Hairston and McAdoo have both adapted rather well to their new defensive roles, as evidenced by a pair of defensive player of the game honors for both players since the lineup change.

It's hard to argue with the results of this four-guard approach considering the 3-1 record and rejuvenated roster. Defensive improvement, however, must occur for North Carolina to capitalize on this late-season momentum shift.

"There are tradeoffs, but I still think defending and not letting the other team shoot the high numbers is more important than anything," Williams said.

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