Defensive Play Strong Early

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 1 North Carolina earned praise over the weekend for successfully navigating a five-day road trip while also shooting over 53 percent in two games against Michigan State and UNC Asheville, but the Tar Heels' stout defensive performance seemed to go unnoticed.

The Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill has provided plenty of offensive highlights and triple-digit scores, and while his defenses typically round into form come tournament time, there's no doubt that end of the floor is a work in progress to start almost every season. Not once in Williams's first eight seasons at UNC have the Tar Heels entered January with a field goal percentage defense south of 40.0 percent.

The '10-11 edition leaned heavy on its defense until the offense polished its edges. That squad held its opponents to 39.9 percent shooting in ACC play, which represents the second-best field goal percentage defense mark during the Williams era.

With all five starters back, the potential is present for the current UNC team to be the best defensive unit under Williams's watch, but questions lingered throughout the offseason if this talented roster would fall in line with the '09 title team's approach of simply outscoring opponents. If the first two games of the season tell us anything, it's that the Tar Heels have not forgotten the defensive effort that propelled them to the ACC regular season title last winter.

"I said earlier this year that we had a chance to be really good defensively because we really came a long ways last year defensively," Williams told reporters on Tuesday. "And so now you've added a year of experience there."

North Carolina held Michigan State to 30.6 percent shooting in the season opener, including a 2-for-20 display from 3-point territory. Draymond Green, the Spartans' leading returning scorer, was held to 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting and committed five turnovers despite being a monster on the glass (18 rebounds, 7 offensive).

UNC Asheville returned four starters from a NCAA Tournament team that shot 45.2 from the floor in '10-11, and it appeared as though a rabid home crowd at Kimmel Arena would fuel a hot-shooting affair on Sunday. The Bulldogs connected on five of their first nine field goal attempts in building an early 14-9 lead, but UNC held Asheville to 37.0 percent shooting (20-of-54) the rest of the game.

After two games, North Carolina's opponents are shooting just 34.8 percent overall, including a 20.8 percent mark from long range.

There have been a wealth of articles comparing the current team and the '09 group, but Williams doesn't believe this squad has the same level of offensive firepower that his second title team possessed. He is willing to give the '11-12 squad the nod, however, when it comes to defending around the basket.

"John [Henson] can block shots, [Tyler] Zeller can block shots," Williams said. "'Z' is as good as any big man I've ever had about taking charges. John took a charge the other day, so I think that they really give us something and then we've got some length on the wing with Harrison [Barnes] and Reggie [Bullock] and P.J. [Hairston]. And then Dexter [Strickland] is really good defensively, so I think we have the potential to be good defensively."

Most teams have a catalyst that fuels its defensive runs, but the Tar Heels prefer to focus on spreading that responsibility around.

"It's always a group approach," Strickland said. "I think with great teams, it has to be. I think we all bring something to the table when it comes to defense. John's length, my ability to stay in front of my man and stop passes, Harrison's ability to block shots and things like that, and ‘Z's presence – it's all a group effort."

It's far too early to suggest that UNC has picked up defensively where it left off last March in Newark, but the first two games could be the start of a trend.

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