Heels Leaning on Defense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Roy Williams offered a surprising, yet insightful, analysis of his basketball team this week when the 10th-year UNC head coach expressed more concern for his offensive capability than his defense.

Scoring has arrived in avalanches of points ever since Williams returned to his alma mater in 2003. The 2009-10 squad averaged 74.5 points per game, good for third in the ACC and 55th out of 334 teams nationally, and is considered an outlier in Williams's resume of prolific offenses.

North Carolina ranked third nationally in scoring offense (81.3) last season. That team, however, lost 71.8 percent of its scoring with the departure of four starters – Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall.

Junior wing Reggie Bullock (8.8 ppg) is the top returning scorer for UNC in 2012-13, followed by forward James Michael McAdoo (6.1) and guard P.J. Hairston (5.7). None of those three have proven to be consistent scorers at this point in their careers, prompting Williams's intriguing comments on this radio show this week.

"I'm more concerned about our offense right now and scoring points," Williams said. "… We're more worried about the offensive end of the floor than we are the defensive end."

There will be plenty of time to gauge North Carolina's offensive production and corresponding efficiency in the coming weeks, but the latter sentence in the quote above hints at defensive confidence.

In 2011-12, Henson, a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and Zeller, an underrated post defender, headlined North Carolina's defensive approach as the Tar Heels led the ACC with a 39.7 field goal defense percentage in conference play. Opponents took a league-high 345 3-pointers against UNC (21.6 per game), which highlights two important aspects – (1) teams knew they would fare better on the perimeter due to the Henson/Zeller factor in the post; and (2) there were more open options on the perimeter.

"I do think we can be very good defensively," Williams said. "Last year's team wasn't consistent with it and I think this year's team has to be really good defensively, I think they understood that, and they will be."

Sophomore forward Desmond Hubert believes that this current crop of Tar Heels is exhibiting better team defense in practice, while acknowledging a reliance on Henson cleaning up defensive lapses on the interior last season.

"I feel like, collectively as a team, we can be better defensively this year than we were last year," Hubert said. "Our perimeter guys are doing a lot better job of containing people on the outside and making it easier for us to play defense on the inside...

"We've been trying to do a better job of talking, being in our spots and knowing where we're supposed to be on the help side when people drive. It's just knowing where we're really supposed to be on the floor and being able to read everybody else and seeing the big picture. I feel like we've been doing a better job of that."

Part of the increased emphasis on defense is the knowledge that North Carolina will have to be better on that end of the floor to offset the potential scoring deficiencies, but there's more to it than that, according to Hubert.

In his opinion, this group of players naturally approaches defense with more intensity and desire.

"I feel like defense is kind of easy – it's just effort," Hubert said. "It's just one thing to focus on. I think the freshmen are doing a better job and the team as a whole is."

There's no doubt this edition of the Tar Heels has a wealth of length and athleticism. Starting point guard Marcus Paige should be able to use his speed and quickness to stay in front of the ball better than his predecessor and help limit penetration, while Bullock emerged as one of UNC's top defenders last season after stopper Dexter Strickland went down with injury.

Hairston and Leslie McDonald have the athleticism to be effective defenders, but that potential will have to develop into consistent effort. Hubert arrived in Chapel Hill known for his shot-blocking and rebounding skills, while McAdoo has already patented his halfcourt-steal-and-transition-dunk move.

Add in J.P. Tokoto's freakish athletic ability, as well as Joel James's size in the post, and the raw ingredients appear to be present for Williams to whip up a surprising concoction that would make Wanda proud.

Good defense, of course, can go a long ways in helping ignite an offense.

"Defense is going to lead us into most of our offensive points this year," Hubert said. "Just pressuring the ball and causing turnovers will make it easier for us to score so that we don't have to bring the ball down and play against a set defense."

While North Carolina is known for its explosive offenses during the Williams era, it's also developed a reputation for going through the motions defensively for stretches at a time.

Hubert told IC that he felt as though last year's team didn't ratchet up the defensive intensity until the second half of games, and acknowledged that approach has to change this year.

Look no further than the opening 25 minutes in the exhibition against Shaw on Oct. 26 for an example. The Bears led UNC 43-41 after knocking down 42.5 percent of their field goal attempts (17-of-40, 5-of-12 3FG) to start. The Tar Heels then locked down defensively and held Shaw to 2-of-20 shooting over the next 14 minutes.

"Hopefully this year we don't have the same problem and we can just go from the jump and clamp down on defense," Hubert said.

That will be key for North Carolina this season, especially if Williams's concern over scoring points bears out.

Follow IC on Twitter @InsideCarolina.
Like IC on Facebook InsideCarolina.

Inside Carolina Top Stories