March Success Dependent on Defense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's postseason hopes reside with its defense possibly more this season than any other during the Roy Williams era.

Stats can be deceiving.

UNC leads the ACC in field goal percentage (45.8) in league-game only and ranks third overall (46.5) by a mere seven one-hundredths of a percent. The Tar Heels, by contrast, rank sixth overall in field goal percentage defense (40.8) and ninth in ACC play (43.1).

Even UNC's 33.9 3-point field goal percentage is good for its second-highest mark over the past five seasons.

On Tuesday, however, Williams described his team as "slow," which ripped the illusory bandage of the aforementioned statistics off abruptly.

UNC is averaging 76.4 points per game. The only team since Williams arrived 11 seasons ago to average fewer points was the NIT-bound 2009-10 squad (74.5).

The Tar Heels rank 28th nationally in kenpom.com's adjusted tempo rating (70.4), which provides an estimate of possessions per 40 minutes against a team that plays an average D-I tempo. That's the lowest ranking in this statistical category during the Williams era.

UNC also ranks 50th in adjusted offensive efficiency (111.5) – points scored per 100 possessions – marking only the second team during the Williams era to rank in the 50s or higher ('09-10 was 102nd).

Where UNC has fallen more in line with traditional Williams standards is on the defensive side of the ball. The Tar Heels rank 21st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.5), according to kenpom.com.

Marcus Paige's stellar sophomore campaign has shielded from casual observers the fact that UNC's offensive firepower is largely dependent on two players – Paige (17.1 ppg) and James Michael McAdoo (14.2 ppg).

McAdoo has scored double digits in 16 of UNC's 18 ACC games, while Paige has reached that threshold 13 times. No other Tar Heel has scored double digits in more than half of the conference games played.

"We are working extremely hard defensively to try to help us because we're not as offensively gifted as we have been in the past," Williams said on Tuesday. "When you shoot the ball in the hole, everything is just easier."

There's a reason his three teams in Chapel Hill with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating above 120 combined for three trips to the Final Four and two national championships. But there's also a reason the 2007-08 squad fell short of a title – defense.

After punching its ticket to the Final Four despite allowing Louisville to shoot 52.7 percent, the '07-08 Tar Heels lost in the national semis to Kansas by 18 points. The Jayhawks shot 53.1 percent, including making 13 of their first 17 field goal attempts in building a 40-12 lead.

The title teams' defenses, however, followed a different trajectory.

"In '09, we just tried to outscore everybody," Williams said. "I preached defense and we worked on defense and they just looked at me and smiled and deep down inside, [it was], ‘We're going to outscore them, why don't you leave us alone?' And then, all of a sudden, we got to the NCAA Tournament and they bought into it. And for six games, that was about as good of defense as any team I've ever had play."

In '04-05, UNC held its six NCAA opponents to a combined 40.0 percent shooting, including a 36.1 percent mark in St. Louis. In '08-09, the Tar Heels held their opposition to a combined 38.5 percent shooting, including 35.8 percent in Detroit.

There's also consistency in UNC's seven NCAA Tournament losses under Williams - opponents combined to shoot 48.4 percent (202-of-417) in those games. Only two of those seven teams shot less than 46 percent and only one – George Mason in '05-06 – shot less than 43.5 percent (39.7).

The current UNC squad, while short on offense, can potentially carve its way deep into a seemingly wide-open NCAA Tournament bracket with the level of defense that spurred its recent 12-game winning streak.

The task at hand, however, is returning to that level at the ACC Tournament this weekend in Greensboro. After holding its first nine opponents in that winning streak to 41.9 percent shooting, UNC has allowed its last four opponents to shoot 45.8 percent.

That won't get it done at the Greensboro Coliseum, let alone in the Big Dance.

"We pride ourselves on getting stops on the defensive end and letting our defense lead to offense," sophomore wing J.P. Tokoto said. "We've kind of gotten away from that the past few games. Coach has realized it; we've realized it. But we just have to get back into that mentality that no one is going to score on us. We're just going to make it hard for people to score."



Graphic by Michelle Hillison/Inside Carolina.


Inside Carolina Top Stories