Defense at Length

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The combination of improved depth and athletic length has No. 6 North Carolina primed to elevate its defensive standing from a season ago, as evidenced by the Tar Heels’ 112-34 smothering of Division II Belmont Abbey on Friday.

“I told them in the locker room that we have a chance to be much better defensively this year than we were last year,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.

Prior to every game last season, according to sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks, Williams implored his team to play with a sense of urgency on the defensive end of the floor.

Hicks said following the lopsided victory that the Tar Heels had barely heard that demand from their coach during their two exhibition wins this preseason before catching himself, and then saying: “Well, we didn’t really hear it.”

There was not much reason for Williams to make such a request against the Crusaders as his team built a 28-4 lead midway through the first half, overwhelming its opponent with size and length across the lineup. UNC led 57-13 at halftime and had made more field goals (46) than Belmont Abbey had attempted (45) with less than five minutes to play.

UNC scored 47 points off 32 turnovers while holding the Crusaders to 28.0 percent shooting (14-of-50).

Belmont Abbey managed just six field goal attempts against eight turnovers in its final 12 possessions before halftime.

UNC forced turnovers a variety of ways, smothering with traps, looting with pickpockets and infiltrating passing lanes. Eleven different Tar Heels scratched the stat sheet with a steal, including center Kennedy Meeks, who stole the ball from a Crusader at midcourt and dribbled down for a transition dunk.

While the statistics confirmed the vast differential in talent levels, UNC’s athletic length will garner attention long past an exhibition win over a Division II opponent. UNC’s starting five – Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Justin Jackson, Brice Johnson and Meeks for the second time in as many games – could be described as its big lineup, although that tag would be misleading.

“We like to put a lot of pressure on the ball,” sophomore guard Nate Britt said. “We do have a lot of length, especially between Theo [Pinson], Justin and J.P. All of those guys move well on their feet, so I feel like we can pressure the ball a lot more than we did last year, as far as trapping and on the ball defense. I feel like that could be a good advantage for us this year.”

UNC’s pressure defense often forced the Crusaders to make their first pass just across the midcourt line, thereby not allowing their opponent to establish a comfort level at the start of the possession.

“If you play J.P. and Justin Jackson at the 2-3 and they’re 6-7, 6-8 with the length and athleticism they have, and Marcus is as good of a defender as I’ve ever had at a point guard, so that’s pretty strong on the perimeter,” Williams said. “And you get the big guys doing it, then we have a chance.”

As effective as UNC’s athleticism and length can be on the defensive end this season, the improved effort level displayed on Friday can maximize the potential of those attributes. That’s where the added depth comes into play.

“Everyone knows that when they’re on the court, they need to be going 110 percent all of the time,” Britt said. “I feel like there’s no excuse this year for us to not have that sense of urgency out there. Everyone should be playing with a sense of urgency all of the time because we have a deep team.”

Hicks was not alone in saying that Williams hasn’t had to stress effort level in games or practice thus far. His teammates made similar comments, highlighting the defensive potential of this current group.

“I think he’s more relaxed with this team because I think we are a defensive team,” Meeks said. “I think we’re capable of being one of the top defensive teams in the country.”

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