Heels Leaning on Defense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Through six games, No. 12 North Carolina has met its preseason prognostications in turning its length and athleticism into defensive efficiency.

UNC (5-1) ranks sixth nationally in field goal percentage defense at 33.7 percent, according to the NCAA’s official stats.

Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics (kenpom.com) provide a more in-depth look at the entirety of the Tar Heels’ defensive play as they rank ninth in effective field goal percentage (38.9), 11th in block percentage (18.1), 13th in 2-point field goal percentage (38.1) and 32nd in 3-point field goal percentage (26.8).

“When we’re locked in, we have all of the tools to be a complete defensive team,” junior guard Marcus Paige said on Tuesday.

UNC’s starting rotation includes Paige, who UNC head coach Roy Williams has referred to as arguably the best defensive point guard he’s ever coached, a pair of long defenders on the perimeter (J.P. Tokoto stands 6-6; Justin Jackson is 6-8) and athletic bigs in Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.

The bench provides more of the same, as point guard Nate Britt and forward Isaiah Hicks have combined for five of the six defensive player of the game honors awarded by the coaching staff. And that doesn’t include freshman wing Theo Pinson, who has the makings of an elite defender.

“It’s crazy because sometimes I think we’ve been really good defensively and then I watched the tape after the Davidson game and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, we weren’t nearly as good as I thought we were,’” Williams said. “But we are trying to emphasize what the other team does really well and try to concentrate on having a great effect on what shots they get.”

Despite playing a top-50 strength of schedule thus far, UNC has yet to allow an opponent to above 39 percent from the floor. Opponents are also shooting 26.8 percent from 3-point range, which has been an area of concern for the Tar Heels over the years.

“We’ve still got to do a much better job guarding the basketball,” Williams said, “but I think another thing is the length that we’ve been able to put out there on the perimeter has helped us. A 6-8 guy closing out instead of a 6-2 guy closing out.”

Paige added that UNC’s length on the perimeter doesn’t affect shooting as much as it does disrupting passing lanes.

“We have great guard pressure,” Paige said. “We can pressure the wings and deny and make it tough for teams to run their sets.”

UNC is also averaging 6.8 blocks per game, led by Meeks’s 11 swats. The sophomore blocked 27 shots in 34 games during his rookie campaign. Johnson and Hicks have both blocked eight apiece.

“Our guys have worked hard defensively and tried to bother the shot,” Williams said. “I think you can really affect somebody’s shot by just trying to bother the shot and not necessarily trying to block it every time and putting them on the free throw line.”

There is still plenty of room for defensive growth. Williams harped on finishing the defense on the boards after Butler and Florida combined for 48 offensive rebounds in the Bahamas last week.

UNC ranks 301st nationally in defensive rebounding percentage (36.8), according to kenpom.com.

The Tar Heels’ intensity level has also slipped at times, thereby creating scoring opportunities for their opponents.

“The times that we struggle are when we allow teams to run their sets,” Paige said. “We don’t deny passes or maybe don’t extend our defensive pressure enough. Those are the two things that, I think, if we’re doing those well, then it makes us one of those elite defensive teams.

“But sometimes we revert back to allowing teams to almost run dummy offense against us, and we can’t have that if we want to be consistently a great defensive team.”

For a team that has struggled to establish a level of offensive efficiency – UNC ranks 143rd in effective field goal percentage – defense is providing plenty of balance.

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