CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 5 North Carolina’s work on the defensive end, as measured by an ability to guard without fouling, has seen significant improvement this season after difficulties in recent years.
The Tar Heels led the nation with the fewest personal fouls per possession at 19.4 percent in 2011-12, according to teamrankings.com. In 2012-13, that percentage rose slightly to 20.5, dropping UNC to third nationally, although still first in the ACC.
That fouling tendency rose sharply in 2013-14 to 28.1 percent, plummeting the Tar Heels to 190th nationally ( 13th ACC). There was marginal improvement last season as UNC rose to 171st nationally (12thACC) at 27.1 percent.
With a veteran roster in 2015-16, the Tar Heels have climbed back to 61st nationally (6th ACC) by reducing their fouls per possession to 25.0 percent.
“We’ve tried to not have as many silly fouls,” Roy Williams said on Tuesday. “Last season, we fouled way too much on silly fouls, just reaching in and touching somebody and not having any effect on the play more than any team I’ve ever coached.”
One way UNC’s coaching staff has worked to limit the fouling is by emphasizing better defensive habits during the offseason, particularly in the summer pickup games when former Tar Heels come to town.
“Guard people, don’t just reach in and take a chicken way out and foul him,” Williams said. “I think that we’ve tried to do a better job of that in games. We’ve still had some games where we’ve fouled way too much. There’s no question, but we are doing a much better job of it ourselves.”
How do you go about devising a plan to defend Duke, especially with regard to Brandon Ingram?
“It’s a question we’re still talking about as a staff. The easy thing is to put Brice on him and say you’ve got to get out there and guard him, but he’s got to guard you, too, on the low post. But we had discussions about it this morning in a staff meeting and we’ll probably have some more. I’ll check the moon and the stars tonight and see how they line up and make a decision.”
Have you been able to assess if Duke will be able to handle your depth?
“I think so. They had a stretch there for a couple of games – I guess they lost at Clemson, Notre Dame and Syracuse – there’s a great chance all three of those teams are going to be in the NCAAs. They haven’t lost to Slippery Rock or anybody like that. The guy that used to coach at Slippery Rock is a good friend of mine, so he told me I gave him good pub all of the time. But those teams are pretty doggone good. I don’t know if the Duke lack of depth hurt them that much in those games as some other things or how well the other team played.
“We’re going to play 8-9-10 guys, probably 8-9-10 guys in the first half because that’s just what we do. And hopefully, at the end of the game, it will have a little effect on them or maybe get them in more foul trouble, but just playing more people doesn’t get them in foul trouble. You’ve got to attack the basket, so we’ve got to do both. Hopefully we’ll have a little more pep in our step by playing more people, but they’re used to it now.”
Both Justin Jackson and Brandon Ingram have significant length -
“Brandon’s much bigger. There’s a difference. Those guys can give more cushion on the guy they’re guarding and keep him in front of you because you give him more space and still have the length to bother his shot. Brandon is much more effective around the backboard. He’s averaging 6.7 boards a game and our guys are averaging three. His length is pretty impressive. His length is John Henson kind of length that really bothered people. It’s Sam Perkins kind of length that really bothered people.”
Were you confident that Ingram was a recruit you were going to get?
“No, I don’t ever say that because that acts like it’s sour grapes. We spent a ton of time on him, loved him, loved everything about him. Loved his game, thought he was an unbelievable prospect and we worked very hard for three years on him, but we didn’t get him. He’s having a great, great freshman year – well, he’s having a great year, I don’t care what class he is – averaging 17 a game in the ACC, shooting over 47 from the floor and 40 from the [3-point] line, blocked 38 shots. He’s an all-star kind of player. Wonderful family. I don’t know that I’ve ever worked a guy as long or as hard as we did Brandon because we saw him as a sophomore and really started working him hard then.”
Does that rank among the bad recruiting outcomes of your career?
“Well, it depends on what you call bad. If you call it bad because you didn’t get him, yes. But I still get notes from guys that I didn’t get that seem to still like me and act like we’re okay. We’re not nearly as okay as we would be if they’d come play for us, there’s no question, but all of that, I’ve never, never, gotten on a kid for choosing somewhere else. And you know we had some problems. Everybody knows it, so there’s no sense in rehashing all of that stuff. He made a great decision and he’s playing his tail off.”
Joel James has only played two minutes in each of the last two games. Does he have any lingering issues with his Achilles?
“Two games ago I think I did take him out because he just was hurting. Or maybe it was the last game. One of the games he was just hurting and one game it didn’t fit him… I put him in both games. One game I tried him and I thought his effect on the game was not going to be what I wanted it to be and the other game I tried him and he was really hurting… One of them was my choice and one of them was his Achilles’ choice.”