Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins

Joel Berry Powering UNC's Defensive Surge

UNC is holding its opponents to 37.0 percent shooting through seven games.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While No. 3 North Carolina has been scoring nearly 93 points per game during November, its defense has been equally as important in the team’s blistering start to 2016-17.

UNC (7-0) is one of five teams nationally that rank in the top-10 in both adjusted offense and adjusted defense, according the kenpom.com. When the Tar Heels are at their best, at least during the Roy Williams era, their defensive effort fuels a lethal transition game that is difficult to stop.

It all starts with point guard Joel Berry, who has accepted his head coach’s charge to pick up the ball at halfcourt and beyond to disrupt the opponent’s offensive rhythm.

“Coach wants that every time,” Berry said on Tuesday. “I try to do it every time. Sometimes I get a little tired, but I try to challenge myself to be that defensive player.”

Berry’s intent is to make the opposing point guard change directions as many times as possible before starting his halfcourt set. The benefits are twofold: not only does the aggressive approach speed up guards that prefer to walk the ball up the court, but it also helps the junior point guard lock in earlier in the game.

“I feel like once I get going on the defensive end, my offense kind of comes to me,” said Berry, whose four 20-point games in November have tied a school record.

Williams cited his point guard’s maturation in better understanding the importance of defense, especially in his role as point guard.

“Joel Berry is better,” Williams said. “He’s setting the tone out at the top of the key or the 10-second line of keeping the other team’s point guard in front of him and trying to make sure he doesn’t get beat on dribble penetration. If you don’t get beat on dribble penetration, then you don’t have to help, so your whole defense is stronger.”

The Tar Heels have allowed only one opponent to post a positive assist-turnover ratio (Wisconsin, 12-11). Compared to the 2015-16 team’s first seven games, UNC has forced 14 more turnovers (108-94) while allowing 15 fewer assists (72-87).

UNC is also shooting 51.9 percent while holding its opponents to 37.0 percent. Through seven games last season, the Tar Heels were shooting 49.0 percent compared to their opponents’ 41.3 percent.

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There is still plenty of work to be done. The Tar Heels need to improve on closing out, defending the middle drive and reducing their foul count, according to Berry. Williams added that his team is lacking the eraser in the middle that Brice Johnson provided last season, while adding that Isaiah Hicks’s defensive grades are lower this season compared with this time last year.

Even so, UNC’s defensive efficiency has stabilized its overall consistency and allowed for 15-point margins or more in all seven games.

“I think we’re just buying into the defensive end faster than we did last year,” Berry said. “Last year, we didn’t start playing defense as well as we did during our run until the ACC Tournament, but this year I think that we’re starting to learn that defense is the key…

“I still think we have room to grow, but at this point, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to stop teams from scoring and not just try to outscore teams all of the time.”

UNC’s toughest defensive test of the season will come against No. 13 Indiana in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday. The Hoosiers are averaging 88.6 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and have four players scoring in double figures.

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