CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 7 North Carolina’s disruptive perimeter defense has been a strength through 11 games, although No. 6 Kentucky’s dribble-drive motion offense will provide the most significant test of the season in Las Vegas on Saturday.
There are plenty of similarities between these blue bloods, most notably their work on the offensive glass and their desire to run opponents out of the gym. A constant factor in this series, at least since John Calipari took over in Lexington in 2009, has been the matchup pairing the Wildcats’ penetrating offensive style with Roy Williams’s preference for playing man defense.
Calipari perfected his version of the dribble-drive motion offense during his time at Memphis. The design is built on spacing, creating gaps and then attacking the rim off the dribble either for layups or kick-outs for 3-point attempts. By removing a post player from the blocks, Calipari opens the paint and creates more opportunities for drives, dump passes, lobs and offensive rebounds.
Williams believes in playing from the inside out on both ends of the floor, so his teams are taught to defend shots at the rim as top priority, thereby relying on proper rotations on the perimeter to help and fill gaps when a player is beaten off the dribble and off-the-ball defenders are forced to hedge or drop into the paint. Kentucky has taken advantage of that approach over the past five meetings, shooting 41.4 percent from 3-point range and averaging 7.2 made 3-pointers.
On-ball defense has not been a topic of conversation for the Tar Heels this season, which is a positive development due in large part to a trio of solid defenders on the perimeter.
Junior point guard Joel Berry, whose status is yet to be determined as he recovers from a left ankle sprain, is UNC’s defensive engine, elevating his presence this season by extending his pressure and often forcing opponents to start their offense further out than desired. Senior guard Nate Britt leads the team with five defensive player of the game awards (determined by film grades), while Williams has labeled sophomore wing Kenny Williams as his best perimeter defender.
“It’s getting better, but it’s easier if Joel’s one of those guys,” Williams said on Thursday when asked about his team’s on-ball defense. “We work on it an awful lot. Last year we struggled early and I thought we got much better at it late. We spend a lot of time on it. But De’Aaron Fox has a gear that most people don’t have, and Malik (Monk) can come at you so hard and stop on a dime.”
Monk leads the Wildcats in scoring with 19.4 points per game, while Fox is averaging 15.1 points and 6.9 assists per game. Monk is also Kentucky’s primary 3-point marksman, although the Wildcats are only shooting 32.4 percent from long range, good for 254th nationally.
Junior wing Justin Jackson described UNC’s ability to defend the dribble drive as a “huge” factor in Saturday’s contest.
“They’ve got guards that can really break you down off the dribble, so we’ve all just got to take a stance and take responsibility for ourselves,” Jackson said. “It will definitely be key, because they also have some pretty good shooters. It will be key to keep them out of the paint so that it’s not a bunch of drive-and-kicks for threes. ”
Berry’s offensive production will be required for UNC to score with Kentucky, although its his defensive presence that’s arguably most important. If the Wildcats are able to penetrate more often than not, the Tar Heels’ thin frontcourt will be at risk of foul trouble in attempting to guard the rim.