CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Inconsistency is preventing No. 9 North Carolina from making the transition from being a good defensive team to a great one, and Saturday’s 90-82 win over Boston College provided key examples of that lingering gap.
Despite Ky Bowman’s 21-point first-half explosion, the Tar Heels took a 34-33 lead into halftime by holding the Eagles to 38.2 percent shooting. The Havelock, N.C. native’s career afternoon (33 points) was sparked by a 7-of-9 3-point shooting spree, several of which were set up by teammates penetrating and kicking out.
Help defense has been a talking point through UNC’s first 21 games, not only for an occasional inability to stop penetration, but also for collapsing too far off the 3-point line, thereby giving too much cushion to perimeter shooters. For starters, defending the ball better eliminates that balancing act.
“If we do a better job of keeping the ball in front of us, no one has to help,” sophomore wing Kenny Williams said after UNC’s sixth-straight ACC win. “That will make it easier on everybody.”
There also has to be better recognition of players with hot hands. Bowman is the fourth player to score 30 or more points against UNC this season, joining Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans (30), Davidson’s Jack Gibbs (30) and Kentucky’s Malik Monk (47).
“When a guy starts making a lot of shots, we need to make a concerted effort to stop him,” Williams said. “We all have to come together to stop him and not give him any open looks.”
UNC’s ability to quiet Bowman’s teammates early – they shot 22.7 percent in the first half – vanished after halftime as Boston College shot 55.9 percent on 19-of-34 shooting. The Eagles entered Saturday’s contest ranked 13th in the ACC in field goal percentage (44.1).
Roy Williams highlighted his team’s struggles against the ball screen yet again when explaining the second-half breakdowns.
“Coming off of the screens, we weren’t doing a very good job,” Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “You’ve got to get over the screens and your teammates have got to help you but give you a path. You can’t just keep going the same way and get caught up. If I go one way over the screen and I get caught, the next time I’m going to try something different. That same play got us three times in a row and that shouldn’t happen…
“We weren’t sharp defensively, that’s the bottom line.”
The Tar Heels are currently allowing their ACC opponents to shoot 43.6 percent from the floor, good for fifth in league play and well above the 2015-16 team’s 40.5 mark. Even so, UNC ranks 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (92.0), according to kenpom.com.
“We’ve been up and down more than I thought we would be,” the 14th-year UNC head coach said. “I thought we’d have a chance to be more consistent. We haven’t done it on a consistent basis.”
Williams yet again lamented the losses of Marcus Paige, who won the program’s defensive player of the year award four seasons in a row, and Brice Johnson, UNC’s top shot blocker since John Henson, which served to remind fans and media of the gaping holes that had to be filled defensively. However, this team has proven to be lethal when it guards with effort and intensity.
“I think we’re good, but we can get better,” junior point guard Joel Berry said. “When we lock in as a team and defensively get after it, it’s hard to beat us, but sometimes we just make a mistake and the teams take advantage of that. When we lock in, it’s hard for other teams to score on us.”
To Berry’s point, UNC is 9-0 when holding opponents to less than 40 percent shooting this season.