Developing a Killer Instinct

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – What separates good teams from dominant teams in college basketball is that when the latter knocks a challenger to the mat, that opponent is not allowed to get back up. But it's important to note that that ability is dependent upon defensive strength and not offensive wizardry.

Top-ranked North Carolina coasted to an 88-78 victory over Nicholls State on Wednesday night after building a 21-point lead midway through the second half. But instead of clamping down on the Colonels and quickly dispensing the game to the record books, the Tar Heels allowed their Southland Conference opponents to shoot 53.8 percent (14-of-26) in the final 20 minutes to tighten the contest.

Those types of runs are going to occur throughout the long college basketball season, but it's already happened several times to UNC only 10 games into the schedule.

North Carolina witnessed a 14-point lead with 5:56 remaining dwindle to six against Ohio State, and then the Tar Heels built a 20-point second-half lead at Kentucky before holding on for a nine-point win. Head coach Roy Williams' squad has yet to play a nationally-ranked team this season, begging the question as to whether a weak out-of-conference schedule has prevented this team from finding a way to put opponents out of their misery.

"We haven't really played a great team yet," junior guard Bobby Frasor said following Wednesday night's victory. "I think once that challenge arises, practice for us is going to be great that week. Naturally, when you're playing a good team, you're going to play better [and be] more focused. So somehow, someway, we've got to find that killer instinct that it's time to make a stand – ‘Hey, let's not let this team do what they want, let's impose our will on them.'"

Williams disagrees.

"I don't think that's it – I really don't," the fifth-year UNC head coach said during his weekly press conference on Friday. "I think we have intelligent kids. You play at Ohio State and at Kentucky – [when] you put that ‘at' in front of it, that means they're very good, regardless of their level… I don't think our guys have a failure to respect other people at all, I just think that we have a failure to concentrate as much as we need to."

And that lack of focus has been just as prevalent in practice as it has been in live game situations. Williams indicated that "practice for five minutes will be sensational, and then for five minutes we're brain dead."

So then the question becomes that if it's not the level of competition, then what are the necessary steps involved with building consistent defensive capability that translates into that desired killer instinct?

"I think over time, you have to pour it in there, beat it in there – whatever it is – that they have to come to grips with that, that if you don't have that kind of attitude, you're not going to be as successful as you can be," Williams said. "I've told them numerous times [that] I've never seen a bad defensive team in the Final Four… As a staff, the only thing we can do is emphasize it and push it, emphasize and push it, and hopefully the light bulb turns on."

Entering Wednesday's game, the Tar Heels ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense (41.7) in the ACC. That statistic is up to 42.2 percent following Nicholls State's 47.3 shooting percentage in defeat. To make matters worse, the Colonels connected on 14-of-28 three-point attempts, dropping UNC's three-point field defense percentage to 34.7 percent on the season – good for ninth in the conference.

But Williams defends those numbers by offering up a statistic of his own – North Carolina ranks second in the ACC in forcing 19.7 turnovers per game.

"We're going to give up a higher percentage [from the three-point line] – I've said this many times – than other people," Williams said. "But hopefully, we can get to a point where we can get that percentage down and still create the turnovers."

That percentage will drop once the Tar Heels improve on preventing opponents from penetrating the lane.

"When we let them dribble penetrate, we've got to help and it leaves wide open threes," Ty Lawson said. "That's what killed us in the last game we played, so that's something that we need to pick up on."

Williams agrees with his sophomore point guard.

"The way we play tends to mean that people are going to drive [on] us, so that's the thing that we've got to get better at," Williams said. "And that's the thing that is the hardest because you're out there by yourself – you're not sagging back and stopping the dribble penetration."

One thing is for sure, though – with the ACC conference slate only two weeks away, the competitive concentration required to squash an opponent's hope for an upset must be developed quickly. Especially with a UC Santa Barbara program arriving in Chapel Hill for a 1 p.m. tip on Saturday that's riding an eight-game winning streak and shooting 45.4 from long range on the season.

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