Defensive Concerns Overblown

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina is accustomed to being a marked program on the hardwood, but the national media has recently jumped on board to question the Tar Heels' defensive ability, with one outlet even stating that UNC will not win the national championship because of those deficiencies.

There is legitimacy in those concerns. No. 1 North Carolina ranks ninth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (41.7), and the Tar Heels are 38th nationally in's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings (89.8 points per 100 possessions), compared to more impressive numbers from heavyweights No.2 Memphis (1st – 79.5), No.3 Kansas (2nd – 79.7) and No.4 UCLA (6th - 84.4).

But Sports Illustrated columnist Grant Wahl's assertion earlier this week that those defensive efficiency statistics are poor enough to prevent the Tar Heels from winning the national championship is premature.

North Carolina allowed Old Dominion to shoot 55.4 percent from the floor in a 17-point victory in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving weekend. But while there's no way to sugarcoat those numbers, I'm not about to proclaim the Tar Heels' demise for stats in a game that UNC controlled by double-digits for the majority of the final 20 minutes.

Instead, I think it's more informative to scrutinize the defensive stats during the closing minutes of tightly-contested ball games. One of the problems of dissecting elite squads before their conference seasons get hot and heavy is that there are normally few opportunities to watch a team grind out a victory, and this season is no exception.

North Carolina currently sits at 18-0 (3-0 ACC) and has played in just three games that went down to the wire – at Davidson (72-68), at Clemson (90-88 in OT) and at Georgia Tech (83-82). The Wildcats and the Tar Heels were tied with 5:16 remaining in the contest, and Davidson shot 3-of-12 down the stretch. The Tigers had a 3-point lead with 6:05 left in regulation, and hit just four of their final 13 field goal attempts, and the Yellow Jackets missed 12 of their final 14 shots after standing even with North Carolina with 6:44 remaining on Wednesday night.

In short, the Tar Heels held their opponents to 23.1 percent shooting during the last five or six minutes of the games that were in question.

"I think both games, down the stretch, we were better defensively," head coach Roy Williams said during his Friday press conference, referring to the Clemson and Georgia Tech games. "We were more attentive to detail, we were more alert, more aware. Some of that can be from becoming more used to what they're trying to do – understanding a little more about how strong a guy is, how quick a guy is, how much room you have to give him, how far you can close out on him and those kinds of things.

"I think we do have intelligent players, who during the course of the game, understand how they can match up. The game of basketball – at every play – is you against one other guy. Now some other guys do some things, but at every play, can you box that guy out, can you guard that guy when he's trying to dribble, can you block that guy's shot, can he block your shot?"

For comparison's sake, Kansas allowed Georgia Tech to shoot 46 percent during the final 5:21 of their contest in Atlanta back on Dec. 18. The Yellow Jackets were able to cut a 13-point lead down to just one with nine seconds left before the Jayhawks escaped with a 71-66 victory. Kansas was also able to hold off Arizona in its 76-72 overtime victory on Nov. 25, despite allowing the Wildcats to shoot 8-of-15 during the final seven minutes of regulation and overtime.

And while Memphis has been stout defensively all season long, UCLA allowed Michigan State to shoot 55 percent in the second half of the Bruins' 68-63 victory on Nov. 20, and let Texas connect on nine of its final 16 shots during the last 10 minutes of their 63-61 loss on Dec. 2.

Williams told Mike Tirico Friday afternoon in an interview on ESPN Radio that he believed Kansas was the best team in the nation because of their ability to guard, and that sentiment is hard to debate. That argument could be made for both UCLA and Memphis at this point, but things inevitably will change for other programs throughout the course of the long college basketball season.

So while there are reasons for skepticism about North Carolina's defensive capabilities, the fifth-year UNC head coach firmly believes that his team's late-game play provides hope for improvement during the next two months prior to the NCAA Tournament.

"I really think so," Williams said. "I've told our team, I don't want to be sitting here in March saying I hope we get better defensively in June. Against N.C. State last week, they shot 17 percent and I said it that day and I believe it, they missed some shots they would normally make. But we were very active defensively and we were involved. We were around their shots so much more than we had been, so that was encouraging."

But it should also be pointed out during the 93-62 blowout of N.C. State that while the Wolfpack were held to 17.6 percent shooting in the first half as the Tar Heels built a 43-13 lead, Sidney Lowe's squad shot a staggering 58.1 percent in the final 20 minutes with many of UNC's key players in the ball game until the closing minutes. Those kinds of lapses will eventually catch up with North Carolina in the form of a loss at some point this season, but defensive growth is not out of the realm of possibility.

It's also important to note that the Tar Heels were not a defensive juggernaut during the early part of the 2005 national championship season, either.

"In 2005, I didn't think we were very good defensively until we got started about the second time around in league play, and then I think we started doing a much better job," Williams said.

So if Wahl's statement does anything at this point in time, it's to serve as motivation for the top-ranked Tar Heels as they venture through the dangerous ACC waters, beginning with Maryland on Saturday.

"Definitely, it does," sophomore forward Deon Thompson said. "We're going to see that and it's going to make us want to prove that we can play defense. Coach [Williams] tells us all of the time that if you look at all of the national championship teams, all of them can play defense. And that's the one thing that's inconsistent with our team right now. So when we read something like that, it's going to motivate us to play defense."

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