Defensive Deja Vu?

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 1 North Carolina rolls into ACC conference play against Boston College on Sunday, having won all 13 games on its schedule by an average of 26.5 points. Those statistics beg a similar question to one that was asked this time last year – is there anybody in this league that can upset the mighty Tar Heels?

Looking back to the 2007-08 campaign, North Carolina dismantled 14 straight opponents to open the season before starting league play against Clemson on Sunday, Jan. 6.

But the perception in this current squad and the previous year's edition seems worlds apart.

The knock on last year's team heading into the ACC was inconsistency on the defensive end of the floor against a below-average out-of-conference schedule. The Tar Heels were winning by an average of 23.6 points per game, while allowing their opponents to shoot 40.9 percent from the field.

Head coach Roy Williams spent several minutes defending his schedule at a press conference early last January, and there was evidence to back up those claims. Despite not having a showcase game against a top-10 opponent, the Tar Heels did defeat eight teams ranked in the RPI top-125 and four in the top-40 in that opening 14-game run.

Fast forward to this season, and the national media and UNC fan base has focused wholeheartedly on the lopsided victories over then-No. 8 Notre Dame (102-87) and then-No. 12 Michigan State (98-63). But the Tar Heels have only defeated four opponents that rank in the RPI's top-100. The Spartans and Evansville are the only teams with a RPI ranking inside the top-60.

The statistical comparison between the two starts is fairly even. The current squad is allowing its opponents to shoot 39.8 percent from the floor, compared with 40.9 percent last season. Offensively, North Carolina is knocking down 51.1 percent of its shots, compared with 50.3 percent in '07-'08.

And while this year's squad has boosted its turnover margin to 7.0 from 4.2 last season, its rebounding margin has dropped to 7.7 from 12.1.

Both teams faced an inordinate amount of injuries, as four different players missed at least one full game before last season's ACC opener. Tyler Hansbrough, Michael Copeland, Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Zeller have all missed time this year, albeit a much higher number of contests compared to the '07-'08 group.

Some observers would argue that North Carolina was more dominant against better competition early this season, holding Notre Dame and Michigan State to a combined 38.5 percent shooting (55-of-143). But while that fact is undoubtedly true, it brings into question the preseason goals of this team – UNC's Media Day consisted of Williams and his players talking about giving consistent effort on the defensive end of the floor, night-in and night-out.

"We all understand that to get where we want to be, we're going to have to step it up another notch defensively," junior guard Wayne Ellington said at that event back in October.

The consistency was obvious during the first eight games of the season, as the Tar Heels were holding their opponents to 37.4 percent shooting. But following a 10-day break for semester-ending exams, North Carolina allowed its next four opponents to connect on 46 percent (114-of-248) of their attempts.

Failing to show up defensively every night last season was a focal point of the media, with many attributing UNC's utter collapse to Kansas in the Final Four to the belief that defensive intensity cannot be controlled by an on-off switch at will.

And while North Carolina held Nevada to 34.9 percent shooting from the floor on Wednesday, including 28.6 percent in the second half, Williams was not happy with his team's defensive performance.

"Most of the time, if you give up 14 points on offensive rebounds in the second half, [and] most of the time, in addition to that, you put the team on the line and let them shoot 20 free throws in the second half, you're going to lose," Williams told reporters on Friday. "So I was not pleased and yet everybody's going to say, ‘Well, Coach, you can't have everything because they shot 28 percent in the second half,' but I think it's my job to try get everything."

Senior wing Danny Green, who has started all 13 games this season as defensive standout Marcus Ginyard rehabbed from offseason foot surgery, echoed his head coach in saying that shooting percentage does not always tell the full story.

"We didn't box out the way we wanted to and we didn't execute defensively in the second half the way we wanted to," Green said. "We gave them second and third shots, we put them on the foul line a lot in the second half, and I think they outrebounded us in the second half, so that's nothing to be happy about… Hopefully we pick it up from here. We're going to continue to strive forward and try to get better defensively and keep our mental focus."

Williams insists his team is better defensively this season, chalking the recent regression up to the lull period of exams. But that claim will be tested severely in the coming weeks, as North Carolina encounters five conference members boasting top-45 rankings in the RPI, including its next opponent in Boston College (12-2).

The Eagles jumped on the Tar Heels early in both contests last season, connecting on nine of their first 19 shots in a loss in Chapel Hill in January, before Tyrese Rice's 46 points helped his squad to a 50-percent shooting performance in a home loss in March.

As far as upsets go, all programs are prone to an opposing hot hand or an off-night shooting. But if North Carolina is able to avoid defensive lapses such as the Maryland loss in Chapel Hill last season -- the Terps shot 46.9 percent from the floor -- the opportunity for an upset narrows dramatically.

Now, as was the case last season, North Carolina will have to prove that it can deliver a consistent defensive effort every time it takes the court.

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