Through 19 games, North Carolina is outrebounding its opponents by a 7.5 margin, good for the second in the ACC (behind Miami's 8.8). And according to NCAA statistics, calculated through Jan. 19, the Tar Heels rank 15th nationally in rebounding margin.
So while it may seem that an article focusing on UNC's board "problems" is grasping at straws, it's important to note that the concern is based on the relative performance of this current team against the 2007-08 squad.
Last season – also through 19 games – North Carolina was outrebounding its opponents by 11.1 boards per game. That represents a 32 percent decrease from last year to the current season. Possibly even more concerning is the offensive rebound differential. At this same point in time last January, the Tar Heels were enjoying a plus-4.5 edge on its opponents on the offensive glass. So far this season, that margin has shrunk to plus-1.6.
Williams foreshadowed that problem back on Nov. 17, saying, "We've got to do a better job rebounding the basketball, particularly on the offensive end."
Clemson, which entered Wednesday night's contest in the ACC's cellar in rebounding margin, grabbed eight offensive rebounds in building a 38-36 lead late in the first half. North Carolina's last three opponents have combined to pull down 57 offensive boards.
The 2007-08 squad remained virtually intact, save for Alex Stepheson's transfer and Marcus Ginyard's lingering foot injury. Stepheson and Ginyard both averaged 4.5 rebounds per game, but Ed Davis has nearly equaled those numbers in the first half of his freshman campaign, pulling down 7.7 boards per outing.
The Richmond, Va. product is currently averaging a rebound every 2.6 minutes, a figure better than the career numbers for Tar Heel rebounding greats Sam Perkins (one every 3.8 minutes), George Lynch (one every 3.4 minutes), and Antawn Jamison (one every 3.4 minutes).
So where is the discrepancy?
"I don't know," junior forward Deon Thompson said. "We added Ed [Davis], and you would think we would be even better, but it's just long shots, long rebounds. We just have a tough time getting to the long rebounds, but we definitely are going to get better as the season goes along."
But while Thompson has increased his production on the glass (4.8 rpg in '07-'08 to 6.6 rpg in '08-'09), every other prominent member of North Carolina's fifth-ranked program has seen his rebounding totals decrease. Tyler Hansbrough's totals are down from 10.2 rpg to 7.9 rpg, which could possibly be explained due to early season shin and ankle problems, but Wayne Ellington (4.5 to 4.2), Ty Lawson (2.7 to 2.4) and Danny Green's (4.9 to 4.6) have also dropped.
"I think we've got to go and get the tougher ones," Ellington said. "I think last year we had more of a sense of urgency to get the tougher ones, the loose balls, and I think that added up. This year, we've got to pick that up and improve in that area."
The junior shooting guard credited an early second-half offensive rebound and put-back for his 23-point explosion against Miami, and his six rebounds – three offensive – against Clemson helped the Tar Heels' vaunted transition attack that excels off opponents' misses and turnovers.
"Just fighting for those loose balls and coming up with those long rebounds – that's another thing that gets me going, just staying involved and staying in the flow of things," Ellington said.
North Carolina was outrebounded three times last season, twice in the Las Vegas Invitational (Old Dominion, BYU) and then in the Final Four against Kansas. The Tar Heels have matched that total in the last 24 days alone, losing the rebounding battle to Nevada (39-38), Virginia (50-47) and Miami (41-40).
Green pointed to UNC's struggles to box out and its inability to hold Boston College to one shot per possession in explaining that upset loss on Jan. 4. So while defense will remain a focal point for this program over the next 2 ½ months, rebounding will receive a significant amount of attention as well, as it serves as both the finishing touch of a defensive possession and the starting block of the transition game.