Flipping the Switch

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If there has been any negative press surrounding this North Carolina program over the past several seasons, it has revolved around the Tar Heels' defensive effort. And so it's fitting that with six days remaining in the 2008-09 campaign, defense will likely define the program's 18th Final Four.

When you listen to the national media pundits discuss this weekend's Final Four participants, take note of how many times each of the teams are praised for the defensive prowess. Chances are that Connecticut, Villanova and Michigan State are lumped together as stalwarts of offensive resistance while North Carolina is labeled as the one squad needing to overcome their deficiencies in that regard.

And there is some evidence to back up those claims – UConn ranks third in kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings (84.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) while Michigan State (9th – 88.3) and Villanova (15th – 89.7) are positioned higher than UNC (18th – 90.6). The Tar Heels were 19th (89.6) heading into the 2008 Final Four.

But the slight discrepancy in those statistics pales in comparison to North Carolina's dominance on the offensive side of the equation. UNC holds down the No. 1 spot in kenpom's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings (123.8), while UConn (12th - 117.0), Villanova (19th - 115.7) and Michigan State (23rd - 114.6) trail by a much wider margin.

And if effort is the driving force behind defensive play, wouldn't it be logical to assume that North Carolina has more potential to close that gap than the Spartans do in developing a more efficient offense over the next six days?

That theory gains legitimate building blocks when factoring in the Tar Heels' recent improvements on the defensive end of the floor – which began with a loss, coincidentally. With Ty Lawson sidelined at the ACC Tournament, UNC held Florida State to just one field goal in 16 tries over a nine-minute, 52-second stretch in the first half.

In NCAA second round action, LSU connected on seven of its first eight field goals after halftime to use a 15-3 spurt to build a 44-41 lead, but the Tar Heels held the Tigers to 38.4 percent (10-of-26) over the final 16:38 in the 14-point victory.

And in last Sunday's 72-60 win over Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, the Sooners didn't post their second field goal of the day until nearly seven minutes into the ball game and with North Carolina holding a double-digit lead.

"I think we're better overall," Roy Williams said about his team's defense during Tuesday's press conference. "I think we're better seeing the big picture. Not just staring at our man or staring at the ball, we're seeing what the other team is trying to do. I think we're better at reacting or acting because we see the big picture. We're a little better denying, but not a great deal. We're a little better at keeping the basketball in front of us, but not a great deal. But I think we are better as a team."

Lawson drew criticism following mid-season losses to Boston College and Wake Forest due to guards Tyrese Rice and Jeff Teague exploding for 25 and 34, respectively. But the ACC Player of the Year detailed the reason behind those lapses on Tuesday, indicating that UNC's perimeter strategy was to go under ball screens, which provided those guards open looks. And by the time the defender jumped back out to defend the jump shots, Rice and everyone else took advantage with dribble penetration.

Those days are over. North Carolina has returned to its standard method of fighting through ball screens, which when executed properly, cuts down on open looks and makes it more difficult for opposing guards to get into the lane.

"The last two weekends I feel like we've played a lot better defense and are putting more detail into rotating and staying in front of our man," Lawson said. "It's more of a focus now to play defense than it was earlier in the year."

On Monday, Williams described his labors to get his squad to completely buy into his defensive approach as a "sales job." For a Hall of Fame coach that's been known to tell this group of players that he's never seen a bad defensive team win a national championship, he's hoping one last hurrah is enough to drive the point home.

"We are getting there, definitely," senior forward Danny Green said. "These last two games that we've played, I think we did a great job – well, not a great job – but a really good job defensively of picking it up and rotating and helping each other out… When we can do that, it gets our offense going. When we get steals and run out, we're able to run out and get easy baskets on the other end."

Which brings us back to North Carolina's potent offensive attack. The Tar Heels' last three opponents have all connected on better than 44.0 percent of their field goals, yet still managed to lose by an average of 15.7 points, with no one closer than 12. UNC is now 65-1 over the past two seasons when connecting on better than 40.0 percent of its field goals.

Could it be that a great defensive effort at the Final Four is not required for the Tar Heels to bring the hardware home to Chapel Hill for a fifth time? Would a merely decent showing suffice?

"I just think that our offense is always so good that it takes away from our defense," junior Deon Thompson said. "But I think that our defense has improved, dating back from [the Georgetown loss in '07] to now, and even from the beginning of the season. I just think that our defense always gets knocked on because we can score the ball so well. Our defense does need to be good. I don't know that it necessarily needs to be great because we can score the ball so well, but it definitely has to be above average to beat good teams."

Following Sunday's win over Oklahoma, Wayne Ellington told reporters that the Tar Heels could "turn that [defensive] switch when we want to." While Williams and the North Carolina fan base would much prefer that engine to be cranked and running for 80 minutes in the Motor City this weekend, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that only a fraction of that time might work sufficiently.

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