Defensive Revelation

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It's taken far too long for North Carolina to live up to its defensive potential this season, but recent improvement on that end of the floor has helped to lift spirits in Chapel Hill while putting the Tar Heels in position to win the NIT championship.

UNC head coach Roy Williams pointed to quality post depth and defensive potential as crucial elements in balancing out question marks on the perimeter during his preseason media sessions. Injuries prevented the former from being a strength while inconsistency plagued the latter for the bulk of the season.

That, in a nut shell, is how North Carolina ended up in the NIT Tournament instead of defending its national title in the Big Dance.

But while forwards Ed Davis and David Wear remain firmly entrenched on the Tar Heel bench due to injury, Williams' seventh squad in Chapel Hill has made defensive strides over the past month.

In the past seven games, North Carolina is holding its opponents to a 37.6 field goal percentage on 160-of-425 shooting. What makes that statistic even more impressive is that the massacre in Durham is included – the Blue Devils connected on 45.6 percent of their field goal attempts (26-of-57) in the 82-50 victory on Mar. 6.

In its previous 28 outings, UNC held its opponents to 41.9 percent shooting.

"I've seen the guys buy into it more [and] they're communicating better," Williams said. "The Duke game we did nothing. We showed up and that was it… But in those other games, I think we have been sharper mentally. I think intellectually we've been listening to the scouting report better. We've been giving better effort. So I would agree that we've gotten a lot better down the stretch and we need to continue that improvement, too."

So what exactly flipped the proverbial switch for this embattled Tar Heel squad? After all, North Carolina entered the first game of this stretch – at Wake Forest on Feb. 27 – with a 14-14 (3-10 ACC) record and losers of 10 of their last 12. That same program has now won five of its past seven contests.

"It starts with one person playing hard and then everybody feeds off each other, and I think that's what we've been doing," freshman forward John Henson said. "One person comes to play ‘D' – Marcus [Ginyard], Deon [Thompson] or whoever – and we just feed off their energy and that's been helping us the last few games."

Sophomore guard Larry Drew pointed to a strategic coaching decision as spurring the improvement, saying, "We've switched up our defense a little bit, just focusing more on keeping our man in front of us instead of trying to play out in the passing lanes."

Thompson attributed the changes to being more vocal and having more want-to, as well as the adjustment in denying passes that Drew mentioned.

Skeptics might suggest that the quality of North Carolina's opposition has played a significant role in this statistical trend, and they have a legitimate point – three of the past seven opponents have been NIT participants and another (Miami) failed to earn a NIT bid.

But a closer look at the numbers reveals that UNC held six of its last seven opponents below their season field goal percentage average. That septet's combined 37.6 shooting mark against North Carolina pales in comparison to its season-long 44.0 field goal percentage.

Arguably UNC's best defensive performance occurred in Birmingham last Tuesday when the Tar Heels held UAB to 28.8 percent on 15-of-52 shooting.

That's not to say that North Carolina has sharply turned the corner, however. After holding Mississippi State to 31.3 percent (10-of-32) in the first half on Mar. 20, the Tar Heels allowed the Bulldogs to connect on 53.8 percent (14-of-26) of their attempts after intermission. And while UNC's NIT competition is only shooting 37.8 percent from the floor, that trio is also drilling 36.3 percent (33-of-91) of their 3-point attempts.

North Carolina's three counterparts in New York this week all shoot 44.6 percent or better from the field, so continued growth defensively is essential if UNC hopes to win the NIT championship on Thursday night.

But even more important than that secondary title is the knowledge that a foundation is finally being built for the 2010-11 season, long after many had written off the current campaign as a lost cause.

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