It’s understandable that Tar Heel fans have focused on certain recent offensive statistics – 9-of-55 3-point shooting over the past three games, for example – while offering little more than a slight acknowledgement to the fact that only one opponent has beaten North Carolina while shooting over 50 percent from the floor (Illinois, 50.8) or that UNC is 14-0 when holding opponents under 40 percent shooting.
The tendency to focus on all things offensive is ingrained for those emotionally connected to Chapel Hill. The 2009-2010 season broke a streak of six-straight seasons in which North Carolina ranked in the top-10 nationally in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings (points per 100 possessions).
When you think of Williams-era players such as Tyler Hansbrough, Sean May, Rashad McCants, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, the likelihood is that you imagine those players scoring critical points en route to a national championship.
But while the current group of Tar Heels have struggled to match that level of offensive firepower, they have quietly filled in the gap with a steadily improving defensive effort. This is a squad that has the potential to be the best defensive unit during Williams’ tenure at North Carolina, and the statistics back up that claim.
The Tar Heels currently rank fifth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency with an 87.2 mark, according to kenpom.com. The ’04-‘05 national title team ranked fifth nationally (86.7) and the ’06-’07 squad finished fourth (85.6) in the country.
For a layman’s approach, consider that UNC is holding its ACC competition to 40.1 percent shooting, which currently represents the second-best field goal percentage mark in league play during the Williams era. First on that list is the ’04-’05 title squad (39.5).
But here’s the thing – this Tar Heel squad, which starts two freshmen and two sophomores, is only scratching the surface.
“We’re much better defensively than we were early [in the season],” Williams told reporters on Friday. “We’re getting better. We’ve got to finish the defense. We didn’t finish the defense and get box-outs [against Wake Forest]… We give up a few too many offensive rebounds that they can put back in and that always hurts your defensive field goal percentage. But we’re getting better. I think they’re understanding it more. They’re understanding what the other team is trying to do more. They see a clearer big picture.”
Forward John Henson was willing to admit his team’s improvement on the defensive end of the floor, but the league’s leading shot-blocker (3.2 per game) made it clear that UNC is a work in progress.
“I think it’s a gradual process and we’re getting better and better every day,” said Henson, who has emerged as a ACC Defensive Player of the Year candidate. “It’s a testament to the coaches and players believing in each other and everybody buying in. It’s saved us a few games, so I’m thankful for that.”
In Williams’ first seven season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels won a game after scoring 64 points or less only twice. North Carolina has accomplished that feat three times in the last two months.
In those three games, the Tar Heels clamped down defensively when their own shots weren’t falling. UNC connected on a combined 38.8 percent of its field goal attempts (66-of-170) during those games, but held its opponents to a combined 38.7 percent (63-of-163).
When shots weren’t falling last season, the Tar Heels sometimes looked as though they didn’t exactly know what to do and often lost composure and allowed their defensive play to resemble their offensive performance. Oh, how things can change over the course of a year.
“Defense is not something that everyone wants to play, but the teams that do are going to be the better teams,” Henson said. “Once teams figure out that defense can win games, it becomes a lot easier for everybody to buy in, and I think that’s what we’ve started doing.”
There is still plenty of room for development and growth. Henson admitted that UNC lets opposing post players to catch the ball too easily on the block, due to their comfort level in their ability to block shots. And the departure of Larry Drew, a player that Williams often praised for his defensive play, has put a spotlight on freshman point guard Kendall Marshall’s sharp learning curve.
Williams indicated that Marshall is a better team defender than an on-the-ball defender at this point in his young career.
“That’s admirable for a freshman, but it’s also something that in today’s game, you’ve got to be able to guard the basketball,” Williams said. “If you can’t guard the basketball, you create breakdowns for your own team and create opportunities for the other team and that puts you in the negative.”
Most telling of all, of course, is that North Carolina is playing this level of defense with only one upperclassman in the starting lineup.
When asked if his team was approaching its defensive potential, Williams responded: “With a group so young, who knows? We play three freshmen and in each of the past three or four games, we’ve had three freshmen on the court at the same time. With those young guys, you don’t know how fast they’re going to [improve].”
While the time will come to discuss which underclassmen may or may not consider jumping to the NBA, the possibility that everyone on this roster could return for the 2011-12 campaign offers hope that next year could deliver one of the more dominating defenses in recent Tar Heel history.