North Carolina’s unexpected ACC regular season championship in 2010-11 included a variety of memorable moments – Barnes’s game-winning 3-pointer at Miami with 6.6 seconds to play, Marshall’s 16 assists against Florida State in his first start and Barnes knocking down another 3-pointer in the closing seconds in Tallahassee.
But that championship would have never materialized without strong defensive performances throughout the conference slate. North Carolina averaged 66.6 points and a plus-0.4 scoring margin through its first five ACC games and still managed four victories during that stretch. In conference play, UNC held its opponents to 39.9 percent shooting, which represents the second-best field goal percentage mark in league play during the Williams era.
And the true value of UNC’s defensive play in ’10-11 is not revealed until recognizing that the Tar Heels won five games in which they scored 64 points or less, which is three more than North Carolina won during Roy Williams’s first seven seasons in Chapel Hill.
Defense was the cornerstone that UNC’s regular season title and Elite Eight appearance was built on. In ’11-12, the Tar Heels must avoid the pitfalls that come along with an abundance of offensive firepower on their roster. John Henson admitted during Wednesday’s ACC Operation Basketball media event that it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing so much on offense that the defensive effort suffers in return.
“Coach always says he loves scoring and he wants us to put shots up,” Henson said. “But defense is how we’re going to beat teams. You don’t want to have a close game every game. You also want your defense to take care of your offense when your offense is not working, so that’s what we want.”
There are plenty of reasons to think that North Carolina will build on last season’s defensive accomplishments. For one, the Tar Heels got that production out of a starting lineup that included two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior playing in his first full season. All five return with a full year of experience on their resume.
Secondly, this UNC squad comes equipped with the returning ACC Defensive Player of the Year in Henson and his 118 blocks, as well as arguably the league’s top perimeter defender in Dexter Strickland. Add in a solid position post defender in Zeller and a couple of long, rangy athletes on the wing in Barnes and Reggie Bullock, and the difficulty for opposing teams is spread across the court.
And finally, there is likely no other team in the country that has benefited from the NBA lockout more than North Carolina. Former Tar Heels flocked to Chapel Hill this summer and participated in the legendary summer pickup games that pitted the old guard against the current crop.
Brendan Haywood, Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Shammond Williams, Wayne Ellington, Jackie Manuel, Tyler Hansbrough and Rasheed Wallace are just some of the players that returned to take part in the festivities, providing ample opportunity for the Tar Heels to improve defensively.
“One of the things that was so good about everybody coming back this year that we were able to work on it this summer playing pickup against the pro guys,” Barnes said. “We were able to play together and got to know how each other plays defense and I think that helped us.”
Therein lies the difficulty in improving a defense from one season to the next. While a player can work on his individual skills until his legs burn and his back aches, it may not translate effectively on the court until meshed with his teammates.
“You’ve got to get everybody working the same and thinking the same,” Henson said. “The defense has to be one with the offense. That’s something that we’re working on in practice every day and I think we’ll be just fine.”
Comparisons to the ’09 championship team were running rampant on Wednesday, but Williams pointed to Hansbrough, Ellington and Ty Lawson on the ’09 squad as being scorers that forced opponents to change their game, while Barnes is the only player on the current roster that has that ability.
“It’s very different now,” Williams said. “That is not similar to ’09 at all. It was a hard team to coach in ’09 because I would be preaching defense and they’d say, ‘Well, we’re going to outscore them.’ This team will have a more difficult time just outscoring people, but yet we do defend the basket area much better than we did in ’09.”
So while defense may have been a luxury for that ’09 title team, it will have to be the foundation on which this ’11-12 squad makes it run to New Orleans. Otherwise, North Carolina could be susceptible to a high-scoring, hot-shooting opponent along the way.