Quick trivia question: Which team leads the ACC in field goal percentage defense in conference-only games?
If your answer is Florida State, then rest assured that you’re not alone. But the correct answer is North Carolina. The Tar Heels are holding league opponents to 40.5 percent through eight games, just ahead of the Seminoles’ 40.9 mark.
But what’s most intriguing about UNC’s defensive efforts since ACC play started is that significant improvement occurred after Strickland’s injury.
Prior to Strickland’s injury at the 16:44 mark of the second half against Virginia Tech, UNC’s league opposition was shooting 43.5 percent (93-of-214) from the floor and 37.5 percent (33-of-88) from 3-point territory. Since the junior guard was helped off the court in Blacksburg, North Carolina has allowed conference opponents to shoot 38.1 percent (102-of-268) from the floor and 31.8 percent (28-of-88) from long range.
Those statistics aren’t intended to discredit Strickland’s defensive abilities, but rather to highlight the Tar Heels’ decision to work together to overcome the magnitude of their teammate’s loss.
UNC head coach Roy Williams elected to replace the lightning-quick 6-foot-3 Strickland with rangy 6-foot-7 wing Reggie Bullock in the starting lineup and that move has worked out better than expected.
The sophomore was tasked with defending three of the ACC’s leading scorers – N.C. State’s Scott Wood, Georgia Tech’s Glen Rice, Jr. and Wake Forest’s C.J. Harris – in his three starts and he responded with strong performances. That trio combined for four points on 2-of-13 shooting in 52 minutes of first-half playing time.
But Bullock encountered a more difficult opponent last Saturday against Maryland – shifty 6-foot-1, 185-pound guard Terrell Stoglin. The ACC’s leading scorer finished with 20 points, but needed 21 field goal attempts to reach that number.
Bullock deflected attention to his teammates when asked about his play against Stoglin in UNC’s Comcast Center locker room, and he highlighted their help again on Tuesday.
“When I’m chasing [other teams’] best scorers around screens, they’re hedging out on screens and helping me out,” Bullock said. “They’re always letting me know where they’re at. They’re basically being my background – I’m not able to see because I’m always looking at my defender, so they talk for me a lot when I’m out there.”
During his Monday night radio show, Williams pointed to Bullock’s size as a reason for UNC’s ability to contain Stoglin on Saturday.
“That’s what we talk about with somebody like that – you’re not going to stop them from scoring, but you just want to have them shoot a poor percentage,” Williams said. “I think he was 1-for-9 from the 3-point line. I think our height and length bothered him a little bit out there.”
That length will be critical against Duke’s three-guard lineup on Wednesday night. Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski has played a curious game of musical chairs with his lineup this season -- nine different players have started at least two ACC contests – but there’s little doubt that Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins will continue to receive a bulk of the minutes against the Tar Heels.
That trio has combined to knock down 31.6 percent of its 3-pointers (31-of-98) in ACC play, but it’s the size differential that could determine Duke’s perimeter success on Wednesday. Rivers and Dawkins, both listed at 6-foot-4, will be guarded for significant stretches by Bullock and Harrison Barnes, who checks in at 6-foot-8.
Williams told reporters that Barnes will not be 100 percent against the Blue Devils as he continues to be hampered by a sprained left ankle, which could tempt Duke’s backcourt to use its quickness to offset his length in an attempt to get open looks.
“They do have an ability to shoot the ball from the outside,” Williams said. “Against everybody we play, we try to make sure that we hopefully give them one bad shot. And so we try to get a hand up and stop dribble penetration, so that they don’t get a wide open three, but you’ve got to get a hand up on a shot and hope they miss some. And then make sure you get the defensive rebound so that they only get one try.”
North Carolina has been strong on the boards during conference play and owns a commanding plus-11.4 rebounding margin over Duke. But it’s the improved defensive play that has UNC favored to win the 233rd matchup between these two rivals.
“I think our entire team gets better defensively as the year goes along,” Williams said. “They become more aware of the big picture of what the other team is trying to do. They become more aware of the flex cut, the UCLA cut, those kinds of things, just the experience factor…
“I think our team has really become more focused defensively – that’s the way I would I put it – and I think that’s what’s helped them.”
Sophomore Kendall Marshall provided more insight into the reason for UNC’s recent defensive triumphs.
“I’d say concentration for 40 minutes,” he said. “I think when we come out and compete from the get-go, or once we really put our foot down, we can be a great defensive team.”
Pay attention to his wording. When North Carolina brings its intensity, it can be great defensively. If the Duke rivalry has proven anything over the years, it’s that max effort is required to secure victory.
The Tar Heels have met that requirement as a group since Strickland’s injury and they have to do it yet again on Wednesday.