When asked about the primary focus during practice this week, Marcus Paige pointed to defensive improvement.
“Honestly, that’s probably been where most of our trouble is,” the sophomore guard said.
Moments before Paige told reporters that UNC had been “pretty bad on defense the last couple of games.”
There’s some validity in those comments – UNC ranks ninth in ACC play in field goal percentage defense at 41.5 percent – but its difficult to place a significant portion of the blame of the Tar Heels’ season struggles on defense.
UNC ranks fourth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (38.5), fifth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (29.9), second in steals (8.1) and fifth in blocked shots (5.3). According to kenpom.com, the Tar Heels rank 17th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and 20th in effective field goal percentage.
UNC has held nine of its 16 opponents below 40 percent and none have shot higher than 48.1 percent. In the Tar Heels’ six losses, their opponents have combined to shoot 39.9 percent from the floor (140-of-351).
While there is plenty of room for defensive improvement, the glaring issue for this North Carolina team is an inability to score outside of Paige. UNC ranks 230th nationally in effective field goal percentage (48.0), 303rd in 3-point field goal percentage (30.4) and 339th in free throw percentage, according to kenpom.com.
Saturday’s lopsided 57-45 loss at Syracuse provided a glimpse of the troubles plaguing UNC offensively. Once the Orange took away the high post roughly five minutes in the game, effectively dismantling James Michael McAdoo’s effectiveness in the halfcourt, UNC was unable to hit from outside (2-of-12 from 3) or establish an interior presence by either post-up or penetration (3-of-9 FT).
The Tar Heels trailed by 18 early in the second half despite holding Syracuse to 35.0 percent shooting.
UNC’s halfcourt offense is lacking in options, outside of Paige working out of his recent shooting slump, which brings us back to defense. In order for their three signature nonconference wins to matter come March, the Tar Heels have to fuel their offense with defense.
UNC ranks second in the ACC in forced turnovers (14.8) and is scoring 17.4 points per game off those turnovers.
UNC head coach Roy Williams talked about his team’s defensive potential on Friday, highlighting areas for enhancement to further benefit scoring options.
“We need to have a little more sense of urgency, a little more intensity on a consistent basis,” Williams said. “I think if we get that then we have the pieces there to be a good defensive team. Right now, we haven’t done a good job controlling the dribble and getting a hand up on the outside shot, either.”
Opposing guards have often found seams for penetration, which forces help defenders to slide over. The result is either an uncontested 3-pointer or an offensive rebound.
“Our defense is based on support if guys get beat off the dribble,” Paige said. “If we can contain the ball better then we don’t have to leave their shooters. We’ve really been working on guarding the ball and not worrying about having to help knowing that my guy is going to be able to contain so I don’t have to run off the shooter.”
Williams acknowledged that he’s employed more zone, traps and presses this season than in years past in part to create more offense and provide more fast break opportunities. Consistency in those different sets has been an issue at times.
“We’ve struggled when we’ve tried to run our traps,” Paige said. “Sometimes we do it great and then other times we give up dead layups on the first pass of the possession. We’re going to try to speed the game up with some of our defensive switches and mix it up, maybe try to trap a little bit. We’ve been working hard on getting to the right spot on those traps so if we do want to speed the game up, then we’re not giving up lay-ups.”
Tempo played a critical role in UNC’s upsets over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky earlier in the season due to those teams’ proclivity to push the pace.
In the Tar Heels’ three losses to open ACC play, however, they’ve averaged 56.3 points per game, good for 13th in the league. UNC is averaging 7.3 fast break points per game in those contests.
“We want to speed the game up with turnovers and missed shots,” Paige said. “If we have to win a game in the 50s then that’s going to be the way it is. We’d obviously rather see it in the 80s where we’re more comfortable.”
UNC is currently on track to become just the sixth Tar Heel team in over 50 years to hold its opponents under 40 percent shooting over the course of a season. Those stats may not be good enough overcome a struggling offense without forcing more turnovers and limiting second-chance opportunities.