"Did Coach Williams say that we have to get better defensively again this year?" junior point guard Bobby Frasor said at UNC's Media Day, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Williams has focused on the defensive side of the ball each season since his return to Chapel Hill, and the statistics back up his concern. The Tar Heels ranked 73rd nationally in field goal percentage defense in '06-'07 at 41.6 percent, and those numbers were sometimes worse in late game situations.
North Carolina was only 5-7 in games decided by 10 points or less last season. At Maryland, the Heels allowed the Terps to squeak out an 89-87 victory by outscoring UNC 24-10 in the final 7:14, and in the 83-79 loss at N.C. State, the Wolfpack shot a blistering 76.5 percent from the field in the second half.
Poor shooting nights are bound to occur, but there's no reason for some of the defensive letdowns that took place last season.
"I think we want to get better defending the three-point shot as well as the two-point shot," Williams said. "Last year, I think at some point some people raised questions about how we were doing defending the three-point shot, and I think at the end of the year we were probably in the middle of the league. I'd like for us to be better than that."
There is plenty of optimism in Chapel Hill that the program's defensive efforts will improve this year, most of which is based on the amount of experience found in Williams' fifth roster at North Carolina. The '06-'07 class was loaded with underclassmen, and those players have now been through at least one full ACC slate.
"Last year we had 11 freshmen or sophomores and I will say this – I've never seen a guy that was better defensively his freshman year than he was his senior year," Williams said.
Will Graves is the team's lone freshman, and he participated in practice last season during his red-shirt year, presenting the coaching staff with the ability to run drills faster, teach principles quicker and demand more from their players.
"Our emphasis is going to be there, and I also think that the more experience you have, the players believe it more," Williams said. "They believe that the defensive end of the floor is that much more important. You've heard me say before that freshmen think that defense is that thing that's built around their yard. I think they understand it much more now."
And if the players have any difficulty understanding the increased demand on defensive performance, Williams has his own ways of getting a point across in a rather direct manner.
"I remember with the '05 team how he came in one practice and took the rims off," Frasor said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he pulled that with us – we don't have any freshmen [and] we have everyone back – just to make a statement that this is what we need to do this year to get to San Antonio."