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Thursday, February 5, 2009

What's up with UNC's defense?

Posted by on Thu, Feb 5, 2009 at 7:42 PM

On the surface, it may sound odd for any concern to be directed at UNC. After all, the Tar Heels didn't get destroyed by anyone (cough, cough, Duke and Wake) on Wednesday night.

In fact, the Heels scored more points (108) versus Maryland on Tuesday than the Devils and Deacons did combined in their humbling defeats — to Clemson and Miami respectively — the following day.

Junior guard Wayne Ellington's slump is a relic of the January past, and his 34 points against the Terrapins represented a season high. Meanwhile, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Danny Green also continue to play at an extremely high level. The quartet scored 95 points against Maryland and made it look easy, helping UNC shoot 51 percent as a team.

So, what's the problem?

That would be team defense. Contrary to the perception of many fans, the Heels actually have defended fairly well this season. Recently, they were ranked No. 12 in the country in defensive efficiency — and that's the glaring issue here in early February.

After a stretch of games that included the narrow victory over Florida State and a pair of easy-yet-sloppy victories over N.C. State and Maryland, Carolina now slots in at No. 21 in defensive rankings, a vital stat heading toward the postseason.

The sunny diagnosis of UNC's porous defense is that the Heels simply aren't keeping focus when they open big early leads. They gave up 91 points to the Terps but still won by 17, and it's human nature to dig in with a little less intensity when the competition effectively has been decided. Against the Wolfpack, the Heels held their opponent to 32 percent shooting in the first half and, after opening up a wide margin, allowed that number to rise to 53 percent in the second frame

On the other hand, No. 1 Connecticut has played dominant basketball of late yet ranks as the nation's No. 5 offense and No. 7 defense. It's Carolina's lack of balance that has Roy Williams and the fanbase so concerned.

Keep in mind that both of last season's finalists — Kansas and Memphis — sported extremely high rankings in both categories similar to what UConn is doing this season. Until Wednesday night Duke also boasted elite standing on both sides of the court, but the Devils' horrid offensive performance against Clemson sent them plummeting to No. 19 offensively, although they remain No. 1 overall with the Huskies second and UNC third.

Back to Carolina, the Heels defended so poorly against Maryland that during one timeout, Williams actually stood speechless in the huddle with his players. It wasn't just that the Terrapins were scoring; they were beating Carolina downcourt on a recurring basis.

One beautiful aspect of the looming UNC/Duke showdown next Wednesday is that both teams will be challenged to address their obvious weaknesses. Carolina is unlikely to score big numbers against Duke, Clemson notwithstanding, and thus the Heels will need to contain a Blue Devils offense that is sure to be amplified with maximum energy and emotion.

In the meantime, Carolina will host Virginia on Saturday afternoon in a game that should be a relatively easy tuneup in preparation for the Devils.

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