It was another victory that left North Carolina coach Roy Williams feeling a little bit empty inside. There was the satisfaction with the result itself on Tuesday after an 80-78 victory against Pittsburgh, but then there were all the other emotions that came with it.
The frustration. The angst. The disappointment.
Once again Williams stood by, trying to figure out what was happening to his team defensively. He wondered the same after victories against Clemson and Boston College, after a win at Wake Forest and after a defeat, as ugly as it was, at Miami.
January had been a long month of mediocre defense, or worse, for the Tar Heels and now Williams was approaching the final days of it, his team no better at stopping teams than when a new year began. What had gone wrong?
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“Don’t know what I’m going to do, but some how, some way I’ve got to figure out to do a better job coaching on the defensive end of the floor,” Williams said, with a sense of lamentation, earlier this week after the victory against Pitt. “I’ve always taken great pride that we can do some things there.”
The Tar Heels’ recent defensive woes are concerning, especially, given what’s coming.
They play against No. 20 Notre Dame on Sunday in the Greensboro Coliseum – the game was moved there, a day later than originally scheduled, after a water crisis created a state of emergency in Chapel Hill – and then UNC plays at Duke on Thursday.
Beyond this week, games loom against Virginia and Louisville. Time is short for UNC to become the defensive team it believes it can be, and recent weeks have proven, again, that the Tar Heels can’t simply rely on outscoring the opposition.
Even so, there’s a notion that Williams favors offense – that’s what he emphasizes above all: the transition points and the secondary break and working the ball inside and out. Earlier in the week, on his radio show, Williams said he’d been tracking points per possession for 40 years.
And indeed, he has built a Hall of Fame coaching career on some of the best offensive teams in college basketball over the past three decades. Yet his best teams, and his two national championships teams, shared another important trait: They excelled on defense, too.
UNC’s 2005 national championship team had the nation’s seventh-best defense on a per-possession basis, according to kenpom.com. The Tar Heels’ 2009 national championship team ranked 21st nationally in defensive efficiency, same as the UNC team that reached the national championship game early last April.
These Tar Heels, this season, don’t compare to those versions. After the narrow victory against Pitt, UNC is 33rd nationally in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and that number is inflated by its early-season defensive success.
The Tar Heels’ worst defensive performance of the season is widely accepted to have come during its 103-100 defeat against Kentucky in Las Vegas on Dec. 17. The Wildcats that day mostly did what they wanted – no one more so than Malik Monk, who scored 47 points in his team’s victory.
Beyond that, though, UNC’s next six worst defensive games came in January, according to kenpom.com, which emphasizes a team’s success, or failure, on a per-possession basis. UNC escaped its defensive inefficiency with victories in five of those six games, but not at Miami.
And the defensive woes nearly cost the Tar Heels, again, on Tuesday against Pitt, which had a chance to win the game with a 3-point attempt that bounced awry at the buzzer. When it did, UNC avoided losing against the ACC’s last-place team. But victory was almost beside the point.
“We’ve got to be better defensively,” said Justin Jackson, the junior forward who has been UNC’s best offensive player. “If we can do that, if we can truly, truly step up on the defensive end, I think we can really make a push. But we can’t make a run unless we get stops.”
Jackson and those teammates of his who returned from last season are well aware. The Tar Heels a season ago went from a good team to a great one – one capable of winning the national championship – when they learned how to defend.
Part of the improvement had roots in strategy. UNC simply more effectively countered what other teams tried to do on offense. And yet another part of the defensive rise last March resulted from an adjustment in attitude – a nebulous concept that became clear enough on the court.
The analytics and advanced metrics only tell part of that story. Joel Berry, now a junior guard, helped tell another part, what with his aggressive on-the-ball defense that seemed to have a trickle-down effect. Berry helped lead the defensive turnaround, which began almost exactly one year ago. Now he’s in a similar place.
“The last couple of games, we’ve been giving the guys a lot of opportunities,” Berry said, “a lot of shots, and they’ve been knocking them down.”
There was the dreadful stretch during the first half at Miami, which overcame an early 11-2 deficit to outscore the Tar Heels by 24 points during the final 37 minutes. There were the final few minutes against Pittsburgh, which rallied late and nearly broke its six-game losing streak.
Cameron Johnson, the Panthers’ 6-8 sophomore, made six of his eight 3-point attempts against UNC. That represented the continuation of a recent theme, too: UNC’s inability to defend the perimeter. Johnson was the latest in a line of players who has just so happened to shoot well against UNC.
Before Johnson, it was Miami’s Bruce Brown, who made four 3-pointers and scored 30 points in his team’s victory. Before Brown, it was Boston College’s Ky Bowman, who made seven 3-pointers and scored 33 points against the Tar Heels.
Kentucky during its 103-100 victory in December made 10 of its 18 3-pointers. Five other times UNC has allowed a team to make at least 40 percent of its 3s – and four of those five times came in January, when Wake Forest, Syracuse, Boston College and Pitt all made at least 10 3-pointers against the Tar Heels.
Last season UNC’s worst defensive game on the perimeter – at least based on shooting percentage – came in the national championship, when Villanova made 8 of its 14 3-point attempts (57.1 percent). Before then, at least, the Tar Heels had been playing their best defense of the season.
Berry recently remembered one of the defensive turning points that allowed for that deep NCAA tournament run. It was when Williams brought the team into its practice gym, and the rims were missing from the backboards. All the Tar Heels did that day was work on defense. Williams’ message clear.
“If that’s what it takes,” Berry said, “that’s what it takes. But we’ve got to get better right now.”