While North Carolina continues to go through a bit of a midseason extended shooting slump, defense has been the difference for the Tar Heels as they've managed to stay in the hunt in the ACC standings while assuring themselves another crack at March Madness this spring.
Although UNC hasn't shot better than 40 percent from the field in its last three contests since the Duke game back on February 9, they haven't lost since the setback in Cameron Indoor Stadium against the Blue Devils.
That's because the Tar Heels held both Clemson and Wake Forest to 37.7 percent shooting, and then stymied Boston College to the tune of a pitiful 26.9 percent clip---barely offsetting Carolina's own inability to score.
"I was really impressed with some of the things we did defensively (against BC)," said UNC head coach Roy Williams. "At times I think this team is really good."
"I've said all along that I thought this team would get better and better in every phase of the game."
UNC's 48 points against Boston College was the fewest for the Tar Heels in a victorious game going back to Dean Smith's last-ever road win over N.C. State back in 1997.
It was a surprising outcome for plenty who watched the game to see Carolina score so few points and still win against BC, but for the Tar Heel players themselves, it didn't seem to be a surprise at all to prevail in such a low-scoring affair.
"Yes (I believe we can win a game with 48 points)," said freshman point guard Kendall Marshall. "Defensively I think we're doing a great job holding them to 20 points in the first half and 20 some-odd points (in the second half)."
"You have to be a great defensive team to be able to do anything. And I think we're doing a good job of that right now," added junior big man Tyler Zeller.
"(BC's Corey) Raji hit two big threes, and we had to lock down on defense, play hard D (down the stretch) and that's what we did," said sophomore forward John Henson.
"Raji started getting the hot from 'three' late in the game---they went on a big run---but our defense was able to withstand it," added Marshall.
Coach Williams gave some individual credit after the BC game to sophomore 'two' guard Dexter Strickland for the way in which he held Eagles' leading scorer Reggie Jackson to five points below his average and just two-for-eight shooting from three-point land on Saturday.
Strickland had a lapse in judgment on one of Jackson's two three-pointers---the one that gave BC a chance to win in the final minute---but for the most part he responsibly handled the scoring threat Jackson presented.
"For some reason---I asked him and he said it was just a bad decision---he went below the screen on the one where Reggie made the 'three' when it was a five-point game and he cut it to two after we just missed the free throw (late in the game)," said Williams.
"I think Dexter is a good defensive player," the UNC head coach added.
"Guarding Reggie Jackson is not easy. But I think Dexter is really a good defensive player. He can do some good things."
In Monday's ACC teleconference, Williams said it's been a steady progression for his young Tar Heels this season in defensive improvement.
With such a young core of players---three freshmen and three sophomores among the top eight players in the rotation---it should have been expected that the Tar Heels were going to have a lot more defensive lapses early in the season than now, in the heat of the ACC conference race.
But the fact that UNC has come along so far defensively so quickly is really starting to turn some heads---as is Carolina's 16 victories in its last 19 games to put them back in the national rankings and in position to get a favorable NCAA Tournament seeding.
Simply stated, defense has been the difference in recent games between winning and losing for the Tar Heels.
"You know, people don't like to hear it this time of the year, but we spent a lot of time Saturday with three freshmen in the lineup," said Williams.
"We do our defensive drills, our four on four, everything, every single day (in practice) just to try to build habits. And I think it takes a younger group longer to learn those and build those habits."
"Kendall has savvy. Reggie (Bullock) and Harrison (Barnes) can both be really good defensive players," Williams continued. "I just think experience and repetition, repetition, repetition is going to help them."
Aided by the play of the freshmen and its rotation of big men, the Tar Heels have climbed all the way up to second in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (39.6 percent) with just four conference games remaining in the regular season.
The Tar Heels are still in the middle of the pack in points allowed (66.9 ppg, sixth in the ACC) and three-point field goal percentage defense (32.4 percent, sixth in the ACC), but rebounding on both ends of the floor has been a huge factor for Carolina in its successes.
Heading into Wednesday night's contest in Raleigh against N.C. State, North Carolina leads the ACC with a plus-six rebounding margin, along with topping both the offensive and defensive rebounding categories.
"John and 'Z' protect the goal, because they're long and they do a good job inside," said Williams.
Henson, Zeller, and Justin Knox are obviously the biggest reasons why the Tar Heels are rebounding so well, but UNC has also been getting solid rebounding contributions from players like Bullock and Leslie McDonald.
McDonald had a big play late in the Boston College game on the defensive end of the floor, as he got the ball back for the Tar Heels in a key moment.
"Leslie made a big steal for us in the corner," said Williams.
Along with his rebounding, Henson has been a major bright spot for the Tar Heels with his ability to alter and block shots.
He's currently leading the ACC with 77 blocked shots on the season---an average of three per game.
"John's really so long he can bother some outside shots and still give you some space, so it's hard to drive him," said Williams.
"Defensively I know he (Henson) is behind me, so I can get into the guy a little more and just let John go get it (try to block the shot), or I can see John coming across (the lane) and go block him (the opposing player) out," said Zeller about playing with Henson.
"It's one of those things of just knowing situations and knowing what John is going to do," he continued.
"He (Henson) can impact it from the defensive end as well as anyone in the country, I think, with his shot blocking ability, his intimidation down there," said N.C. State head coach Sidney Lowe.
"Then he can affect it by running the floor offensively because he gets down the floor. With both of those, it can cause you some problems especially from an offensive standpoint. If you're trying to establish something and he's there altering shots and things of that nature, he makes you play the right way," Lowe added.
While the fact that Carolina is playing so well defensively should bring large smiles to the faces of Tar Heel fans starved for more glory after an off year in 2010, the thing that should make the smiles grow to ear to ear is the fact that the UNC players think they can get even better.
Coach Williams, of course, will never rest on his laurels on the defensive end of the floor.
When asked what the team needs to do better on the defense, he was quick and to the point---everything.
"I think what we need to do better is the whole game," he said. "We've got to cover the ball better. We've got to rotate better. We still have some recognition that we've got to do a better job of."
But the fact that the players themselves are buying into defense so willingly is, at the risk of hyperbole, a potentially earth-shaking movement that could make this Tar Heel team one of the scariest in the NCAA Tournament field a month from now.
"We're continuing to work on it. The kids are believing to how important it is," said Williams of defense.
"Most of the guys that were good high school players can't remember too many times they were guarded. But they do remember those few times and know how important it is, and it's even more important at this level. So they're buying into it, and we're spending a lot of time on it every day."
"I don't think we've even tapped into how good we can be," said Henson.
"I always say once we get our offense and defense at the same level we'll be real, real good. But right now it's either one or the other every game. So we've just got to figure out how to make both of them happen."
"Overall potential, the sky is the limit. We just have to take it one game at a time," added Marshall.