Getting Defensive

As UNC heads into Atlantic Coast Conference play they've been showing some signs of improvement on the defensive end, which will obviously be critical for the Tar Heels as they look to get back to the NCAA Tournament this spring.
Over its last seven ball games going back to the start of December, UNC has only allowed one team (Long Beach State) to shoot 50 percent or better against its defense.
This past Sunday may have been the team's best defensive effort yet, as the Tar Heels held Saint Francis (Pa.) to 32.8 percent shooting (22-of-67) while even more impressively holding them to a dreadful 1-for-15 (6.7 percent) shooting performance from three-point range.
"I think (Saturday) in practice may have been as good a practice as we've had all year long, and I thought we were good defensively," said UNC head coach Roy Williams.
"From the beginning of the jump, the guys out there got a shot clock violation on the first defensive set, and I thought that really set the tone for everybody---set the tone for us coming off the bench," said senior forward Justin Knox.
"We're getting better defensively. We still have some lapses," Williams added.
The numbers in recent outings have been promising for the Tar Heels on the defensive end of the floor---particularly in the way the team has defended the perimeter.
Over its last seven games UNC has allowed only one team, Kentucky, to shoot better than 40 percent from three-point land against them.
Carolina has been particularly outstanding defending three-point shots in the first half since the Kentucky game, when the Wildcats buried five-of-nine shots in the first 20 minutes.
No other team besides Kentucky has shot better than 28.6 percent in the first half from three-point land against the UNC resistance (Texas made two of seven three-pointers for that figure), and some other teams have fared far worse.
Evansville shot just 10 percent from three-point range in the first half against UNC on its way to a horrid three-for-20 game performance (15 percent), while Long Beach State shot just 18.8 percent against UNC from three-point land in the first half.
William and Mary laid a goose egg (0-for-12) against UNC shooting threes in the first half, and Rutgers was two-for-11 (18.2 percent).
Most recently, Saint Francis was one-of-eight (12.5 percent) shooting three-pointers in the first half against the Tar Heels.
"We're talking a lot and we're 'helping the helpers' on defense and I just think we're getting better and better," said Knox. "It just comes from playing together in practice and just working very hard on our defensive sets playing together."
The Tar Heels---led in the middle by John Henson---are averaging over six blocked shots per game since early December, and have forced four out of its last six opponents to 16 or more turnovers.
"I think John (Henson) is really doing some nice things. Dexter (Strickland) is doing some better things. So we've got some guys that are playing much, much better," Williams added.
Strickland has recorded at least one steal in each of the last six games---including three steals each against Evansville and William and Mary---along with his solid play on the perimeter defending the three-point shot.
"I pretty much like to start it on defense," Strickland said. "I say defense because that's the most important to me. You can see getting steals and just helping my team win is very important. Not to brag, but I think I do a good job with that."
The play of Strickland and the other UNC shooting guards has clearly been important to the recent success of the Carolina defense, but like a lot of things in basketball, it starts at the point.
Both Larry Drew II and Kendall Marshall have been playing well defensively of late, and they've got to keep it up if the Tar Heels are to get off to a fast start in league play.
"Larry defensively is light years from what Larry's been in the past," said Williams.
"I thought Larry was really good defensively (against Saint Francis). I think he sort of sent the tempo in a lot of those turnovers."
Drew was in fact playing so hard on the defensive end against Saint Francis that Coach Williams says it allowed Marshall to get more work.
Marshall wound up playing a season-high 22 minutes Sunday, recording two steals and a blocked shot to go along with eight assists.
"His (Marshall's) minutes probably were increased because of how hard Larry was playing defensively---Larry was sensational defensively and had to give two 'tired' signals, and we don't usually get that," said Williams. "That was a reason Kendall's minutes were up."
"If Larry works like that defensively and keeps pushing, he'll be able to do that more consistently and that will help our team," Williams added.
It's been a major focus for Marshall to improve his defensive capabilities as a college freshman, knowing it would lead to more action on the court.
"I feel great defensively. I feel like I've made a lot of strides. That's something I wanted to focus on coming into the season," Marshall said.
"Kendall is getting better defensively. He's not able to put the pressure on the ball that Larry does," said Williams. (But) Kendall is really sneaky defensively and sometimes that really helps you, too."
Marshall's biggest area of focus now---as it was in high school---is defending the opposing point guard's dribble penetration.
But he's way ahead of a lot of freshmen in terms of maturity and general defensive awareness.
"If he can get to the point where he can cover the basketball a little bit better, then that's really going to help him," said Williams of Marshall.
"Defensively it's just concepts mostly. It's a change and adjustment from high school. You can't take plays off at the college level---that's the main thing," Marshall said.
As Marshall is learning, Carolina's system thrives on fast break opportunities that comes from forcing mistakes and bad shots from the other team.
"Our defense starts our offense," he said. "We're at our best when we're out and running, just playing hard defensively, getting steals. Dexter does a great job of getting into passing lanes."
"When we're getting those fast-break dunks that really gets everybody into it."
We know what a lot of people will say reading this---the Tar Heels have been playing better defensively lately because they haven't played anyone.
Carolina's recent six wins in seven games' run was mostly against vastly inferior opponents.
That may be true, but it's better than the alternative---that UNC stank defensively against several of these teams.
If they had been bad defensively against these teams, it's very unlikely that the Tar Heels would be 10-4 with some reasonable momentum heading into Saturday's game in Charlottesville's John Paul Jones Arena against Virginia.
"I don't like to compare anything to last year---it wasn't a very big year---but I do think that the kids are coming along. They enjoy each other," Williams said. "You just keep playing. The group is working hard."