Whether North Carolina is ahead or behind schedule defensively depends on who you ask. And, more important, who’s on the floor.
When it’s the Tar Heels’ four veteran starters out there, North Carolina is ahead of the curve, even as the freshmen big men are still figuring things out. Wednesday, in a relatively comfortable 86-71 win over Michigan, that included Joel Berry swatting shots from behind and Kenny Williams diving into the stands after loose balls.
“We’re actually better than I thought, honestly,” Theo Pinson said. “Especially with the starting group.”
When it’s anyone else, including and especially those freshmen big men, look out. There’s a lot of work to do.
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“I feel like we’re a little behind, just because we don’t have the experience we’ve had the last couple years,” Berry said.
One constant amid North Carolina’s success over the past two seasons has been a consistent defensive improvement over the course of the year, reaching its apex in the postseason and culminating in the national championship game.
This year’s squad should have the same head-start on that process that last year’s team did; players like Berry and Pinson know exactly the level of defensive intensity and execution required to compete for ACC and national titles, just as last year’s seniors did before them.
“We’re understanding that, and having Kenny back out there is really a big part in our defensive intensity,” Pinson said. “Joel being a four-year guy, it starts with him pressuring the ball up top, and Kenny getting deflections, and me using my length as much as I can to bother the other team’s best scorer.”
But with the turnover at forward, the Tar Heels don’t have the rim-protection ability they had with Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. For Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley, there’s a learning curve there, and even though it looks like they’re figuring things out, there’s a long way to go. Luke Maye, meanwhile, is an effective rebounder, but he’s not the shot-blocker his predecessors were.
“Isaiah would block a shot, Kennedy would block a shot, Tony (Bradley) would block a shot,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We’re not doing much of that around the basket. Teams are having their way with us inside. On the perimeter, we’re doing OK. We’re getting better. We have to get better, because if we don’t get better we’re not going to be a very good team. We’re mediocre right now.”
The numbers are actually more favorable than mediocre. North Carolina’s defense, from an efficiency perspective, is about the same as its offense, in the top 15 nationally. Even in the dismal Michigan State loss, the Tar Heels forced – by far – the worse offensive performance by the Spartans this season, the loss to Duke included.
Michigan hit its first eight shots Wednesday, and the Tar Heels still held the Wolverines to their worst offensive performance this season.
Some of that was Michigan missing open shots to be sure, but North Carolina was effective on the perimeter and dominant on the boards until the game bogged down with a run of timeouts in succession midway through the second half.
There’s certainly room for improvement, but not as much as there might have been the past two seasons at this time. The question for the Tar Heels is how quickly the younger players can catch up to the veterans. The sooner they do, the sooner everyone will be on the same page – defensively and rhetorically.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock