Williams raised some eyebrows the first week of November when he offered this description of his team three weeks into preseason practice: “We’re more worried about the offensive end of the floor than we are the defensive end.”
Despite losing the two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year in John Henson and an underrated post defender in Tyler Zeller, North Carolina returned a wealth of length and athleticism that was expected to fuel the transition offense with traps and steals.
The Tar Heels have shown potential in living up to those preseason accolades, but so far, its appeared in glimpses instead of complete bodies of work.
North Carolina was inefficient in working around screens in its 82-71 loss to Butler in Maui as the Bulldogs drained 12 of the 25 3-pointers, including a 7-of-9 effort in the second half. Indiana attacked another aspect of UNC’s defense in its 83-59 blowout victory by beating the Tar Heels down the court in transition.
UAB hung around by shooting 47.7 percent in the second half on Dec. 1, while East Carolina scored 61 second-half points – the most in a half by an opponent during the Williams era – on 52.9 percent shooting on Saturday.
North Carolina currently ranks fifth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (38.2) and 11th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (33.6).
The problems to date, however, are self-inflicted, not due to lack of talent or ability.
Sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo told reporters on Tuesday that his team has to do a better job of carrying its practice execution over to the games. He highlighted basic breakdowns such as sprinting back, defensive rebounding and stopping the ball on the break.
“Those are all things that we pride ourselves on,” McAdoo said. “Those are things that we do great in practice… And we do it okay in the games. We’re great at it sometimes, but other times we really have those big letdowns. A good team can’t have those.”
Senior guard Dexter Strickland was more critical in his assessment of the defense.
“From a one to 10 with 10 being the best, I feel like we’re at a six,” he said. “I feel like we can do much better than what we’re doing now. On the ball defense, off the ball defense, transition… Indiana killed us in transition with Cody Zeller getting all of those fast breaks.”
McAdoo acknowledged that effort level was a significant part of the defensive issues.
“I honestly think it is,” McAdoo said. “I think once our defensive energy and defensive savvyness picks up, that will make offense so much easier for us. I really think once we find ourselves defensively, which we have been doing in spurts, but once we really start buying in and seeing how good we can be on the defensive end, we won’t worry about offense because that will come.”
While it may be tempting to criticize the players for not having the appropriate level of want-to, it’s important to understand that effort and intensity, just like offensive plays and defensive traps, has to be taught at the college level. That’s proven to be a challenge for a freshman class and other inexperienced players that are only 10 games into their college careers.
Strickland referenced his high school days in playing alongside of Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as an example of how the focus was purely on offense and rarely on defense. Simple things such as fighting over screens instead of going under are brand new concepts.
Williams discussed freshman forward Brice Johnson’s defensive development last week, noting that he played zone most of the time in high school.
“It’s two things,” Williams said. “You have to learn all the principles, which is really hard. It takes a long time and then they become second nature. You say, ‘Why did it take me so long to learn those?’ The other thing, and I said this the first day and I’m not being disrespectful to [Johnson], but he’s got to get his intensity level way higher than it is and then maintain it.”
That last sentence essentially applies to the entire roster. The good news is that the Tar Heels are aware of their areas of concern.
“The toughest thing that we have to get better in and have to improve in is defense, definitely,” Strickland said.
The Tar Heels will need a quality effort on Wednesday against Texas in what will likely being a defensive shootout. The Longhorns rank second nationally in field goal percentage defense (33.2) and eighth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (24.0).
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