So what is wrong with the defense?
It is a problem that has rolled and boiled under the lid all season and came pouring over the sides of the pot on Saturday when UNC was basically unable to stop Maryland all game much less when they had to. It has been referred to as the “fatal flaw” since historical data does not support a team playing the kind of defense UNC has played as one capable of advancing to the Final Four. I would call it the more frustrating aspect of this team possibly surpassing that the late game failures we saw last season. And beyond that the expectations of a possible national title are being dampened by this one issue.
Having watched most of UNC’s 19 games thus far and listening to Roy talking about the defense I think there are (at least)three major problems:
1. Inablility to defend the ball and stop the dribble drive
2. Slow rotation and help defense
3. Poor interior defense, especially when dealing with high screens.
The question is how did UNC go from being a very good defense last season to almost complete ineptitude at times handling these specific areas? The simplest answer is attrition. Not nearly enough attention has been given to how much UNC lost on the defensive end. Most analysis given to the loss of Brandan Wright, including my own, was in terms of the offense he brought and how that was going to be replaced. Defense was not really considered since no one can be sure what you are missing on defense until the games are played. At this point losing Wright, Reyshawn Terry, Wes Miller and Bobby Frasor this season to injury means UNC has lost four quality defenders. Miller and Frasor could be reasonably relied on the provide on the ball defense in the backcourt which limited penetration. Terry and Wright bolster the interior defense and in the case of Wright’s long wingspan, certain defensive mistakes were erased on help. Last season the Heels could put a quality defensive unit on the floor if needed which was key in the win at Duke for example.
Looking at the present unit, the drop off from players like Wright, Terry and Miller/Frasor to the current roster is stark. Deon Thompson has been a somewhat effective shot blocker but plays soft in the post and fails to rotate in certain instances. Alex Stepheson is an improvement since he is willing to be physical but at the same time he has not quite learned to do so without fouling. Danny Green is an average defender at the three and while Marcus Ginyard is considered the best defender on the team, even he appeared to struggle versus Maryland(which might be due to the fact he was a little beat up and tired.) The greatest concern on the interior defense is Tyler Hansbrough who for all his prowess as a scorer seemingly lacks the skills to defend the post effectively. It was also evident on Saturday that he tends to overplay the high screen around the foul line often times getting himself out of position and forcing him to either pick up the wrong man creating a mismatch or sprint back to paint. If he defends one-on-one he strikes me as far less aggressive as he does on offense. In the backcourt, Ty Lawson has enough speed to stay in front of anyone, the question is whether he maintains the effort level to do so and that is where some lapses occasionally occur. Wayne Ellington’s offense seems to suffer, as it did versus GT, if he is forced into a tough defensive game. This might cause him to back away some but I also think Ellington is a little better than given credit for on defense.
Now, how does it get fixed? Given Roy is a HOF coach with over 500 wins I am fairly confident he has something in mind. Watching from my living room I wonder if Hansbrough would be better served not biting so high on those screens and “stay home” as they say in football. Granted if the defender cannot get through the screen you run the risk of giving up an open long range jumper but the shooting percentages there tend to be lower than a big man rolling to the basket with no one to stop him. Also if Hansbrough simply shadows the screen and only steps out if the shooter is in position to score, that would keep him in a more versatile position in my opinion. One commeter asked if a zone every once in awhile might be in order. I tend to agree with this in certain situations where foul trouble might blunt player aggressiveness and if penetration has to be shutdown. The play in which Maryland made the eventual winning basket, if I am not mistaken UNC had three players on the floor with four fouls trying to guard MD in man-to-man. Obviously a zone leaves you vulnerable to a perimeter shot but considering MD was 37% from three and 50% everywhere inside of that, the better odds lie with possibly giving up the three. I also wonder if UNC can get more aggressive close to the midcourt line to make it more difficult for teams to get into the half court offense. Some trapping up near half court would be disruptive but strikes me as less frequent than it was in years past. And while this is a bit outside my knowledge of Xs and Os I wonder if the defensive scheme can be simplified a bit to make picking up assignments and switches easier. Probably not but the UNC interior defense has to do a better job rotating on help if the perimeter defenders get beat and conversely the perimeter defenders not only need to stop the drive but assist in cutting off the entry into the post.
It is my understanding based on statements Roy made early last season that his defense was tough to pick up on. It may be just a matter of time before it click for these guys or maybe Roy does decide to rework some parts of it into a simpler approach. And the effort issue is always on trial. Against Maryland they were flat footed a tad which increases the troubles for a team already struggling with their defense. In other games it seems like there are more instances than not where the effort to play tight, tough defense is simply not there unless the game gets dicey. Sort of like how I studied for exams and wrote papers in college. I do think consistency of effort might go a long way to overcoming so of the more technical errors and if the intensity can reach a higher level perhaps it can also serve to cancel out mistakes.
I mean if you are going to run into a wall, at least do it wide open.