Getting Defensive

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.


20 Responses to Getting Defensive

  1. 52BigGameJames says:

    Roy likes to employ a technique on the interior of having the first defender stand with arms up defending the shooter while the second defender comes w/help to actually be the shot-blocker. This really helps with interior fouls sits. However, our current crop of bigs just isn’t very quick, and consequently get beat to the basket on rebounds/put-backs by more athletic players. I think that helps explain why Wayne has become such a good defensive rebounder. As far as missed players, Wes Miller could provide unbelievable ball-pressure when called upon. Ty will get there. I’m pretty sure Roy knows all this, and I am not totally convinced he doesn’t “let them” play their way into trouble at this point, just so’s he can bust their coconut. If Roy can make that much progress with Ellington, I believe he can do so with Ginyard & Thompson too–if he can’t, nobody can. I’d rather have a reality check now, than in March.

  2. Howard says:

    Seems to me Coach Williams has said he’d be stressing defense in practice over and over. Whatever he means by “stressing” hasn’t worked. I get the feeling that he tends to coach with “anger” rather than encouragement. In the comment above, 52BigGameJames put it – “so’s he can bust their coconut.” Maybe that’s not the best way. Maybe anger only lasts a short time, not leaving the players with any long-term enthusiasm and energy. Fear has never been a long-term motivator.
    I wonder if a change there might make a difference?

  3. 52BigGameJames says:

    Howard–my choice of words was poor-I meant get inside their heads. You can talk/bluster/berate players all day and still not get their attention the way a loss will. I totally agree that Knight-style isn’t a good way to coach, and don’t think that’s Roy’s style.

  4. 52BigGameJames says:

    I’ll add that I think Roy often throws out comments to shield his players, such as the “we as coaches need to work harder”. And if that truly is part of his grand scheme, doesn’t that make the rest of us keyboard second-guessers look pretty foolish? Just sayin…

  5. Tar Heel Fan says:

    Roy also follows the theory that the first loss is on th coaches. If they lose again, he will be more pointed in what the players should be doing.

  6. 52BigGameJames says:

    it begs the question, is the first loss really a loss?

  7. […] is all I have. The truth is we have to make some big changes.  Nobody has won a title with a defense ranked in the 30s or 40s. Some are comparing this team to […]

  8. feedmyego says:

    Historical data doesn’t really support this claim (that a team ranked outside the Top 25 in Def. Eff. can’t make a Final 4)– unless history started in 2005 (the first year that Pomeroy did his stats).

    Our FF teams in 1995 and 2000 had significantly worse (unadjusted) defensive efficiencies than this year’s team has had so far. So did Georgia Tech in 1990 and NC State in 1983. And that’s just the ACC.

    I agree with Pomeroy’s premise: UNC will have to improve (but not by much) defensively to be considered a favorite to make the Final Four. But his “history” consists of 3 years– not exactly a great sample size.

    Personally, I think many of our defensive problems stem from lack of consistent on-ball pressure. Lawson needs to get in better shape and/or have a better defensive mindset/appetite in regards to ball pressure. He has possessions where he looks like Phelps or Felton, and possessions that he takes off completely. Until he can set a consistent defensive tempo from the PG spot (which sets up our wing overplays, causes TOs, and prevents opposing offenses from running their sets/getting the ball anywhere they want it on the court), we’ll just be an OK defensive team. I do think this group has the potential to be very good defensively, though.

    I agree with the initial post that the loss of Frasor was huge on defense– both because Bobby was a very good defender and his presence helped Lawson stay fresher (and be able to pressure the ball more consistently).

  9. Tar Heel Fan says:

    True. I probably got caught up in some instant history there. The basic premise is sound in that defense can be a constant even if you cannot hit shots.

    Lawson is the lynch pin to everything that happens on that court offensively and defensively. If he can “D” guys up at midcourt and set a tone for the Heels and throw some rush/panic into the other team it might make a difference.

  10. Dan Schwind says:

    I think the easy answer is, never again allow ABC to televise our game, esp. not at 3:30. The heels are now 1-6 on ABC at 3:30 p.m. Call it the ABC curse.

  11. Josh Bowling says:

    We can criticize the Knights and Williams’ all we want. They have won more games than most coaches. Whatever Williams decides to do regarding changes in coaching methods, will be effective. Let’s not forget he has been assistant and head coach for a while, and has likely had to deal with all personality types. He knows how to handle this squad. Point is, sometimes a Knight message is necessary as well as an “enhance the well-being” message. Let’s employ all angles that we can to try and motivate and educate our players in basketball, and I am sure Roy knows how to do that better than anyone.

  12. Josh Bowling says:

    That’s worse than a curse Dan. We need to learn how to play defense against other teams, and how to play defense against ABC.

  13. Dan Schwind says:

    It should be noted that we play at BC (where we already have enough trouble winning) at 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday on ABC.

  14. Wadsworth says:

    The defensive problems may be related to our offensive mindset. UNC obviously desires to fast break as often as possible and we are extremely effective at finishing on the break. We are not, however, a great team in the half court, although I do think we are better than most commentators give us credit for. In the half court, Hansbrough can tend to be a bit of a black hole where the ball gets worked inside to him and never comes back out. This leads to a lot of standing around and ineffective half-court movement.

    This great desire to get out on the break dictates a pressure man-to-man style of defense. I think that this team could be well suited to the point zone, which would certainly aid our interior defense. Zones, however, tend to slow the game down and would take away our best weapon, i.e. the fast break. The problem with the zone that Williams has deployed over the last few years is that it makes the team vulnerable to 3’s. I don’t see that as much of a consideration this year, however, because the dribble penetration is forcing the perimeter defenders to help inside and thus leave open three-point shooters.

  15. TxTarheel says:

    would anyone guess that the absence of Brandan Wright would be such a huge gap to fill? Just a thought, as UNC really does not have a shot-blocking presence like the long-armed swatter from Tenn.

  16. 52BigGameJames says:

    true, but Deon gave us teases over last season and the summer that indicated he would be pretty good–season ain’t over yet. also, I recall BW disappearing at times last season too.

  17. Josh Bowling says:

    All I remember is Brandon needs to go, Brandon needs to go. Now I hear, wish he would have stayed, wish he would have stayed. Guess what, Brandon is not playing basketball right now, and may not next year. He had an opportunity to play on an undefeated team that still needs him, could have got post season honors & accolades, and could have contended for a national title. All of which would have demanded playing time in nba. Nevertheless, he has money now.

  18. Tar Heel Fan says:

    The case made for BW leaving had nothing to do with the impact negative or otherwise on UNC. Obviously, UNC is better off if he stays but the decision is made by an individual in regard to that individual’s wants and needs. He made the decision based on his potential and the money he could make. Right now he is making the transition to the NBA by learning on the job which is tough and would have been eased by another year in college. However I do not fault the decision based on the information he had at the time of his decision. In the end, for him, staying or going both carry certain benefits and he chose the latter.

    Also, Wright is playing right now. Not many minutes but he has been putting time in with Golden State.

  19. e22 says:

    I think this team is well suited for the “scramble”. We have quickness at the point to force the ball to a trap at the top , the quickness to rotate to the passing lanes and the relative quicknees in the bigs to recover. Plus we have adequate depth to wear other teams out sooner. Warren Martin looked awkward chasing point guards, but I think Tyler is more suited for it. The “scramble” weakness is the potential for three piont shots. The strength is that the traps make it difficult to get the ball to the open man. Obviously, this is not the complete answer; but it does provide an alternative, when we are having problems stopping dribble penetration in our man to man.

  20. Josh Bowling says:

    We are having problems in man to man, but we are ALSO having problems with defending the high-post in that man2man. High post is big, as it allows the post man to be in position to score, and gives the guards penetrating abilities. If I am Kyle Singler, I set up in the high post, make myself a threat to score, or find a cutting Demarcus Nelson heading towards the basket. Joe Wolf was good at that, as well as Kelvin Salvadori. That is becoming a hard offense for us to defend. I don’t know if Miami gives us a chance to evaluate ourselves at that, as I am not aware of how good their bigs are, as well as their guard play since Diaz left.

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