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November 23, 2007
Tar Heel Optical Illusion
Defense That's Better Than It Looks

by John Gasaway

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You'll want to bookmark this piece for handy reference later this season.

I don't say that because I have any inflated sense of my enduring merit as a writer. It's just that I know part of what's going to happen this year.

Here's how it will play out. North Carolina will win a lot of games. (A high-risk prediction, I know, but danger is my middle name.) Then they'll drop one, likely a high-scoring affair. The head-shaking and hand-wringing will then commence. The Tar Heels, it will be said from countless courtside tables during countless telecasts, are talented and can score points. But they will have to start playing defense if they want to get to the Final Four.

The only problem: the numbers will in fact show that Carolina plays very good defense. Bloggers will swarm onto the scene with confident alacrity, waving their spreadsheets excitedly to make the hey-wait-a-minute point. Tar Heel games, the bloggers will say, are fast-paced but in terms of points allowed per possession, Roy Williams' team actually plays excellent defense.

Lastly, as inevitable and certain as Tyler Hansbrough "creating contact," the bloggers will be faulted for their dim grasp of on-floor realities. Yo, Chauncey Lymph Node, did you see that game? The Heels play matador defense, period. No discipline. Players out of position. Forget your spreadsheets, there's just no "D" in "North Carolina."

Lather, rinse, repeat. It happens every year. Who's right?

Everybody. (Yay! What a feel-good story. It should really be on the Hallmark Channel.)

On the one hand, the courtside observers have an excellent point. North Carolina simply doesn't play defense the way an excellent defensive team is supposed to play. Just look at the Heels. Norman Dale would not approve. Why, their hands aren't up. Their knees aren't bent. They don't even slap the floor like those other players from down the road. Shocking.

Then again, this ain't figure skating. If it were, Carolina would indeed lag far behind, say, Southern Illinois in terms of presenting a laudatory defensive aesthetic. Instead, this is a contest between two teams to see who can get the ball into the basket the most times. On those terms, North Carolina is indeed an excellent defensive team.

ACC Defense, 2007, Conference games only

               Opponent points
               per Possession
North Carolina     0.96
Duke               0.99
Maryland           1.01
Virginia           1.01
Clemson            1.04
Georgia Tech       1.06
Virginia Tech      1.07
Wake Forest        1.07
Boston College     1.08
Florida State      1.09
NC State           1.11
Miami              1.17

It was the same story in 2006. Though strikingly young and fated to lose to George Mason in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels played the best defense in the ACC that year. They will most likely play the best defense in the ACC again this year. Maybe not on the same level as UCLA or Kansas, mind you, but still very good. Most tellingly, the North Carolina defense in ACC play last year was better, relative to the conference average, than the North Carolina offense.

Nevertheless, the Tar Heels are saddled with a reputation for indifferent defense. As seen above, I think part of that is simply due to the way they look while they play. Another part, of course, is the speed at which they play. Roy Williams' teams, whether in Chapel Hill or in Lawrence, have always played fast. It's tougher to spot a good defensive team that plays fast, just as it's tougher to spot a bad defensive team that goes slow.

Lastly, there's the obvious point. A lot can ride on which game, or games, you see. For instance, whether you're seeing a team play at home or on the road can make a world of difference in what your eyes are, quite correctly, telling you.

In terms of performance at home versus on the road, nothing in the ACC varied more wildly last year than the Miami offense. The Hurricanes' offense was the equivalent of Texas-with-Durant at home, but only as good as Illinois or St. John's when on the road. We expect swings like that, surely, from a young 4-12 team like Miami. We don't expect that kind of split personality from a team marked from the start of the season as national championship-caliber.

Yet that's pretty much what we saw last year from North Carolina, as the Tar Heels allowed ACC opponents just 0.90 points per possession when playing in Chapel Hill, while giving up a much more generous 1.01 points per trip on the road. Giving up just over a point per possession is still pretty good, of course. Still, the Carolina defense was one of the most bipolar units in the ACC. Fans watching North Carolina play on the road could therefore be forgiven for wondering what in the world all this "great defense" fuss was about.

That's not to say this will occur again this year. Just that it's likely that North Carolina will play very good defense...while being criticized for their effort on defense.

One useful shorthand for a team's personality has become the type of player they choose to start at the four position. Indeed, the fact that "four" has become more prevalent than "power forward" says a lot right there. In this respect North Carolina is a throwback. They still play power forwards.

Last year's front line of Tyler Hansbrough, Brandan Wright and Reyshawn Terry didn't include any seven-footers and may not have had any particularly fearsome shot-blockers. Still, in today's game that's a lot of size to have in your starting five. In most cases, a front line this big would be geared toward defense at the expense of offense. At Carolina, blessed as they are with their pick of the nation's finest recruits, Roy Williams is able to have size on defense and speed on offense on the floor at the same time. That's proven to be a highly effective combination.

The strength of this defense last year was its ability to make opponents miss their twos. North Carolina was also exceptionally good on the defensive glass. These are precisely the strengths you'd expect to see from a team that starts three players 6'8" or taller. They may not have looked terribly feisty. Maybe their fundamentals needed work. But they were tall. At the end of the day, that's a good thing to be on defense.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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