GLENDALE, Ariz. — North Carolina has rediscovered the lockdown defense that gave the Tar Heels a shot at the national title a year ago, and that has earned them a shot at redemption Monday night against Gonzaga.
The numbers show why it will have to continue, and possibly turn up a couple of notches, if the Tar Heels are to take that next step this season.
Carolina needed to defend well to survive horrible shooting (35.6% from the floor) against Oregon, and it won’t be easy Monday considering that the Zags boast the second-best field-goal percentage defense in the country (36.5%) and have held NCAA tournament opponents to 34.6%. It may be one of Carolina’s biggest defensive tests of the season, since Gonzaga is second in the country in field-goal percentage at 50.8%.
UNC has been up to the task in the last two games with some of the best perimeter defense of the season. The Tar Heels held the Ducks to 3 of 18 shooting from 3-point range in the second half after playing tough defense on Kentucky guards in winning the South Region title.
It’s a matchup of similar teams that should be entertaining.
“They play two post players,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They’ve got three players on the perimeter. Any of the three of them can play point. They believe in running. They believe in getting the ball inside. They change their defenses a little but not as much. They’re mostly a man-to-man team. So we’re very similar.”
That could make it tactically easier for each coach to design a game plan. But, as is the case most of the time, executing defensively will come down to who maintains the intensity level throughout. Even with good defense overall from UNC, it has fluctuated.
“Just overall, we’re locked in,” said Joel Berry II, who reported that his ankles felt good and that he felt no stiffness Sunday morning. “When we put our mind into playing defense, we can play the best defensive team in the country. As you saw yesterday, Oregon made a run and we decided to play defense and we were up three by halftime. We just have to realize that when we get it done on the defensive end, that’s when we go down and get on transition without having to go up against the same defense every time.”
Defensive surges have fueled runs during the NCAA tournament at times when the Tar Heels’ title dreams were teetering — down five points in the second half against Arkansas and Kentucky, then behind eight in the first half against Oregon.
“It’s just that we’ve had to play from behind and we went on a run,” Berry said. “So if we can just not let teams get ahead and wait until midway in the half to decide to play defense that will help us out a lot.”
Defending ball screens has been a challenge at times this season for the Tar Heels, and Gonzaga coach Mark Few is well aware of their tendencies. Given the frequency that the Zags free up shooters with those screens, how disciplined UNC is in defending them will be a key.
“They’ve guarded ball screens a bunch of different ways, and they change up during games,” Few said. “But my guys are pretty adept at making those reads and hopefully they’ll be good tomorrow night. So we’re shuffling through all of our things that we like to do on offense, after watching them that we think we can do. And obviously going to try to play off those things.”
Berry says that the change in UNC’s approach to ball screens compared to last year was one reason for some of the Tar Heels’ difficulties defending them.
“We used to hedge out hard and now we’re flattening it,” Berry said. “So it took us a little time to adjust to it. But I think we’ve done a better job of it this year and down the stretch. I think we’ve gotten a lot better on the ball-screen action just because we play so many teams in our conference that had a lot of ball screens.”
Although Theo Pinson gets a lot of attention as one of UNC’s best defenders, Justin Jackson has really become the Tar Heels’ stopper.
“For me, I go into the game trying to be as focused as possible and knowing what they like to do,” Jackson said. “Just try to make it as hard as possible on them to get touches. Whenever they do get the ball, I just try to throw little things at them to not let them get comfortable.”
With his length and aggressiveness on the defensive end, he’s become their catalyst. He knows everybody is going to have to match his level against Gonzaga.
“There have been times that we’ve kind of struggled with it,” Jackson said of defending ball screens. “But there also have been times when we’ve been extremely good at it and tomorrow is going to have to be a time when we are really, really good at it.
“That’s just each person saying that we’ve got to get over the ball screen and the bigs have to be there to help and all the rotations have to be in line,” Jackson said. “It’s the last game of the year and I don’t see why we can’t possibly put as much as much focus and effort into this game.”
Part of UNC’s improvement on ball screens has come because of better support from its big men.
“They help us guards in defending the ball screens,” Nate Britt said. “Toward the end of the season, Kennedy [Meeks] has even been our defensive player of the game at few times, and that’s mostly because teams try to put up the ball screen and he’s doing a good job of defending it.”
Meeks’ performance against Oregon got the attention of Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski. Unlike against Oregon, Meeks won’t have a size advantage and will have multiple big men to deal with.
“He’s a great rebounder, so we’ve got to make sure we can contain that from him,” Karnowski said. “I think just, as a team, we’ll try to slow him down. Our entire defense, we always help each other, so I think that’s going to be important just to have each other’s back.”
Meeks knows his defensive challenges will be greater against Gonzaga, but he knows what his job will be.
“I think just making them work hard for the ball is the biggest thing,” Meeks said. “Whether that’s getting down quicker than they are and establishing position on the defensive end. I would say the biggest thing we’ll focus on is trying to eliminate them from getting as many post touches as possible.”
The team that keeps the highest defensive intensity figures to come away with the title. The big men will be a big part of that.