If the Tar Heels can just play a little defense to go with their potent offense, they'll win it all
WHEN JUNIOR point guard Raymond Felton walked into a practice at the Dean Dome last month, he couldn't help but do a double take. None of the backboards had rims on them. This wasn't some prank; the coaching staff had taken the baskets down for a reason. "We played defense the entire practice," Felton says, "just to emphasize that we don't need to score all the time to win the game."
The Tar Heels have tremendous firepower, with last year's ACC leaders in scoring (Rashad McCants), rebounds (Sean May) and assists (Felton) all back. But last season they played what coach Roy Williams calls "atrocious" defense, allowing the second-highest field goal percentage (.444) in the conference. "I've never seen a bad defensive team win the national championship, and last year we were a bad defensive team," says Williams. "Can we change that? Yes. Will we? That remains to be seen."
There was plenty of blame to go around for the Tar Heels's poor D last season, but Felton was one of the worst offenders. It was his man who hit the last-second shot in losses to Duke (Chris Duhon) and Georgia Tech (Jarrett Jack). And Felton was covering Florida State's Todd Galloway when Galloway hit a shot to force overtime, where the Seminoles won handily. Combine that with a decline in his three-point shooting (from 35.8% to 31.2%), and Felton feels as though he has something to prove. "I had a fair season but not the year I wanted to have," he says. "It was like reliving my freshman year, with a new coach and my trying to realize what he wanted out of me. I think I've got a better understanding this year."
Felton worked out on his own as many as three times a day in Chapel Hill over the summer, opting not to try out for the U.S. junior national team and instead focus on his individual game. As a result Williams says his guard is not only shooting better but also running North Carolina's secondary break with the requisite combination of speed and wisdom. If Felton and the Tar Heels can be as effective on the other end of the floor, look for Carolina to cut down the nets in St. Louis in April -- and keep the rims in the Dean Dome up for good.
-- Grant Wahl