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On the defensive (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday November 27, 2007 10:31AM; Updated: Tuesday November 27, 2007 3:02PM
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Thus, North Carolina's prospects for winning the national championship will hinge largely on whether Lawson and Ellington are able to get their defensive prowess to match their offensive brilliance. So far, so good. After each game, the coaching staff grades every player and awards one person as the defensive player of the game (among other categories). This is a longtime Carolina tradition. Last year, Lawson and Ellington each won that award once -- the same number of times Michael Jordan won it his freshman year. They have each matched that total already this season.

For Lawson and Ellington, the main difference is they now have a better understanding of just how much effort goes into playing defense for a national championship-caliber team. As part of that heightened emphasis, Ellington added slide drills to his workouts this summer. These days he regularly seeks out assistant coach Steve Robinson after practice to put him through extra defensive drills.

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"It was a tough transition from high school," Ellington says. "It was hard just stepping up and playing a tough guy that can score at the shooting guard position every night. If you can't stop anybody, you can't win at this level."

As for Lawson, Williams says he is "179-degrees away from where he was last year in terms of his work ethic, his practice habits, his dedication, his discipline." On one occasion last season, Williams threw Lawson out of practice for not working hard enough on defense, but he is quick to play a little defense of his own if an outsider suggests Lawson might have been loafing. "I've never had a great defensive player as a freshman," Williams says. "Kirk Hinrich was second team all-NBA defensive team last year, but his freshman year [at Kansas] all he did was foul people."

"I'm understanding more about what he wants," Lawson says. "He wants you to deny every time the ball comes downcourt, get in the proper help position, do everything right. He knows that's what's going to make us better."

Williams loves to point out that he once had a team win a road game despite shooting 29 percent. That's because the other team shot just 22 percent. The squad that pulled off that feat? His 1996-97 Kansas team, which included four first-round draft picks.

Ironically, Williams thinks that Kansas team was the best he has ever had as a head coach -- and that includes the 2005 North Carolina squad that won the national championship. Likewise, Williams said the best team he ever coached as an assistant at North Carolina was not the '82 squad that won the NCAAs but rather the '84 edition that lost in the Sweet 16 to Indiana.

The moral of the story? It takes more than offensive talent to win a title. You also need to have toughness, defense, rebounding and a healthy splash of luck. The Tar Heels are still learning how to win ugly, in hopes that things will turn out better next time their hot hands go cold.

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