On the defensive
UNC realizes it needs more than offense to win title
Posted: Tuesday November 27, 2007 10:31AM; Updated: Tuesday November 27, 2007 3:02PM
To understand how North Carolina coach Roy Williams views his 2007-08 Tar Heels, you have to go back to the last 10 minutes of last season. Leading Georgetown by 10 points with six minutes remaining in the NCAA East regional final, the Tar Heels endured a woeful stretch during which they made just 1 of 23 from the field. That included missing their first 12 attempts in overtime, allowing the Hoyas to escape with a 96-84 win.
As Williams sees it, the problem for North Carolina wasn't just that the players stopped making shots. They also couldn't stop the Hoyas from making theirs. In other words, they didn't know how to win ugly, and it cost them their season.
When viewed through that prism, you can understand why Williams was so concerned as he stood in a hallway at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas late last Friday night, even though the stat sheet he held in his hand was filled with spectacular offensive numbers. In defeating Old Dominion 99-82, the Tar Heels shot a ridiculous 68 percent. Sophomore point guard Tywon Lawson had a career-high 21 points on 9-for-11 shooting. Lawson's backcourtmate, Wayne Ellington, who had missed the three-pointer that would have beaten the Hoyas at the end of regulation, shot 3 for 5 from behind the arc and finished with 17 points. As a team, the Heels committed just nine turnovers.
Yet, two other numbers stood out to Williams even more. The Monarchs shot 55.4 percent from the floor and out-rebounded North Carolina 30-24. "We can't beat the top teams and be where we want to be if teams shoot 55 percent against us," he said. "And we can't beat the teams we want to beat if they out-rebound us. The thing that's going to take this team to the ultimate place has to be what we do defensively and what we do on the backboards, 'cause we're going to score OK."
Williams was a bit happier the next night when North Carolina beat a tough, physical and experienced BYU team 73-63 to capture the Las Vegas Invitational and retain its hold on the AP's No. 1 ranking. Lawson left the game with a sprained ankle early in the first half and did not return. No point guard in the country (outside of Memphis' Derrick Rose) gets his team more easy baskets in transition, so without him the Heels had to work a lot harder to get their points. More importantly, they managed to lock down the Cougars on D. BYU shot 40.7 percent from the floor and made 1 for 13 from three in the second half.
"Tonight was ugly as all get-out," Williams said afterward with a smile. "We were knocking the dickens out of them and they were knocking the dickens out of us ... Anytime it's that kind of game where you start getting a little tired, you have to dig deep. Our toughness was something I was impressed with."
Toughness, defense, rebounding -- get used to hearing those words from Williams this year. Though we tend to think of Carolina as having returned from last season virtually intact, Williams is quick to point out that last year his four best defenders were Reyshawn Terry, Wes Miller, Brandan Wright and Marcus Ginyard. All but Ginyard are gone. The void up front is now being filled by two sophomores, Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson. Thompson is a polished scorer who gets pushed around too much in the paint, while Stephenson is a strong and sturdy rebounder who is not a natural scorer. If you could meld their respective strengths into one person you'd have an All-ACC caliber player, but the reality is the Heels' front line is not as good as it was last season. Says Williams flatly, "If Deon and Alex were better than Brandan, they would have played more last year."