The right equation
Tar Heels learn best offense is a good defense
Posted: Wednesday March 29, 2000 05:04 PM
By Tim Peeler, Special to CNNSI.com
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Everyone has a theory why North Carolina has suddenly become the team they were expected to be in the preseason.
For Tar Heel guard Ed Cota, it all comes down to defense.
"None of the teams I have been on have had this kind of intensity on defense for 40 minutes," Cota said.
When Cota was a freshman and sophomore, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Shammond Williams were his teammates and the Tar Heels had neither the numbers nor inclination to play strong defense. They simply out-ran, out-jumped and out-scored their opponents with superior talent.
"We could win games offensively," Cota said. "When we needed a stop, that is when we would go extra hard on defense."
This year's team, picked in the preseason top five of most publications and the preseason favorite to win the ACC, wasn't very good offensively, to put it bluntly. But they also struggled defensively, as third-year coach Bill Guthridge tried to reinstate the pressure defense that Dean Smith made a hallmark of Carolina basketball.
It might have worked if Ronald Curry, Brian Bersticker and Kris Lang been healthy all year and if Jason Parker and Vasco Evtimov would have been on campus as expected. Instead, the Tar Heels had a short roster and long expectations.
They never could put their finger on why they lost games at a record rate, including a four-game losing streak in January that dropped the Tar Heels out of the national polls for the first time in a decade.
But victories over Missouri, Stanford, Tennessee and Tulsa affirmed to the rest of the Heels what Cota says he knew all along -- defense was the key, even if it wasn't the same kind of all-out pressure that many of their predecessors played.
The thought of Cota, who may never have taken a charge in his collegiate career, being defensive-minded is amusing to some. But he's rallied his teammates on the belief they are all better on defense.
He said they had a light bulb moment after the Heels' beat Missouri in their NCAA Tournament opener. They had just spent a week of extra hard practices working on defense after losing to Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC Tournament.
The Heels held Missouri to 40.9 percent from the field and 25.8 percent from 3-point range. The inside game, which should have been a strength all season but sometimes wasn't came alive, and the Tar Heels had taken the first step en route to a record 15th Final Four.
"After the Missouri game, everybody was so happy," Cota said. "I was just like 'Why couldn't we be playing like this all year long.' We wouldn't have had to go through what we have been through all year long."
Cota and his teammates understand why they have been criticized for not living up to their potential. And Cota at least knows why some of their baby-bluest fans jumped off the bandwagon.
"If I came to some of those games, I would be leaving early as well," Cota said. But confidence is a powerful thing. The Missouri victory made the Tar Heels believe they could beat top-seeded Stanford, which they did 60-53, by holding the Cardinal to 34.5 percent from the field.
Last week in Austin, Texas, the Tar Heels two opponents were 21 of 59 from the field (35.6 percent) and 22 of 59 from the field (37.3 percent).
Cota, who has been to the Final Four twice before but lost out in the semifinals, hopes this improved defense will help the Heels reach the next step.
"I have been to two Final Fours and I have had two bad experiences in the Final Four," Cota said. "The reason we lost both of those games was that we didn't have that defensive intensity. The last four games we have had it. "None of the teams I have been on has had this kind of intensity."