Although fans may think that steals and blocks are the most important aspects of good defense, they are by no means the best measures of defensive success—nor, in fact, is the number of points a team allows. A ball-control team will invariably surrender fewer points than one that plays a fast-paced offense, because a slow-down attack allows the opposition less possession time and, consequently, fewer opportunites to score. Most coaches prefer to judge their team's defense either by the opponents' field-goal shooting percentage or by their squad's scoring margin. The first statistic indicates a team's ability to force bad shots and contest good ones; the second takes into consideration the pace of the game.
An NCAA study put three defense-related stats into perspective by measuring the winning percentages of the top 25 teams in each category over a 10-season period. The 25 teams allowing the fewest average points won 63.3% of their games; the 25 with the best field-goal defense won 68.1%; and the 25 with the widest scoring margin won 73.7%. Only six teams rank in all three of the categories: Princeton, Marquette, UCLA, South Carolina, Toledo and Pennsylvania.
North Carolina deserves a place among the top defensive teams, although it does not rate high in two of the defensive categories. The figures produced by the NCAA show that, under Smith, the Tar Heels rank fourth in winning percentage and third in scoring margin, but a distant 59th in scoring defense and—unbelievable for a strong team—119th in field-goal defense. Nevertheless, coaches agree that North Carolina is excellent defensively, although this fact tends to be obscured statistically by its style of play.
Smith is a creator of new ideas and a popularizer of old ones. (You've no doubt heard of the four-corners offense.) In his 18 seasons he has won 75.2% of his games, which ranks him third among active coaches, and 16 ACC regular-season and tournament titles. His teams have reached the final four a total of five times. His 1971 Tar Heels won the NIT, and in 1976 he coached the U.S. to an image-restoring Olympic gold medal. Those are terrific credentials, but what've they got to do with defense?
A lot, because defense has been the cornerstone of the Tar Heels' success. "Smith is known for his offensive innovations," says Kansas' Owens, "but he teaches fine defense and gets results that are doubly impressive because he runs a quick-hitting offense, too." In fact, many a talented player has languished on the North Carolina bench because he failed to master Smith's defensive principles, and others have risen to stardom mainly because they did. The case studies are numerous: Walter Davis, the NBA Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, did not start his first six games as a Tar Heel freshman because he was slow to learn defense. On the other hand, Bobby Jones and John Kuester were recruited more for their defensive ability than anything else, and both have gone on to the NBA. But the ultimate defense success story at North Carolina was Dudley Bradley, who may have set a record last year when the Indiana Pacers chose him and his 9.2-point scoring average in the first round of the NBA draft.
The Tar Heels' latest star defender is Mike O'Koren, a 6'8" senior whom Smith calls the best all-round forward in the country. Last summer O'Koren started on the U.S.A.'s championship Pan-American team, and last season he led North Carolina in rebounds and assists, was second to Bradley in steals, with 46, and scored 14.8 points a game on 52% shooting from the field and 77% from the foul line. O'Koren brings savvy and dedication to his defensive play, not to mention the wholesome attitude that "defense is fun." He is particularly adept at what Smith calls "junk" defenses, like the run-and-jump. In that maneuver O'Koren leaves his man and rushes over to surprise the ball handler while that man's original defender moves on to someone else.
The run-and-jump—or "30"—defense is one of four in North Carolina's repertoire. The others are a pressure man-to-man, which is the primary defense, a zone and a combination man-to-man and double-teaming zone press. All come with variations and can be unleashed at any of three different places on the floor. "When you prepare to play North Carolina," says Young, whose Rutgers team must do just that this season, "you're going to have to handle just about every defense there is in basketball."
Generally, Smith prefers man-to-man after missed field goals, lost jump balls and steals; zones on inbounds plays underneath the defensive basket; and full-court pressure just about anytime. The quarterback on the floor calls any one of three predetermined defenses after a made field goal (not four, because Smith learned the hard way that too great a choice sometimes led to multiple defenses being played simultaneously).
Before Smith introduces a new technique to his team he usually holds a dry run at his summer camp. "I figure that if the 12- and 13-year-olds can pick it up, it shouldn't be too difficult for us," he says. That is where Smith's "40" defense originated. It starts out as a man, changes to the run-and-jump and moves on to a 2-2-1 zone press. Once a defensive technique becomes a regular part of the Tar Heels' game, Smith waits at least another year before divulging its intricacies at clinics.
Of course, there are hazards in this system. Smith admits that "we can't execute our secondary defenses as well as we do our primary one." And in 1973-74 he became so caught up in multiple-choice defenses that he tried to do too much. "I overcoached that year," he says.