Defensive-minded Tar Heels head to ACC tournament

No. 4-seed UNC will play No. 5-seed Pittsburgh on Friday.


JP Tokoto (13) blocks a shot attempt from Florida State’s Aaron Thomas (25). This was Tokoto’s only block for the night.

GREENSBORO — Utilizing the fast break, scoring quickly, pushing the tempo — those are the signature elements of a Roy Williams basketball team.

But not this Roy Williams basketball team. Not this year.

No. 4-seed North Carolina (23-8, 13-5 ACC) heads into the ACC tournament without the offensive weaponry it had a year ago. No Reggie Bullock. No P.J. Hairston.

The Tar Heels are vastly different.

“I think we’re slow,” Williams said. “We are working extremely hard defensively to try to help us because we’re not as offensively gifted as we have been in the past.

“When you shoot the ball in the hole, everything is just easier.”

But UNC hasn’t shot the ball in the hole — at least not consistently. And this season’s been anything but easy.

Still, the Tar Heels head to Greensboro having won 12 of their last 13 games — a 93-81 loss to Duke last Saturday is their lone blemish.

Defense, not scoring, not lights-out shooting, has been the priority. It was the reason the Tar Heels won 12 games in a row. It was also the reason they fell to Duke in Durham, torched by the Blue Devils’ Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker.

UNC will need to get back on track defensively Friday against No. 5 Pittsburgh, a team that walloped Wake Forest, 84-55, Thursday. The Panthers are led led by hot-shooting Lamar Patterson, a senior forward who scored 24 points and sunk four 3-pointers Thursday. The Tar Heels just narrowly beat Pittsburgh a month ago in Chapel Hill, 75-71, fending off a ferocious last-minute effort.

They’ll need to make defensive stops against the Panthers — and throughout the postseason — to advance.

“Oh yeah, we know. We don’t have as many offensive weapons as we’ve had, in comparison to last year,” said sophomore wing J.P. Tokoto.

“But I know we still have guys that can put the ball in the basket when needed. Our defense has been way, way better than it was last year. We did lose some firepower, but I feel like we gained a lot of defensive intensity.”

Tokoto has been at the forefront of that defensive effort for the Tar Heels. He’s fifth in the ACC in steals with 1.6 per contest and was elected to the ACC all-defensive team. Overall, UNC ranks second in the ACC in steals and defensive rebounds, first in offensive rebounding and fourth in blocked shots.

In recent games, however, UNC’s defensive intensity has waned — leaving UNC with edge-of-your-seat wins against N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame and the aforementioned loss to the Blue Devils.

In the ACC tournament, UNC will look to play as it did in the beginning of its 12-game winning streak, not the tail end.

“Just remembering how we got that streak started — just the way we played with a sense of urgency, those 12 games that we did win,” said sophomore forward Brice Johnson. “Minus the last three or four, because coach said we got lucky a couple of times. Just remember how we started it. We were clicking on all cylinders.

“It starts on defense. Everybody getting to the right spots, just doing the right things.”

That might be a different approach than UNC is used to, but it doesn’t mean it can’t work.

“I’ll put it to you this way: I’ve never seen a bad defensive team win a national championship,” Williams said at his pre-tournament press conference Tuesday.

“Every team I’ve seen win a national championship could guard you — but they could also score.”

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