With its 5-0 start and Preseason NIT victory, the North Carolina men's basketball team looks entirely different from the squad that stumbled to 1-4 a year ago.
The Tar Heels' new identity is apparent in their youth and athleticism, but UNC has started strong because of its ability to shut down opposing offenses.
After allowing its opponents to make more than 45 percent of their field goals in 2001-02, North Carolina has used a staunch half-court man-to-man defense in which quickness is key to hold opponents to 34.6 percent from the field this season.
"The quickness is number one," said UNC coach Matt Doherty. "We spend more time in practice on the defensive side." So far, the practice has paid off. The Tar Heels harried then-No. 2 Kansas into 21 turnovers and held the Jayhawks to 40.7 percent shooting.
Two days later, UNC forced Stanford to turn the ball over 21 times and shoot just 33.9 percent from the floor.
"They're really playing to their athletic ability," said Illinois coach Bill Self, whose team hosts the Tar Heels at 9:30 p.m. today in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Sophomore guard Jackie Manuel has been the standard-bearer of UNC's defensive revival. Manuel frequently has been assigned to opponents' best scorers, and he held Rutgers' Jerome Coleman to 2-of-18 shooting Nov. 20.
But Doherty also praised the play of Jawad Williams, a lithe 6-foot-8 1/2 forward who played well in New York City.
"I joke with Jawad that he didn't know how to get in a defensive stance his freshman year," Doherty said.
Now, few would say that about the Tar Heels. Instead of reacting on the defensive end, they're making things happen.
"This is a really get-after-you type team that wants to create havoc," Self said, "and get you out of what you want to do."
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