This time, the No. 12 North Carolina men’s basketball team’s defense held strong. A running, off-balance three from Pittsburgh’s Jamel Artis that fell well short of the hoop — this time. This Tar Heel team is well-versed in another infamous shot that didn’t. And this season is all about making sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but some way, somehow, I’ve got to figure out a way to do a better job coaching on the defensive end of the floor,” head coach Roy Williams said after his team’s 80-78 win against the last-in-the-ACC Panthers.
Defense has been a point of emphasis for weeks now. The Tar Heels aren’t terrible defensively, ranking No. 66 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense and No. 31 in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings. Not terrible doesn’t win championships, though.
Against Kentucky — the caliber of team UNC will likely have to overcome — North Carolina allowed 103 points and only scored 100. The defense hasn’t tightened up in ACC play, either. On Tuesday, the Tar Heels allowed Pittsburgh to shoot 55.6 percent from the field and nearly 45 percent from 3-point range.
There’s a litany of different reasons why this team — which resembles last season’s team that came one shot away from a national title — can’t replicate that same defensive prowess. Against Pittsburgh, it was a personnel mismatch, as senior forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks gave space to Pittsburgh’s shooters in favor of a rebounding advantage.
There doesn’t seem to be one easy answer to solve the Tar Heels’ defensive troubles, though. Hicks said the team needs to communicate better, while junior Justin Jackson said they needed to stay in front of their man and not allow penetration off the dribble — which has been a problem for UNC all season.
“If teams are making threes and can drive the ball to the basket too, they’re kicking your rear end is what they’re doing,” Williams said.
But part of it, according to Jackson and junior guard Joel Berry, is just taking individual responsibility and producing. UNC is one of the best offensive teams in the country, but the Tar Heels know that to beat good teams — or to win when their shots don’t fall — they’ll have to step up.
“I just think it’s taking pride and wanting to guard somebody,” Berry said. “Someone is scoring on you every possession when you come down — you have to at least man up and say, ‘I’m not going to let them score on me anymore.’”
But Artis and Michael Young — who lead the ACC in scoring — make Pittsburgh a more dangerous team than its record would suggest.
“That was the last-place team in our conference and we won by two points ... ” Jackson said. “Every night is a battle, and for us our goal is to win the conference.”
The games will only get bigger from here on out, though Jackson would say the games are already big given the depth of the ACC. Time is running out, as UNC runs the gauntlet of the conference’s top teams in February before the rigors of March.
“Sooner or later, we have to do it,” Berry said. “Last year, coach took us into the practice gym and took the rims off the goals. So if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes. But we have to do something right now.”
His eyes burned with urgency. Though Pittsburgh missed its shot tonight, he knows what happens when a good shooter gets a second shot.