Everything in college basketball is amplified in March. With each team only one loss away from a long offseason, any flaw can be fatal.
And there’s no mistaking the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s weakness this season. A porous perimeter defense has consistently plagued the Tar Heels, and could easily spell disaster once the NCAA Tournament begins later this month.
UNC allowed 311 made three-pointers over the regular season, the fourth most in the NCAA through Sunday. Tar Heel opponents have converted 38.6 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc, placing UNC’s three-point defense at 19th worst in the country and last in the ACC.
The results are even starker in conference play, where the Tar Heels have allowed opponents to shoot 39.5 percent on threes.
UNC’s worst stretch defensively was also their worst overall. During the Tar Heels’ three-game losing streak in January, their defense allowed opponents to shoot 46.7 percent from three, including North Carolina State and Clemson shooting 15-30 in back-to-back defeats for UNC.
The N.C. State game may be UNC’s most glaring failure. The Wolfpack entered the game as the ACC’s second-worst three point shooting team, but shredded the Tar Heels' defense from outside, punctuated by Allerik Freeman shooting a perfect 7-7 on threes to tie an ACC record for most threes without a miss beyond the perimeter.
That three-game stretch came a couple weeks after the Tar Heels implemented their smaller lineup, with 6-foot-8 Luke Maye as UNC’s tallest starter. The 95-91 overtime loss to N.C. State showed UNC’s new lineup was far from a finished product.
“We’re still working out some of the kinks with going to ball screens,” Maye said after the loss, “especially with our small lineup sometimes.”
During UNC’s ensuing six-game win streak, the Tar Heels masked their deficiencies, holding each opponent to 10 made threes or fewer over the stretch.
But the fix may have just been cosmetic. In last week’s 91-88 loss to Miami, the Hurricanes shot 50 percent and made 11 threes — including Ja’Quan Newton’s buzzer-beating half court shot to spoil the Tar Heels’ senior night.
UNC held No. 5 Duke to 1-10 on threes in the first half of Saturday’s loss, and took a 35-25 lead into halftime. But the Blue Devils stormed back and outscored the Tar Heels by 20 in the second, to win 74-64. In the second half, perimeter defense killed UNC yet again as Duke shot 8-15 from deep.
In UNC’s five losses since switching to its small lineup, Tar Heel opponents have averaged 12.4 three-pointers per game and shot 45.3 percent from deep.
The combination of a four-guard lineup and poor perimeter defense seems contradictory on its face, but the move to small ball has hurt UNC’s three-point defending.
With a limited interior presence, North Carolina’s guards are forced to provide inside help, leaving the Tar Heels vulnerable to kick-out catch-and-shoot three point shooting.
Whether UNC can correct this shortcoming will likely be the difference between another deep NCAA Tournament run and a first-weekend exit.
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