High-powered offense is what led head coach Hubert Davis’ new-look Tar Heels to an undefeated record entering the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off, but it was uninspired defense that left the team battered after a winless weekend.
It wasn’t necessarily a surprise that defense was a problem in the No. 18 North Carolina men’s basketball team’s 89-72 loss to No. 17 Tennessee. It had been a looming issue all season, with UNC giving up an average of 83.8 points per game. But up until this game, the Tar Heels were able to hide it with a veil of fast-paced scoring.
The shots simply didn’t fall for UNC, and that lack of defense reared its ugly head for the first time this season. This loss made it clear that relying solely on offense won’t cut it against highly ranked opponents.
UNC saw a step-up in competition at the weekend tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. While the team looked sharp in a close loss to No. 6 Purdue on Saturday, the Tar Heels looked lifeless at points against Tennessee.
The Tar Heels only led for one minute of game time, and just a few minutes into the second half it became apparent that no comeback was in sight. UNC’s will to compete seemed to break down as the team struggled to keep up Volunteers’ frenetic pace.
Davis said that his team’s effort was not up to par as Tennessee steamrolled its way to victory.
“We've had the type of effort that I think we need to have in spots for particular halves, but never for a full 40 minutes,” Davis said. “And that's something that I'm trying as a coach to understand. I never want to coach effort.”
Tennessee led by as much as 19 points as the team got almost any shot it wanted. Sloppy turnovers by the Tar Heels – who ended the game with a total of 13 – turned into 19 fast break points for Tennessee. Volunteer point guard Kennedy Chandler slashed inside and worked with forward John Fulkerson to dominate the paint.
Junior forward Armando Bacot said that a lack of communication led to his team’s disjointed performance.
“We just got to do a better job of trusting each other, on the defensive end and on the offensive end,” he said. “Even on our rotation, we got to have somebody in that position. Once that all comes together, then I feel we will be a lot better team.”
The Tar Heels showed they could still reliably hit shots from behind the three-point line, as Brady Manek, RJ Davis and Caleb Love combined for 10 threes on 18 attempts. However, those shots weren’t enough to compensate for missed layups and a lack of playmaking.
Almost every player in UNC’s rotation has shown flashes of greatness on offense. North Carolina has had a different leading scorer in every game this season, but it's teamwork that’s going to elevate UNC to the next level.
“We're one of the most talented teams out there,” Manek said. “We got some basketball players, but we're not going to do anything by not playing together, not playing as a team.”
A game at home against UNC-Asheville on Tuesday is the only buffer before UNC faces its highest ranked opponent yet: No. 4 Michigan.
The Tar Heels don’t have much time if they hope to turn its defense around before that game on Dec. 4, but Davis insisted that the potential is there to make the change.
“(The loss to Tennessee) gives us an opportunity to really reflect and see what we're doing and the things that we need to change, and I guarantee things will change,” Davis said. “I'm convinced that not only can we be a good defensive team, I'm convinced that we can be a great defensive team.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.