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No. 25 UNC men's basketball's man-to-man defense struggles in 76-74 road loss to Pittsburgh

UNC junior guard Caleb Love (2) gives a high-five to senior forward/center Armando Bacot (5) during the men's basketball game against Michigan at the Jumpman Invitational in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. UNC beat Michigan 80-76.

Even in North Carolina’s four-game win streak, the defense looked unrecognizable from the one that made a deep tournament run to the 2022 NCAA Championship. And the team's one-on-one defense struggled in Friday's 76-74 road loss against Pittsburgh.

But the Tar Heels' defensive issues haven’t come from a lack of preparation or awareness of its opponent’s strengths and tendencies. 

In the opening five minutes of play, the Tar Heels showed signs of returning to championship form defensively, allowing the Panthers to connect on just one of six field goal attempts while taking an 11-3 lead. 

The Pitt pulled ahead late in the second half and Jamarius Burton spearheaded the team's offensive turnaround with 31 points — exposing UNC’s struggle to defend in isolation. 

“Shoutout to their coaches,” senior center Armando Bacot said. “We defended all of their plays as great as possible. They scored twice, maybe, just on running their plays. (The shot clock) got down to ten seconds, and then (they beat us) one-on-one.”  

The Tar Heels used just about every defender they had on Burton, to no avail. The veteran guard scored on junior forward Puff Johnson, junior guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis and sophomore guard D’Marco Dunn. Even when the Tar Heels put graduate forward Leaky Black on Burton, UNC still struggled to guard him.  

“At the end of the day, it comes down to one-on-one,” head coach Hubert Davis said. "We just didn’t have an answer for him in a one-on-one situation.” 

In UNC’s matchup with Michigan, the Tar Heels were able to limit the Wolverines’ star center Hunter Dickinson to just nine points on 3-9 shooting from the field. After holding Dickinson to nine points below his points-per-game average, it looked like the Tar Heels might be turning the corner.

“The last two games we played, we played phenomenal,” RJ Davis said. “This loss right here, I would say pisses us off as well, just because we were playing so well.” 

Earlier in the season, the Tar Heels struggled to defend Alabama’s Jahvon Quinerly, as the senior guard scored many of his 21 points against the Tar Heels in isolation as opposed to points from set plays. In the team’s first ACC game of the season, it was Virginia Tech’s Justyn Mutts who dominated UNC in isolation situations with 27 points. 

With matchups against two of the ACC’s top individual scorers in Wake Forest’s Tyree Appleby and Louisville’s El Ellis looming on the schedule, the Tar Heels will need to tighten things up on the defensive end to avoid dropping more winnable in-conference games. 

UNC’s next opportunity to prove the defense can guard individually and revert to championship-caliber defensive form is against Appleby and Wake Forest. A win against Wake Forest and a stout defensive outing against Appleby could go a long way toward instilling defensive confidence and bolstering the team’s standing in the ACC. 

“We need to keep moving forward and not let it (the loss to Pittsburgh) be a step back,” graduate transfer forward Pete Nance said. “I think a lot of that comes just with the mentality towards how we’re going to go into the next game, and I think this is a game we gotta try and forget about and move on from quickly. 

@dthsports |

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