Tar Heels dig in defensively

The unexpected benefit of North Carolina not having P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald in the lineup as scorers has been an increased focus on getting better defensively.

The Tar Heels are currently holding opponents to 37.6 percent shooting from the floor, which ranks 17th nationally and second in the ACC. (Clemson leads the league and is No. 1 nationally at 35.0 percent.)

Carolina hasn’t had a defensive percentage that low since the 1959-60 season. In fact, since then the Heels have only held opponents below 40 percent shooting six seasons: 1960-61, 1993-94, 1997-98, 1998-99, 2000-01 and 2011-12.

UNC assistant coach C.B. McGrath, who filled in for coach Roy Williams on his radio show Monday night, said the team has had a renewed focus on stopping opponents.

“In some of the past years it’s been harder to get the guys to buy in defensively because we outscore people,” McGrath said. “No matter what we said defensively, they’d be like, 'You know what, that’s true, but I’m going to score.'”

That former mentality was evident in the Belmont loss. The Bruins shot 45 percent, which remains the season high allowed against the Heels, and made 15 3-pointers, including the game-winner that was poorly defended by J.P. Tokoto.

“Potentially J.P. Tokoto could be an unbelievable defender for us,” McGrath said. “But sometimes he gets too locked in on his man, he doesn’t get in help position enough, and he takes possessions off and isn’t consistent enough. Marcus Paige by far right now has been the most consistent.”

McGrath said Paige has graded out as the team’s defensive player of the game seven times. Joel James won the honor for the Michigan State game.

Williams has also sprinkled in more zone than he’s played in the past to stop teams from dribble penetration. But the key to Carolina’s improvement has been its on-ball pressure. Freshman Nate Britt in particular has improved defensively at stopping drives.

“We’re doing better guarding the ball,” McGrath said. “It’s so hard to guard the basketball this day and age, you just have to try and make them change their path a little bit.”

Since the Belmont loss, Richmond is the only opponent that has shot better than 40 percent against the Heels' defense. UNC held Louisville to 38.8 percent and Michigan State to a season-low 35.9 percent.

“This year we don’t necessarily have that where the mentality is, 'I’m going to score, I’m going to score,'” McGrath said. “They’re thinking about, ‘OK, I need to stop my guy and see if he will score.’ So I think the mentality has helped to where we can get better defensively.”