Balanced 'Pack creates defensive challenge

There’s a reason North Carolina coach Roy Williams prefers to have teams with four or five guys who can score in double figures.

It’s the same reason NC State -- which boasts five starters averaging between 11.9 and 13.3 points per game -- will pose a defensive challenge on Thursday night.

“You can’t cheat and leave somebody to double somebody else; you’ve got to stay home when the ball’s on that side,’’ Williams said on his radio show Monday night. “When Scott Wood’s on that wing and throws it inside to [C.J.] Leslie or [Richard] Howell, you can’t clamp down on the post because you’ve got to stay out with him. And if you do decide to jam down, you’ve got to rotate over and then somebody’s got to rotate over to cover that spot.

“It’s a lot more involved defensively … it’s just so much more difficult to defend.”

Especially now.

Because junior Dexter Strickland, UNC’s best perimeter defender, tore the ACL in his right knee last Thursday and is out for the rest of the season, the eighth-ranked Tar Heels will begin the game with a new starting line-up and rotation. Sophomore Reggie Bullock, who will now start at shooting guard, adds a whole lot more length (he’s 6-foot-7 compared to Strickland’s 6-3), rebounding (4.4 per game), and outside shooting prowess (38.6 percent 3-point shooting) to the mix.

But although Bullock and freshman wing P.J. Hairston have improved on defense, they aren’t quite at Strickland’s man-to-man level. At least, not yet.

“They realize the thing ahead of them, with Dexter’s abilities, was how Dexter could play on the defensive end of the floor,’’ Williams said. “So they’ve both been trying very hard to see if they could match his defensive capabilities, because they do shoot the ball better, they are bigger -- but they haven’t been able to do that enough to get him out of the starting lineup.”

Bullock can’t match Strickland’s quickness, but there are positives to his defensive style. His reach -- combined with those of 6-4 point guard Kendall Marshall, 6-8 small forward Harrison Barnes, 6-11 power forward John Henson and 7-footer Tyler Zeller -- creates a lot of long limbs for offenses to try to see (and pass) through.

And whereas Strickland preferred to focus on his man and didn’t really care what was going on across the court, Williams said, Bullock sees the bigger picture of what’s going on -- although he doesn’t put as much pressure on the ball.

What will that mean for UNC’s overall defense? Time will tell.

“We’re getting ready to play North Carolina State, and Scott Wood’s just been lighting it up, and there’s a good chance Reggie will asked to find out real quick how he’ll do defensively,'' Williams said.

Indeed, the 6-6 junior has been the best scorer of the balanced Pack in ACC play, averaging 15.6 points during NC State’s 4-1 league start.

He’s making 48.1 percent of his shots for the season, including 45.3 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s also made a conference record 58 straight free throws, so “you foul him, it’s like giving him a layup. That’s the bottom line,’’ Williams said.

Although the bigger problem could be that he's not the Wolfpack’s only weapon in an offense that emphasizes movement and sharing the ball.

"The way we play, it creates opportunities for everybody," first-year N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said earlier this month. "It doesn't rely on one guy to be our leading scorer."

Which means UNC’s defense, and new starting lineup, must be on guard for everyone on the court.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.