Difference between '09 and '12: Defense

CHAPEL HILL –- North Carolina coach Roy Williams has said since last summer that he thinks his team has a chance to be pretty good defensively. After the top-ranked Tar Heels’ first two wins, he said he still feels that way.

Although Michigan State’s 30.6 percent shooting is a skewed statistic, considering the teams played outdoors in breezy conditions, UNC held UNC Asheville to 39.7 percent shooting on the road (and indoors).

They still need to improve on the boards, as the Spartans out-rebounded them by 15. But their opponents’ low shooting percentages was an important start, because these Tar Heels don’t necessarily have the mega-watt offense of past teams.

“Everyone wants to make the comparisons to 2009 and 2005, and 2009’s team could just really score – score a lot – I think everybody in the starting lineup got 20 that year. I think Deon [Thompson] got 21 one time, [but] those other guys could get 30,’’ Williams said.

“I don’t’ think from 1 to 5, we have that kind of firepower, but we defend it around the basket a lot better.”

Indeed, while sophomore wing Harrison Barnes and senior forward Tyler Zeller have proven they can put up big points (Zeller’s career-high is 32, while Barnes’ is 40), that’s not necessarily the case for the rest of the starters.

Point guard Kendall Marshall is a better creator than scorer, although he has the goal of averaging a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) this season. Junior shooting guard Dexter Strickland is a better defender than jump-shooter, and scores best when he can use his speed in transition.

And although junior John Henson showed some vastly improved offensive moves (right- and left-handed hook shots, turnaround jumpers) against Michigan State and Asheville, the question is whether he can continue to do that consistently.

That’s why, Williams said, defense will continue to be an emphasis – and improvement and consistency will be key.

Said Strickland: “It’s a group approach, and I think with great teams, it has to be. We all bring something different to the table when it comes to defense. John’s length, my ability to stay in front of my man and to stop passes and stuff like that, Harrison’s ability to block shots and stuff like that, Z’s presence – it’s all a group effort.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp