Tar Heels going with defensive Plan B

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Several times during North Carolina's seven-game win streak, coach Roy Williams' postgame remarks have included, almost apologetically, that the opponent missed some shots they normally make.

As if Carolina might have caught them on an off night. As if the Tar Heels didn't have anything to do with the other teams' low shooting percentages. As if Williams doesn't want the secret to get out.

The Heels believe in their defense.

"We've taken that to heart and decided since we're not the best offensive team in the world, we're going to hang our hat on defense, and it's paid off for us," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said.

Williams' tenure at North Carolina has been characterized by high-octane offense -- point guards who pushed the pace with an unlimited supply of scorers. The Heels didn't have to concentrate on getting stops because, chances were, their opponents couldn't stop them long enough for it to make a difference.

Had P.J. Hairston been eligible this season, the Heels could have been the same way. They could have been a team that could simply overpower its opponents by outscoring them with Hairston, who was easily the most gifted scorer on the roster, leading the way.

Sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said the Tar Heels has had so many "bucket-getters" in the past that "they hadn't really had to have that defensive-stopper kind of mentality."

"I just think we've grown up a little bit," Paige said. "After those couple really tough losses early -- they were kind of devastating for us -- we knew we had to make a change otherwise our season would have been not the way it is right now."

The Heels still can get buckets. They rank second in scoring offense behind Duke in the ACC at 76.0 points per game. But their roster isn't proliferated with scorers. Out of necessity, and a bit of trial and error, the Tar Heels developed into more of a lunch-pail crowd.

They're fourth in the league in field goal percentage defense (39.7), which, if it stands, would mark just the third time since 2000 they've held opponents to less than 40 percent. They've also held opponents to 30.9 percent from behind the 3-point line, which currently would be the second-best mark in school history behind their 30.8 percent in 1999-2000.

"I don't know if it started at the beginning of our win streak but it was at some point maybe two or three games into it that we kind of found our groove defensively," Paige said. "We know when we take from the scouting report and apply it to the game, we can be really tough because we have length, we have athleticism, we have shot-blockers."

Duke will provide the biggest defensive test for the Heels on Thursday with its stable of perimeter shooters. The Blue Devils lead the league in 3-point field goal percentage connecting on 41 percent of their shots behind the arc.

The Heels lead the league in 3-point percentage defense in conference play, allowing foes to shoot just 30.7 percent. Paige said losses to Wake Forest and Miami to start conference play forced a change in their approach.

Tokoto is a prime example. During a loss to Belmont in November, he was late reacting to J.J. Mann and went under a screen allowing the go-ahead 3-pointer. Last Saturday, Tokoto hounded Pittsburgh's leading scorer Lamar Patterson into shooting just 5-of-15 from the floor.

"What's helping us win these games is our defensive mentality," Tokoto said. "That no one is going to come in our house, no one is going to come at us first. They're not going to hit us first; we're going to hit them."

Tokoto isn't the only one making defensive strides. Sophomore forward Brice Johnson has maintained an aggressive mentality when it comes to blocking shots. Against Pittsburgh, he had a career-high five blocks, including two in the final three minutes while playing with four fouls. He leads the Heels with 36 blocks and needs just two more to double his total from last season.

"I can be a great shot-blocker," Johnson said. "Just knowing how to time it and not using my body, but just my length and still be able to go get it, that's one thing that really helps me."

After losing to Wake Forest, Williams lamented his team did not internalize the scouting report, which led to one defensive breakdown after another.

They haven't had those kinds of mistakes during their win streak. Junior forward James Michael McAdoo said defensive communication has improved.

"It's just coming down to all five guys playing together and having each other's back, you can throw the X's and O's out the window," McAdoo said. "We realize where our weaknesses are and where our strengths are and everyone is just taking it upon themselves just to guard their man. And when there are lapses -- which there are always going to be, because no one can play perfect -- just having your teammate's back."

It is about the execution too. The Heels got abused by pick-and-rolls earlier in the season, but they're defending ball screens much better now. Their big men hedge harder and recover faster.

Playing at Notre Dame would have been a much more difficult task for the Heels when they weren't as focused defensively. But Irish coach Mike Brey noticed firsthand the difference during Carolina's 73-62 win in South Bend.

The Irish shot 45 percent against UNC, which was the best of any team during its seven game win streak. But the Heels totaled 13 steals, which tied Niagara on Dec. 21, 2005 as the most of any opponent during Brey's tenure with the Irish. Notre Dame totaled 17 turnovers, which the Heels converted into 23 points.

"When they started the season, maybe it was a little more of a position defense," Brey said. "But they're pressuring the ball and playing up in passing lanes and really forcing you to make some plays. They've got size in the back where if you do beat them or back door them, they've got guys who can block shots."

That's not where it ends. Brey said the success Carolina has had is only making its players buy in on defensive end more.

"They're also trapping more, they're doubling a little bit more, they're running and jumping a little bit more like the days of old," Brey said. "You've got a group of guys that have seen the results, so they believe in it on a daily basis."