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So far, so good for Tar Heels

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Through three games, this year’s iteration of North Carolina basketball appears to be significantly more balanced than last season’s squad, with the 11 returnees bolstered by three highly-regarded freshmen who have lived up to the hype through three games.

After an opening 78–67 road win last Tuesday, Nov. 6, against a Wofford team that upset the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last season, the Heels scored 116 points at the grand opening of Elon’s new gymnasium Friday and then dropped 52 first-half points on Stanford before coasting to a 90–72 victory over the Cardinal on Monday.

Of course, that second half against Stanford didn’t leave Roy Williams happy, as the Tar Heels’ head coach suggested his defense was “close to 351” (as in, out of 351 NCAA Division I teams) after the game. Although there’s definitely room for improvement, especially in terms of stopping dribble penetration and protecting the rim, there’s reason to believe this Carolina team could become a much better defensive unit than last year’s squad.

MORE DEFENSIVE POTENTIAL

Last season, Carolina struggled so much on defense that Williams eventually abandoned his preferred “21” defense, in which defenders aggressively deny passes to the wing, in favor of more “22” defense, which involves perimeter defenders sagging more toward the paint to protect the interior while emphasizing solid close-outs once a perimeter player catches the ball. The latter approach tends to result in a slower pace and fewer possessions — the opposite of Williams’ preferences.

Through three games, Carolina’s high-pressure, ball-denial approach is definitely back. After averaging 5.8 steals per game last season, Carolina is averaging 8.0 through three games. This is obviously a small sample size, but Carolina hasn’t averaged over seven steals per game since the 2012–13 season, when the Heels forced 8.2 per game. 

Another related stat is the opponents’ assist-to-turnover ratio; last season, Carolina allowed 1.25 assists per turnover forced. So far, the Tar heels have cut that number to a much more respectable .86 assists per turnover — the same number as the 2017 national championship team.

That’s not to say that this Carolina defense is anywhere close to a finished product defensively. In fact, that’s what should excite Carolina fans the most: It’s obvious upon watching this team that their best basketball is ahead of them. The three freshmen are still learning to play team defense with the discipline and intensity Williams expects, the big men are still improving in their roles hedging against screens and defending the paint, and there simply remains a lot more polishing to do before this team is anywhere close to finished defensively.

That potential is surely why Williams is pushing so hard at this point — a bit more attention to detail, and this Carolina team has the length, athleticism and depth to be a very good defensive team in addition to being loaded with scorers. That’s a nice combination.

JOHNSON A DIFFERENT PLAYER

Cameron Johnson’s renewed fluidity and quickness is one reason to expect continued defensive improvement. Finally healthy after an injury-plagued 2017–18 season and offseason hip surgery, Carolina fans are finally getting to see the player they expected when Johnson transferred from Pittsburgh. Johnson has been noticeably quicker and active on the defensive end and is tied for the team lead in steals per game (1.3) and second in rebounding (6.7).

Offensively, Johnson leads the Tar Heels through three games with 18.3 points per game on unsustainably good shooting numbers: 64.5 percent from the field and 71.4 percent from deep. If Johnson can maintain anywhere close to the level of play he has displayed in the first three games, opposing defenses will find it much more difficult to focus on slowing down All-American Luke Maye — all the more when Carolina goes small with Johnson and Maye at the 4 and 5 spots.

FRESHMEN AS ADVERTISED

Carolina’s highly-touted freshmen have also not disappointed. Coby White has managed the rare feat of being a day 1 starter at point guard under Williams, who has raved about White’s maturity and athleticism. White’s explosiveness has been evident from his first minute on the court, and his length has already been paying dividends at the defensive end of the floor.

That said, White is still learning to play more under control (2 turnovers per game) and is still adjusting to a role in which he isn’t asked to score as much but rather to serve primarily as a facilitator, distributor and defender. After three games, White’s potential as a two-way point guard is one of the biggest reasons to be bullish on this Carolina team. As some around the program might say, the ceiling is the roof.

Though not starting, forward Nassir Little has averaged the fifth-most minutes through three games and is averaging 12 points and 4.7 rebounds per game while displaying a surprising eagerness on the defensive end. Indeed, one of the highlights of the Stanford game involved Little diving to the floor to win a loose ball, showing the kind of effort rarely associated with a top recruit and elite NBA prospect.

Rechon “Leaky” Black has played the least of the three, but he is, according to Williams, “the only player I’ve ever coached that in his first three games he’s played the 1-2-3-4-5.” Black has displayed outstanding maturity with the ball in his hands — the Tar Heels scored on seven of his eight possessions at point guard against Stanford — and has flashed outstanding potential on the defensive end.

STAT OF THE WEEK

46. That’s how many different lineup combinations Roy Williams has played through the first three games of the season. 

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.

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