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Championship-caliber D leads Tar Heels past Miami

January 11, 2012 Columns No Comments

If North Carolina can play with the same defensive energy, efficiency and effectiveness that the Tar Heels did in shutting down Miami, there’s little doubt this team will be in New Orleans in April competing for the national championship.

Entering Tuesday night’s game, Miami figured to pose some problems for a North Carolina team that occasionally forgets to play fundamentally sound perimeter defense. With talented shooters like Malcolm Grant, Durand Scott, Shane Larkin, Rion Brown and Trey McKinney Jones, the Hurricanes had plenty of options to use. But North Carolina shut them all down.

The Tar Heels executed a well-orchestrated game plan in which perimeter defenders jumped passing lanes to knock away passes, disrupting the timing of Miami’s offense. Equally important, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and even Justin Watts capably guarded the Canes’ big men, Reggie Johnson — all 300 pounds of him — and Kenny Kadji.

At one point, Watts, a 6’4” guard, was left alone to defend the 6’10” Kadji. The Canes big man didn’t get to touch the ball in the possession, which is partially the fault of Miami’s guards and also a tribute to the intense work Watts put in to maintain good position. And that’s the kind of smart, effective play that North Carolina applied all night to grind out a 73-56 win.

The offense wasn’t always pretty for North Carolina, but the Tar Heels kept possessions alive by grabbing 15 offensive rebounds, including six by Zeller, and avoiding turnovers. Jim Larranaga’s squad was able to slow the Tar Heels down a little bit, keeping the pace to 72 possessions for the game, which is down from North Carolina’s season average of about 75 possessions per game. However, the Tar Heels still got plenty of transition opportunities, which feeds into the strengths of this team.

North Carolina’s high-octane offense gets plenty of opportunities to run because the Tar Heels are among the best in the nation at grabbing rebounds and avoiding fouls. Based on Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency stats, the Tar Heels allow opponents to collect only 27.1 percent of their missed shots, ranking among the top 25 in Division I in defensive rebounding. And North Carolina is tops in D-I when it comes to not fouling opponents, allowing opponents to get one free throw attempt for every six shots from the field.

Critics might argue that the Tar Heels are the beneficiary of referees’ deference to the name on the jersey. We won’t go there. Instead, we’ll focus on what we see in games, namely smart defensive play by guys like Zeller, Henson and Dexter Strickland, who know how to defend their men without fouling. For Henson and Zeller, who rely on their height to deter shots — or swat them into next year, in Henson’s case — precise footwork and timing are critical.

All those skills were on display against Miami, as the Tar Heels finished with only 11 fouls to Miami’s 17 and 44 total rebounds to Miami’s 27. The vaunted Canes’ backcourt made only 3 of 16 3-point attempts, and Scott was the only guard to reach double figures, with 12 points.

Keep that up, and the Tar Heels should be able to fend off the curse of slow-paced, 3-point-happy, upset-minded lower seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

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