With its history of overwhelming offensive firepower, UNC basketball hasn’t been a program that’s emphasized winning games with defense. The Tar Heels won’t lack for scoring in 2014-15, either, but coach Roy Williams would do well to take a page out of Rick Pitino’s playbook when it comes to next season’s D.
Pitino’s uptempo Louisville teams have shown that gaudy offensive numbers and an aggressive, turnover-hunting defense are not mutually exclusive. With the personnel Williams has on hand, he can force teams to worry about his own defenders while still wearing down the opposition with his signature fast break.
Unsurprisingly, it all starts with rising junior point guard Marcus Paige, one of the country’s top returning players. Hidden in Paige’s offensive explosion last season was his continued success on the other end of the floor, where he grabbed 1.5 steals per game.
Paige’s likely partner in the starting backcourt is J.P. Tokoto, a 6’5” swingman whose specialty is lockdown D. The physical Tokoto was UNC’s top ball hawk a year ago (1.6 steals a night).
Turning the guards loose to harass opposing ball-handlers will inevitably result in some breakdowns on the perimeter, putting more heat on the interior defense. Fortunately for UNC, Brice Johnson—who showed considerable promise as a shot-blocker in part-time duty last year—will get a larger role in the frontcourt with James Michael McAdoo gone.
However, the most important reason that next season’s Tar Heels should be turning up the heat on the outside won’t be found in the starting five. North Carolina has extraordinary depth, setting it up to withstand foul trouble and fatigue without losing its edge on D (or its scoring punch).
Behind Paige, Williams has not one but two terrific young point guards, Nate Britt and incoming freshman Joel Berry. Both are outstanding defenders who could be especially dangerous in short bursts of in-your-face ball pressure. Both are also pass-first types who won't get a ton of minutes anyway, so a designated ball hawk role would give them a way to contribute rather than stewing on the bench.
The frontcourt has a similar wealth of options, with mobile big men Jackson Simmons and Isaiah Hicks backing up Johnson.
Indeed, there’s enough speed up front that Williams could even go to a genuine full-court press at times. Kennedy Meeks (presumably starting again at center) isn’t a good fit for such a scheme, but while he’s getting a breather, the Tar Heels can suffocate the opposition. Pairing Johnson with Simmons or Hicks—or even freshman Theo Pinson in a smaller lineup—would make for a fleet-footed and long-armed pressure unit.
Even if North Carolina plays its usual vanilla defense, it’s going to win a lot of games. However, by taking advantage of a surplus of defensive talent, the Tar Heels can get a crucial leg up in an ACC that’s going to have them slugging it out with two other legitimate Final Four hopefuls (Duke and Virginia) all year long.