North Carolina Letting Defense Lead the Way

Kenneth WalterContributor IDecember 8, 2008

If you had any doubts on who the best team in the country was before, you shouldn’t anymore.

The North Carolina Tar Heels came in this season as the prohibitive favorites on everyone’s list.  If you read or watched anything from the preseason, then you might think that the Heels were the only team in college basketball.

The Heels start off the year at 8-0.  Sure, many teams have been impressive in this young season, but none have been as impressive as North Carolina.

Coming into this season, everyone knew the positives for North Carolina.  They knew how fast they were.  They knew that if Ty Lawson is leading the break, then they can drop 100 on anyone in the country.

When Lawson, Danny Green, and Wayne Ellington joined Tyler Hansbrough in returning to Chapel Hill, North Carolina officially became the overwhelming favorites.

But some doubts crept in on the days leading up to the opening tip-off.  In October, incumbent starting small forward and Carolina’s best perimeter defender, Marcus Ginyard, had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.  Then Hansbrough went down with a stress reaction in his shin.

Losing two starters to serious injuries in the early going isn’t too much to worry about, even if one of the starters is the returning National Player of the Year.  Carolina certainly has enough depth to survive the patsies of the young season.

But then another player went down.  This time it was freshmen phenom, Tyler Zeller, who broke multiple bones in his wrist when he was hit attempting a dunk in the waning moments of a blowout win against Kentucky.

Now, with the seven footer out for the season, the Carolina depth took a big hit. 

But North Carolina keeps on rolling.

An 8-0 start and an average margin of victory of 31.4 has helped put a stamp on their place at the top.  They still have shown the same offensive firepower, despite all of the injuries, but their defense is the real story here.

North Carolina has been susceptible to defensive lapses for the last few years.  A lot of times during the regular season, they got away with defensive lapses because they were so much more talented than everybody else.  At times, it seemed like their focus on the defensive end was to get back on offense as quick as possible, whether its over-pursuing passing lanes to get steals or giving up shots.

But when virtually all of the Tar Heels returned, getting by on your talent went out the window.  They had to come in and completely dismantle teams.

They have done just that thus far.

The Heels have been absolutely relentless on the defensive end.  Bobby Frasor being healthy has really improved up their perimeter defense, even without Ginyard.

The Heels currently average 11.9 steals per game and are holding teams to shooting just 37.4 percent from the field.

One of the most amazing parts of this is the two freshman that are really making an impact on the defensive end.  It is amazing to see just how quick Larry Drew II is laterally.  He has long arms and can keep opposing guards in front of him with ease.

Ed Davis has also been really active.  He truly is an instinctive rebounder and a tremendous shot blocker.  He may be the best shot blocker Carolina has had in quite some time, and has completely made up for the loss of Zeller and transferred forward Alex Stepheson.

He is averaging 9.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

But the player that has impressed the Tar Heel faithful the most thus far has been the much maligned junior forward Deon Thompson.

Thompson has been the source of ridicule from Carolina fans the last couple of years, but has really come in aggressive this season. Through eight games, he has averaged 14.9 points and 7.9 rebounds, which is way up from last season.

North Carolina has been scary good, but there is still a long way to go.  The season is young and a lot of teams are undefeated, but it is clear that it is North Carolina and then everyone else.