Michigan State and Louisville are, by the measure of any ranking system in the country, two of the best teams in America. According to Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistics, they are also two of the twenty most efficient offenses in the country.
And they also have something else in common: they've both been stymied by the North Carolina defense.
Louisville shot 38.8% from the field against Carolina and has compiled a 47.8% mark against the other eight teams on their schedule. Michigan State experienced an even bigger drop; they hit 35.9% against the Tar Heels but have shot 50.6% against the other seven teams on their schedule.
It could be that both opponents just happened to have off shooting nights against Carolina, and it's certainly true that both squads missed some shots they might normally make.
But it's also true that the Tar Heels are quietly building an effective defensive team, starting with pressure up front and athletes in the passing lanes, fortified by a rotation of athletic big men who protect the rim in a way that is almost reminiscent of when Tyler Zeller and John Henson were prowling around the paint. Carolina's defensive field goal percentage of 37.6 currently ranks second in the ACC and 19th in the country.
Former Tar Heel Wes Miller, whose UNCG club shot 40.8% in the Smith Center on Saturday but was held scoreless during a gamebreaking 8:22 stretch in the first half, noticed the Carolina defense. "They are starting to hit their stride, especially defensively," Miller said. "Their pressure and ability to get into the passing lanes really shell-shocked us in the first half and dismantled the things we were trying to do offensively."
Through the admittedly small sample size of eight games, that's been a UNC trademark. According to those same Pomeroy advanced statistics, the Carolina defense ranks as the seventh most efficient in the country, allowing just 92.2 points scored per 100 offensive possessions (in contrast, for example, the Tar Heels are scoring 113.9 points per 100 offensive possessions).
The numbers are a little surprising, since no one on the roster has a Jackie Manuel-esque reputation as a lockdown defender, and they're playing with an emphasis on rules that are supposed to aid offense. But the way the pieces fit together defensively, and the way Roy Williams has juggled them, seems to work.
It starts out front, where Nate Britt is learning how to apply pressure to the ball closer to midcourt. That's a constant area of emphasis for Williams. It's been a difficult adjustment for Britt, who has occasionally played his way into foul trouble (his 25 total fouls this season are second only to Brice Johnson). The freshman is learning the fine line between pressure and overaggressiveness.
"I've gotten much more comfortable pressuring the ball," Britt says. "We want to build out early so they can't get fast breaks, and I've figured out how I can do that without getting beaten off the dribble. It's up to the last big man who is trailing and me to build the wall so the guard can't penetrate. We've gotten better at that, and that's part of being more confident in being able to stop the ball."
Part of the reason Britt is able to push his defense towards midcourt is the convoy of big men behind him. Brice Johnson still needs to work on his positional defense, but he has a knack for erasing mistakes with a big blocked shot (Saturday was only his second game of the season without a block). Joel James is the opposite of Johnson; he won't block many shots, but he's impossible to shove aside near the basket. Desmond Hubert comes off the bench and provides even more defensive awareness, as the rangy junior knows that's his primary area of contribution.
The defensive blueprint is completed by inserting athletic wings like James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto between the ball pressure and the paint. Williams has tossed in occasional possessions of a 3-2 zone--the first time his team has played that defense in his tenure at Carolina--to take advantage of the strengths of McAdoo and Tokoto.
"For one thing, our size is crazy," says McAdoo, "especially when I play small forward. We've gotten back to my freshman year, where we have big guys protecting the rim and we're getting our hands on a lot of balls."
Having quality post defense, McAdoo says, "lets you make more mistakes. You're not trying to make mistakes, but you know you have shot blockers and big bodies behind you."
Granted, it's early in the season, and stats like defensive field goal percentage are likely to increase as the Tar Heels face better opposition who have them better scouted. But it's worth noting that Carolina's DFG% through eight games is almost exactly in line with the same stat from the 2011-12 team, which remains the only team in the Williams era to hold opponents below 40 percent from the field.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.