By Adam Lucas
Roy Williams has a very simple instruction for his team as they prepare for Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Texas Southern: pay attention.
His Tar Heels turned into a defensive juggernaut last March, and he believes this year’s team has the same potential. Much like last year’s club, the 2017 edition spent the regular season alternating between lockdown (Maui) and lackadaisical (at Miami) defense.
How far they advance into March will likely depend largely on how much they’re able to recapture last year’s defensive spirit.
“We have to do what we did last year,” Joel Berry said. “We have to pay attention to detail. Going into these games, we don’t know a lot about the opponents like we do in conference play when we see those teams all the time. We have to pay attention to personnel, we have to pay attention to the scouting report, and we have to be ready to play.”
That means the Tar Heels will need to focus on executing offensively and defensively in key late-game possessions. But it’s more than that, because in the NCAA Tournament you never know when the stretch of the game that could send you home might occur. Against both Miami and Duke in the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels went to sleep in the final two minutes of the first half, allowing the Hurricanes to trim the Carolina lead from 12 points to five points in 75 seconds. The Tar Heels rendered that slip unimportant with a dominant second half.
But the next night, against Duke, the Tar Heels saw a 13-point lead with 1:46 left in the first half melt to six points 70 seconds later. The momentum the Blue Devils built late in the first period carried over to the second half, and ultimately carried them all the way to the ACC tournament title.
“We have to play defense throughout the whole game,” said senior Isaiah Hicks. “The times we lost this year, we had lapses on the defensive end, or we didn’t close out the first half strong. It’s about keeping that effort and that defensive intensity throughout the whole game.”
Paying attention on defense isn’t just about ensuring your man doesn’t beat you with a backdoor cut. Williams gave a simple example from the ACC Tournament semifinal.
“It’s a matter of concentration,” the head coach said. “You have to keep your focus and remember what we want to emphasize. We got away from that in the Duke game. One of our biggest points of emphasis in that game was to play defense with our feet and keep them off the foul line. Well, they shot 37 free throws. Everyone gets upset about the calls from the officials, but that wasn’t all about calls. The bottom line is we fouled them too much.
“You have to know that this guy is a three-point shooter and this guy is a driver. If you have your concentration, you can make those decisions on defense in a second. If you don’t have that concentration, you hesitate, and that’s what turns out to be those lapses.”
Improved competition means increased ability to take advantage of those lapses. Williams showed an example against Duke, when a UNC defender hesitated getting to one of the Blue Devils’ best three-point shooters, giving him an open shot instead of a contested shot. Boom, three easy points at a time of year when three points can often decide the game.
The teams that are most impressive in the postseason usually do it with superior talent exhibiting superior concentration. Williams reminded his team on Saturday night there could be “no more Georgia Techs,” a reference to Carolina’s listless performance in Atlanta on Dec. 31.
“We have past experiences that show us what not to do,” said senior Kennedy Meeks. “We looked past Georgia Tech and we lost. We looked past Tennessee and we barely won that game. We can’t have games like that anymore. We want to be dominant, and that’s our main goal. Taking it one step at a time for 40 minutes at a time is the only way we can do that.”
Williams believes having an experienced team in the postseason pays more dividends in preparation than on the court. He expects his team, which starts three seniors and two juniors, to fully understand the potential suddenness of an early March exit, and to prepare accordingly.
“You have to play today,” the coach said. “You never focus on anything else. I continually emphasize that to the team. I always tell them, ‘If you start looking down the road, that’s where you’re going—down the road back home.’”