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UNC Next Season: The Defense

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As much as the offense looks to be at an elite level next season, UNC's work on the defensive end might very well be what controls this team's ceiling.

Here is the progression of UNC's defensive efficiency as the season went on(click to enlarge)

UNC Average DE 2014-15

For about half the season, UNC actually looked like a good defense. The average defensive efficiency was at or below 90 until after UNC faced NC State in Raleigh when it crept up to 91.0. Two games later after FSU, which was had not been very good offensively posted a 110.1 versus UNC in Chapel Hill, the average rose to 92.2 and never recovered.

One notable moment in the progression came versus Wake Forest when Theo Pinson broke a bone in his foot. At that point UNC had gone up to 91.0 but dropped back to 90.5 then 90.8 after that game. From that point, UNC's defensive efficiency began to suffer. By the end of the season, UNC has DE of 96.0 which is the worst of any Roy Williams era UNC team.

With UNC's DE taking such a turn in the wrong direction, the game by game is exactly what you think it would be.

UNC DE 2014-15 Game by Game

Through the non-conference slate and the ACC opener versus Clemson, UNC allowed just one team to break 100 in offensive efficiency and that was presently 38-0 Kentucky. Notre Dame became the second team to do so and started as steak of three straight teams to post 100 or better in offensive efficiency versus the Tar Heels. From there 13 teams had an OE of 100 or better against the Tar Heels versus eight which UNC held under 100. UNC was also subject to extremes with Pitt's ridiculous 143.4 balanced against a 70.9 by Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing UNC on the defensive end was fouls. UNC's own turnover issues certainly led to easier baskets but ultimately too many fouls proved to be a huge issue. The fouling actually led to UNC being historically bad in terms of opposing teams shooting free throws. It was just the third time in school history opponents shot more free throws than UNC over the course of the season. In terms of free throw rate, the past two seasons have been a huge departure from the norm.

Season Opponent FTR UNC Def. FTR Rank
2004 33.2 79
2005 30.3 49
2006 27.6 25
2007 27.9 17
2008 25.7 11
2009 25.4 7
2010 24.5 3
2011 24.8 2
2012 21.8 1
2013 27.1 18
2014 41.4 199
2015 37.8 199

The shift in this stat from UNC being fairly reliable in not sending teams to the line to the Heels doing it far too often is staggering. UNC paid the price in multiple games watching a parade to the charity stripe by opposing teams and those teams being better than average at the same time.

Another complicating factor with the foul situation is losing key players for extended minutes due to foul trouble. This was especially true on the interior where UNC went without Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson or Isaiah Hicks in games where their presence could have changed the outcome. Foul trouble makes players more tentative on defense which is not something UNC can afford from players tasked with protecting the rim.

Heading into next season, the Tar Heels' primary focus must be cutting down on fouls. One key to that, aside from instructing the big men to stay vertical and on their feet is stopping dribble penetration. Because UNC likes to help on drives, limited penetration not only protects post players from fouling on shots at the rim but it can also keep opposing teams from getting open looks on the perimeter. As much as UNC's help defense is criticized for giving up threes, the inability to stop dribble penetration leads to the need for help.

Two other key factors are turnovers and defensive rebound. Given UNC's length, forcing more turnovers should be a critical part of what the Tar Heels do defensively. UNC's defensive TO% of 17.7 this season was 263rd and worst in the Roy Williams era. Historically speaking, Williams' teams hover in the mid-100s and around 20-21 for defensive TO% but in five of the past six seasons the defensive TO% has only hit 20 once, a 21.5 in 2013.

Also of concern is the defensive rebounding. UNC has shown some great first shot defense but closing the defensive possession out has been a struggle at times. UNC's defensive rebounding numbers aren't historically awful, in fact the 68.8 this season was very close to 2009's 68.3. However, too many games saw UNC struggled to close out a defensive possession. The home loss to Notre Dame saw Zach Auguste get an offensive rebound and putback to give the Irish the lead late. Losses to Butler and Iowa saw significant problems controlling the defensive glass and Wisconsin made the Tar Heels pay repeatedly

In short, UNC's defense is facing multiple issues but none that can't be fixed to some degree. UNC should be very good on offense if the normal development occurs for players over the summer. The defense should also get better but in some ways it should be a focal point. Roy Williams spending significant time in preseason practice on the defensive end isn't the worst idea in the world. What UNC does defensively may very well be the difference between a Final Four or not.