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UNC Basketball: Flexing on Defense

What’s caused the Tar Heels to be this good lately? We think we have an idea.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Boston College Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina hasn’t lost in 35 days.

The recipe for success of late for the Tar Heels has a plethora of ingredients. There is no singular correct answer when discussing how Hubert Davis got his group to be soaring this high in late January. So many different facets of North Carolina’s game have been elite since opening up ACC play. That said, this team has already shown drastic improvement and growth from just a month ago. What’s one area where that in-season development has been unbelievably fruitful?

Defense.

There was a three-game stretch in November where Eric Dixon (Villanova), Tramon Mark (Arkansas), and Dalton Knecht (Tennessee) all scored 34 or more against the Tar Heels. I’m guilty of waving the red flag after these consecutive performances because this isn’t the first season where an opposing player continues to run wild against North Carolina. I thought this team was headed down that same dark alley.

Oh, was I wrong.

No one player has scored more than 21 against the Heels defense since December 20th vs. Oklahoma. That’s just the beginning of the story of how elite North Carolina’s defense has been in the new year.

Hubert Davis has always loved to switch on screens. As of late, we have consistently seen the Tar Heels switching in positions one through four. Not only is it working, but it’s showing the confidence Coach Davis has in his guys to rotate, help, and guard at a high level in one-on-one situations. You can check every one of those boxes. They’re doing it all.

Cormac Ryan has blossomed into one of North Carolina’s best defenders. That wasn’t the main headline on his scouting report as he came over from the Fighting Irish, but with some shooting woes, he has become so vital to the Tar Heels on the other side of the court.

The length and athleticism of guys like Jae’Lyn Withers and Seth Trimble are doing dividends to slow opponents’ top scorers as well. Teams have struggled to get in any rhythm against the Tar Heels, and that starts with making the top scorers uncomfortable. These guys, amongst others, are doing just that.

How about Armando Bacot’s shot blocking? Bacot has recorded a block in 17 of North Carolina’s 19 games. In many of those, he had multiple. Like Cormac Ryan, Armando Bacot has yet to be the offense’s centerpiece, as some expected. Still, his physicality and rim protection down low are allowing Elliot Cadeau and RJ Davis to get out in transition and score easy buckets.

All of these pieces together, along with high-level effort and commitment, have created a suffocating defense that a Tar Heel team hasn’t had in quite some time.

KenPom has North Carolina ranked 4th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. They are also the 12th-best defensive rebounding team in the country. When all of these pieces unify, they have been extremely difficult to score against.

Through the nine-game winning streak, no team has totaled more than 70 points. Four of the nine victories have come with opponents shooting less than 20% from 3-point range. They held Pitt, Wake Forest, and Clemson to their season lows. The most promising thing about these notes? Five of these performances were away from Chapel Hill.

North Carolina’s defense has been stellar, with numbers and statistics to back it up. This niche allows the Tar Heels to prevail in all styles of games. When they haven’t shot the ball well themselves, the performance on the other end has kept them afloat in uglier contests.

We are still learning a lot about this North Carolina team every night they step onto the floor, but the lockdown defense is something we are beginning to expect and not hope for. This is the most complete Tar Heel team we have seen in quite some time, and there’s no way I can conclude that without the rise of one of the country’s best defenses.