UNC’s defensive improvement to be tested in game vs. UCLA

The Tar Heels have made leaps since an early-season slump

After struggling at the start of coach Hubert Davis’ first season, the Tar Heels’ defense has been more effective as ACC play approaches. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Not that long ago, North Carolina’s biggest problem was its defense.

The Tar Heels had a brutal trip to Connecticut, losing to Purdue and Tennessee on consecutive days and giving up 182 points in the process. Five games into the season, UNC sat at 3-2 with four straight teams scoring 83 or more against the Heels.

“We have no identity on defense,” coach Hubert Davis complained. “It will change.”

Davis wasn’t lying. Since returning from the Connecticut casino, the Tar Heels have been a different team on defense. Carolina gave up 53 points to UNC Asheville and 51 to Michigan, marking the first time in 15 years UNC has allowed 53 points or fewer in back-to-back games.

In four games, no one has put up more than 63 against the Heels, the first time they’ve done that in four straight since 2012. Carolina has allowed an average of 57.3 points over that span.

The improvement has been dramatic, immediate and widespread. Just about every aspect of defense has improved.

Through five games, UNC had allowed at least 0.9 points per possession to every opponent and more than one point per possession in three games. In the last four, the Tar Heels have allowed less than 0.83 points per possession in three games.

After allowing four of their first five foes to have an effective field goal percentage of .500 or above (and two at over .600), the Heels have held to of the last four below .400.

The Tar Heels are better on the inside. The first five opponents shot 117 of 219 (.534) on two-point shots. That’s fallen to 62 of 139 (.446) in the last four.

They’re better on the outside. Always a thorn in Carolina’s side, defending the 3-pointer appeared to be another weak spot this year. The first five foes hit 44 of 117 (.376) from three. That’s fallen to 26 of 98 (.265) since.

The Tar Heels are defending cleaner. Carolina’s rate of sending opponents to the free-throw line has been cut to almost one-third of its level to start the season. That doesn’t mean the defense has backed off, however. Turnover rate on defense has almost doubled to 20% of opposing possessions in the last three games after never being above 13.5% in the five previous.

“We’ve been more active on the defensive end,” Davis said, “which has allowed us and put us in positions to get steals and deflections. And then also, you know, how you get out in transition is when a team misses. And so over the last two and a half weeks, our defense has been better.

“It’s hard to get out in transition when you’re allowing 90 some points in the paint the way we did in Connecticut, that’s hard to get out and transition there. But when you get stops and you’re active defensively, you put yourself in a position to get steals and deflections that allow you get out in transition.”

Normally, a team can cut down on the points it’s allowing by slowing the pace, but Carolina is playing as fast as ever.

“We want to run at our pace, and what starts our pace is how we play on a defensive end,” Davis explained.

UNC is averaging 81.1 points per game, its highest scoring level in three years. Five players are scoring in double figures for the first time in four years.

The Tar Heels have embraced the 3-point shot like never before this season, helping boost their scoring. Carolina is on pace to set a team record for made threes per game, and the Tar Heels have hit at least seven treys in every game this season, their longest streak since 2004.

Currently, UNC ranks No. 6 in the nation in 3-point accuracy, 256 spots higher than it ended last year.

Carolina’s improvement will be put to the test as the Tar Heels make a return trip to the casinos with a game in Las Vegas against UCLA. The Bruins were 8-1 at press time with a win over Villanova. They have the ninth-most efficient offense in the country and have hit 24 of their last 57 threes for a .421 rate.

UCLA has also clamped down on the perimeter, allowing its last three opponents to hit just 19 of 81 (.234) from outside. The Bruins are also No. 10 in the country in ball security on offense.

The Bruins are also just as good at Carolina on the offensive and defensive boards, ranking No. 26 and No. 8 nationally, respectively, on the two ends.

The Tar Heels passed a big test against Michigan to help spark their current hot streak. The UCLA game will be the last challenge of the nonconference schedule before heading into ACC play.

The players are confident that their newfound improvement will hold up as the competition ramps up.

“Once we lock down on defense, and we just stick to our plays on offense and just doing what Coach Davis tells us to do day in and day out,” Caleb Love said. “We play as a team playing hard and playing together. We’ll just be great.”