Silent but deadly: UNC’s underrated defense among nation’s best

The Tar Heels don’t rack up steals or blocks, they just keep opponents from scoring

Guard Cormac Ryan, left, has been a key addition to a UNC defense that is among the most efficient in the country. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Unlike just about every other coach in college basketball, UNC’s Hubert Davis does not curse.

Shortly after replacing Roy Williams as head coach of the Tar Heels, he explained that Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge never swore and were still able to communicate their feelings to players. So he is continuing that tradition. Like Smith, he also forces the entire team to run sprints when he hears a player use a four-letter word on the court.

“I’ve never heard him curse,” said UNC’s Harrison Ingram.

That doesn’t mean that Davis never loses his temper. He’s been known to yell at his team during timeouts and at halftime, and when he does, he uses language that, while safe for work, is still colorful.

“His go-to word is ‘fart,’” said Ingram.

As in?

“What the fart are you doing?” Ingram said. “It caught me off guard the first time I was here.”

Halfway through UNC’s game Monday against Wake Forest, Davis was not happy with the Tar Heels’ performance. Despite being heavily favored, they trailed the Demon Deacons at home.

“At halftime, Coach Davis … yeah, he ripped into us,” Ingram said.

And, yes, Davis dropped his own personal f-bomb.

“We got about 10 of them,” Ingram said.

Even though UNC hit halftime 0 for 8 from 3-point range, and even though RJ Davis responded with a career-high 36 points to lead Carolina to a blowout win, the team’s offensive struggles weren’t the source for the Hubert Davis “fart” storm.

“He didn’t like the way we came out,” Ingram said of the first half. “I mean, we came out. We scored a bunch, but we weren’t getting stops. We were giving up layups.”

“On defense, we were making mistakes that allowed Wake Forest to be able to score,” Hubert Davis said. “I challenged them at half to step it up defensively. And they shot 26% in the second half. Because of defense. Because of rebounding.”

While RJ Davis’ scoring is likely going to earn him an ACC Player of the Year award at season’s end, and the Tar Heels get headlines from their explosive offense, the key to their success this season has been one of the top defenses in college basketball.

“Second half, you can talk about whatever you want to talk about,” Wake coach Steve Forbes said following the game, “but that’s where the game was decided — was us missing shots and them just getting out in defensive transition and getting easy baskets, then getting confidence, and the building went crazy.”

The Tar Heels’ defense might get overlooked because UNC doesn’t do the flashy things on defense — the things that show up in the box score. They only force turnovers on about one out of every six opponent possessions, a rate that ranks 283rd in the nation. And in their last two games, their defensive turnover rate was even worse than that — one in every 16 possessions at Boston College, and one in every 12 against Wake.

They also don’t block a ton of shots. Fewer than one in eight opposing shot attempts get swatted, a rate that is 55th in the nation — solid, but not near the best in the country.

Instead, the Tar Heels’ players just guard their man and keep him from making a basket.

“Why did we have problems scoring?” Forbes asked. “They’re an elite defensive team. We just couldn’t get by them. (Seth) Trimble, (RJ) Davis, (Cormac) Ryan, (Elliot) Cadeau, Ingram. Those guys can guard. They’re committed to it. Those guys are elite defenders. They have a better defensive efficiency than offensive efficiency. Credit to Coach Davis to get them to do that.”

The numbers verify Forbes’ claim. UNC is scoring almost 1.2 points per possession, which ranks No. 17 in the country in offensive efficiency. However, they’re allowing just 0.94 points per possession on defense, which ranks No. 7. And in their last 10 games, UNC has been even better, allowing just 0.86 points per possession, second-best in the nation over that span.

Last year, UNC ranked No. 44 in the country in defensive efficiency. It’s no coincidence that three of the five “elite defenders” on Forbes’ list are new to the team this year — the freshman Cadeau and transfers Ryan and Ingram. A fourth, Trimble, has seen his playing time increase in large part because of his impact on the defensive end.

“Seth is our best and most gifted on-ball, one-on-one defender,” Davis said. “His athleticism, his strength — he can pick up full court and make it hard to get the ball past half court. He can play on ball. He can get through screens off the ball. His defense is something that is needed every game. Even if someone scores, he has the ability to make them work hard to do it.”

His dedication to the defensive craft has rubbed off on the freshman point guard.

“It’s a good challenge for me,” Cadeau said. “One of the things I have been getting better at throughout the year is my defense.”

“Defensively, Elliot improves every day,” Davis agreed. “I told him, ‘You have to play defense before you play defense.’ At this level, you can’t start playing defense when your guy gets the ball. You have to know something is coming and be ready. Be in your stance, anticipating.”

It may not be easy or fun, but it’s necessary, and it’s something that this year’s Tar Heels have done as a group. At least, most of the time, they’ve done it. Every once in a while, they might forget.

And that’s when the “farts” start to fly.