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Lucas: Defensive Balance

Lucas: Defensive Balance

By Adam Lucas

On multiple occasions this year, Roy Williams has mentioned that the hardest team to defend is a squad with five capable scorers on the floor at one time. That offensive balance presents matchup problems, and if any one shooter is having an off day, another assumes the scoring load. And when they're all hitting--like the 2009 Tar Heels, with Wayne Ellington shooting and Tyler Hansbrough posting up and Ty Lawson and Danny Green slashing--it's almost impossible to defend.

But Williams has likewise often said he feels his team should be able to defend a squad that has one overwhelmingly primary scorer. A team like, say, this year's Virginia Tech club, which features Erick Green, who came into Saturday afternoon's contest averaging a nation-leading 25.5 points per game. It marked the first time ever that the nation's leading scorer had played a game in the Smith Center, and was the first time the nation's leading scorer had come to Chapel Hill since South Carolina's Grady Wallace during the 1956-57 season.

Carolina's defensive philosophy against Green bore a striking resemblance to the types of offensive teams Williams prefers: multiple players contributing and a seemingly constant rotation of fresh bodies on the way to a 72-60 overtime win.

"Dexter, Reggie, Leslie and Marcus, all four of those guys worked really hard against Erick Green," Williams said. "He is such a load...We tried to keep fresh guys on him."

It was an impressive example of sharing the defensive responsibilities. Strickland guarded Green for 22 halfcourt possessions (Green was 1-for-5 against him). McDonald had 19 defensive halfcourt possessions against Green and limited him to 1-for-7. Paige drew the assignment on 10 possessions and saw Green go 1-for-1. Bullock actually had the fewest possessions against Green, with just nine, but he held him to 0-for-3, and also had the game's signature defensive stretch when he held the Hokie scoreless over the final two minutes, including the potential game-winning possession at the buzzer.

Green's only real offensive success came in transition, when he was able to fire a quick shot before the defense was set. Nine of his 16 points came on a quick trigger in transition.

His struggles in the halfcourt speak to both Carolina's excellent preparation--credit C.B. McGrath for a solid scouting report that left the Tar Heels looking very prepared for several favorite Hokie sets--and execution.

"We've really been watching film on him," said McDonald, who returned from a six-game absence with an unexpectedly solid defensive performance. "He's very quick, and his one-on-one skills are incredible. But I thought everyone who guarded him did a great job of anticipating his moves and contesting the shot, getting a hand up without fouling."

In fact, the Tar Heels didn't foul at all. On a day when, as Williams said, "(Green) missed some shots he'd normally make," Green could have found another way to score--at the free throw line, where he's an 80.1 percent shooter. But he didn't shoot a single free throw against the Tar Heels, especially impressive considering that he came into the day averaging a startling 11.7 free throw attempts per game in ACC play.

Like a wily baseball manager--appropriate considering a quartet of Tar Heel major leaguers, including Adam Greenberg, Luke Putkonen, Matt Harvey and Tim Federowicz were seated on the front row--Williams mixed and matched his defenders depending on the situation. Paige drew the early assignment, then gave way to Strickland, who had the majority of the first-half defensive responsibility. Strickland had the early duties in the second half, but then handed Green over to McDonald, who started the stretch when the Tar Heels held Green without a point from the 16:31 mark of the second half to 1:30 left in overtime--20 minutes and one second without a basket for the nation's leading scorer.

Bullock will get the headlines, because he played those noticeable final two minutes of the second half on Green. But on a day when even one more Green basket in regulation could have handed the Hokies an upset, the story was much more about the balance of having four players who all played a major defensive role. On this day, with Green jacking up 21 shots, it's unlikely that just one Tar Heel could have slowed him down. Instead, they were the perfect illustration of those Williams offensive favorites that get contributions from everyone on the roster.

"It's tough, because on defense we had to run around screens, and then when we were on offense we have to hurry up and get down the floor," Strickland said. "That's why we had the rotation going."

Williams's confidence in his depth was evident late in the second half. Coming out of a timeout with 3:16 to play and a 53-53 tie, Virginia Tech had the opportunity to set up any play they wanted, which almost everyone knew would go to Green.

Likewise, Williams had the chance to put any defender on his roster on Green for what at that point was the biggest possession of the game. Maybe Bullock? Perhaps Strickland? Williams chose McDonald. The junior, blowing on his hands like a quarterback playing at Lambeau Field as Green brought the ball into the frontcourt, hung tough. He first trailed Green around two screens, then communicated and worked perfectly with Paige to thwart a high screen, and finally forced Green to give the ball up to Cadarian Raines well out of scoring position, where he missed.

"It's about wanting to play defense," said McDonald. "Coach Williams told us that we were all going to have to guard him, and that it was about a will to have that want-to."

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.