KANSAS CITY, MO. – North Carolina revolutionized itself in a number of ways since switching to its smaller lineup. Most notably, the floor is more open on offense, allowing for more drives, more motion and, as a result, more made shots.
Joel James continues to improve and is a major presence in the paint, defensively.
But, quietly, the Tar Heels have become a much-improved defensive unit. That’s especially true in the turnover department. In the 11 games since going small, UNC has forced at least 15 turnovers in seven of them.
It all goes back to a different approach with the new lineup. While coach Roy Williams’ teams traditionally help on defense and prioritize protecting the rim, a smaller, quicker team can extend the defense, ramp up the pressure and force the issue.
“We get to press a little bit and try to make some more things happen in the full court,” freshman point guard Marcus Paige said. “We have quicker guys out there who can cover more ground.”
The uptick in offense relates back to a more-tenacious defensive mindset the Tar Heels have acquired. With four guards on the court, UNC is able to rush into more traps that lead to errant passes and mid-court turnovers. Even without traps, it’s more difficult to make entry passes when P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo can use their athleticism to snatch passes into the post.
And, once those turnovers start happening, the Tar Heels become lethal in transition. If not scoring a fast-break bucket, one of UNC’s shooters is often left open on the secondary break.
Senior guard Dexter Strickland, who has been heralded for his defensive play the past four years, said UNC’s defensive mindset since going small stems from the desire to turn around a previously woeful season.
The Tar Heels’ newfound ability to force turnovers could come especially handy against Villanova in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats ranked dead-last in the 15-team Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio, committing 110 more turnovers than assists throughout the season.
That’s something that was made clear on UNC’s scouting report, and the Tar Heels are looking to capitalize on it early.
“We’re going to try to pressure them as much as possible and force some turnovers,” Paige said. “They’re actually good at forcing turnovers, too, so they turn it over quite a bit, and they force some turnovers. If we can limit ours and pressure them the way we want to and the way we’ve been working on, then we should be all right.”
Strickland, who thrives in the open court, is particularly licking his chops for the opportunities that arise should Villanova become careless with the ball.
“Absolutely,” Strickland said when asked if he plans on cranking up the pressure a bit more than usual. “I think we’re going to take advantage of it and get fast breaks ... We’re a running team, and we do a good job running the floor and stuff like that, so I think we’ll use that to our advantage.”
The Tar Heels have flashed a renewed energy since going small. That intensity and emotion is the foundation of a stingy team – one that works hard on defense to make it easy on offense.
UNC’s matchup against Villanova has the potential to play right into the Tar Heels’ hands. Now, as McAdoo says, it’s all about executing in the turnover battle to deliver win No. 700 to Williams.
“If we just go out there and run through our stuff and run it well and not allow the pressure and the physicality take us out of it, then we should be fine,” McAdoo said. “We can’t let them want it more than us, especially at this stage.”