Months have passed, but the magnitude of North Carolina’s run to the national title game sure hasn’t. And man, did the Tar Heels cram a lot into a single postseason.
The Iron Five. Spoiling Mike Krzyzewski’s sendoff at Duke, and — more significantly — ending his career weeks later in the Final Four. The bonkers Baylor game, Caleb Love’s second-half against UCLA, Armando Bacot’s double-double streak, a 15-point halftime lead in the national championship game … and that’s only hitting the highlights.
But you know what usually doesn’t make that list? Defense.
Which is understandable. Defense isn’t sexy, especially compared to Hubert Davis’ high-octane offense. It’s tougher to quantify. Fewer fireworks, too, save the occasional block or steal in transition. And then, the obvious — that for most of last season, it wasn’t something Davis’ squad was particularly stellar at.
Until the postseason, that is. Just consider these splits, between UNC’s first 31 regular-season games and its eight in the postseason:
• UNC allowed 6.6 fewer points per game in the postseason, when its opponents shot 5 percent worse from the field and 5.6 percent worse from 3.
• Per BartTorvik, UNC posted a sub-85 defensive efficiency margin in five of its eight postseason games, matching the number of times that occurred over a 31-game regular season.
• Opponents averaged better than one point per possession (PPP) in 10 of UNC’s first 31 games, and the Heels were 2-8 in those games. But in their final eight postseason games, only one opponent — Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament — posted better than one PPP.
So what changed?
A lot. That’s the only way to explain a script flip from a team that allowed back-to-back 20-point blowouts as late as January. UNC finished the year with KenPom’s No. 35 adjusted defensive efficiency after being outside the top 100 in December — a pretty steep, and significant, jump. I wanted to know why — and, perhaps of more interest to fans, how sustainable that postseason defense is in 2022-23. So I rewatched some or all of 11 games from last season (four postseason, seven regular season), and found a few things: true technical changes, in terms of North Carolina’s defensive coverages; better team defense, in accordance with Davis shortening his rotation; and individual growth from key players, most of whom are back this season.
Per usual, the tape tells all.
But before improvement, there’s bottoming out.
And in the case of UNC’s defense, that actually came about a month before the postseason: in a home loss to Duke on Feb. 5. The 87-67 loss was the embodiment of UNC’s dismal defense, almost from the opening tip:
In that clip, UNC played the same drop coverage it had from the season’s onset. Bacot stays below the screener, eventual No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero, while R.J. Davis chases Duke point guard Jeremy Roach over the top of the screen. But one of the inherent flaws to drop coverage — which UNC’s opponents took advantage of most of last season — is its susceptibility to pick-and-pop threats. Banchero, who made 33.8 percent of his 3s last season, qualifies … especially when he has as much space and time to shoot as he did here. With Bacot dropping back to prevent Roach’s driving lane, it opens up a chasm of space for Banchero behind the 3-point line. There’s just no way Bacot, with his limited speed, can make up the ground.
Understandably, North Carolina wanted to limit those pick-and-pop actions. But look what happens when it did, from later in the game:
It’s almost the exact same setup, except this possession, Leaky Black doesn’t drop nearly as far as Bacot — and he cheats over to Banchero’s side from the time Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. turns the screen. Accordingly, Moore doesn’t pass to Banchero — mission accomplished — but Black doesn’t stunt and recover, leaving Moore with a wide-open lane. He missed the layup attempt, but with both Bacot and Brady Manek collapsing on him, he had a clear dump-off to center Mark Williams on the left side of the basket (or a kick-out 3 to A.J. Griffin, had he been more ambitious).
It wasn’t just that game, though. UNC’s ball screen defense was a huge issue most of the regular season. Even the Tar Heels’ seemingly-good ideas sprung leaks. Hubert Davis wanted his team to “ice” side ball screens last season, a common defensive tactic for restricting offense to one side of the floor and preventing drives down the middle. (“Icing” a ball screen is when the ballhandler’s defender positions himself parallel to the sideline and in front of the screener, preventing the ballhandler from using the screen.) But to do that, two things have to happen: the screener’s defender has to cut off the driving lane, and the ballhandler’s defender has to contest from behind. In this sequence against Kentucky, neither of those things happened:
The biggest issue here is Bacot’s positioning. He doesn’t have the speed to compete with Kentucky guard Sahvir Wheeler, so he needs to drop deeper to prevent the drive — something that’s acceptable against Wheeler, who only shot 44.1 percent overall last season and 30.8 percent from 3. Instead, Bacot is stationed above the free-throw line when Wheeler initiates the action, leaving acres of space and a clear line to the basket behind him.
Sometimes, UNC’s defenders also just didn’t execute their assignments in ball-screen coverage. Caleb Love especially struggled with this. Here, Love doesn’t chase Williams over the screen or contest from behind:
And here, he just loses track of Williams:
And here, although it’s a creative inverted ball screen with 6-foot-9 big Keve Aluma driving, Love points to the driver … but doesn’t otherwise communicate or switch. It doesn’t help that Manek, who could stunt and recover, doesn’t see Aluma’s drive until the big man is already in the paint:
Speaking of Manek, much of UNC’s ball-screen defense was designed with his limited foot speed in mind. Manek may be an outstanding offensive player, but defensively, you almost have to hide him. Here, against National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, the Tar Heels’ drop coverage works mostly as intended, with Manek cutting off Wheeler’s driving lane — until Manek can’t close out nearly fast enough on Tshiebwe, giving up a wide-open jumper:
Davis got so frustrated at one point that he even went to zone, a defensive coverage UNC only played for 12 possessions all season, per Synergy. You can see why:
Clearly, adjustments needed to be made. And with both Dawson Garcia and Anthony Harris out for the season by the time of the Duke game, that’s exactly what happened.
Davis and his staff, rather than sinking Manek and Bacot into drop coverage to hide their limited foot speed, decided around that time to switch up how they defended ball screens. The results are clear; just compare those clips from the first Duke game to the second meeting, in UNC’s regular-season finale at Cameron Indoor:
UNC hedges this ball screen instead, rather than dropping Manek into coverage and giving up a drive to Trevor Keels. (“Hedging” a ball screen is when the screener’s defender steps outside the ball screen and shows the numbers on the front of his jersey to the ballhandler, which pushes the ballhandler either backwards or to the side.) Manek hedges here, and you can see as soon as he does, Keels looks for the quick pass to Banchero. Manek keeps his arms up, though, eliminating Keels’ passing lane and preventing Banchero from getting a straight-line drive to the hoop. Banchero gets the ball eventually, but by that point, Manek is recovered and in position, and the shot clock has dwindled to 10 seconds.
It’s the same idea here against UCLA, but this time, because Manek keeps his arms out on recovery, UNC actually comes away with the steal:
This isn’t to say that UNC abandoned drop coverage, because it still primarily relied on it. The Tar Heels just got better at it, playing Bacot level with the screener when he drops. This next clip is one of the more impressive defensive sequences North Carolina had in the regular season:
First, Love plays excellent help defense, stunting hard off his man to prevent deeper dribble penetration. Keels, the Duke driver, is forced to abruptly stop, pivot, and kick back out to teammate Moore. Now watch how well Love reads Moore. When Moore dribbles backward toward halfcourt, Love sneaks a peek over his shoulder — when he can afford to — and sees Mark Williams running up to set a screen. He immediately adjusts his positioning to ice the incoming screen, which he does effectively. Williams then rolls to the basket, but Bacot stays level with him to cut off any potential pass, while Love does what he’s supposed to and chases Moore over the screen. By the time Moore hits the elbow, he’s stuck: Love is in perfect position to contest a shot from behind, while Bacot cuts off both the straight-line drive and the dump-off to Williams with his positioning. Bacot pokes at the ball, seeing R.J. Davis there to recover it, and UNC gets a much-needed steal midway through the second half. It’s just terrific all the way around.
It’s no coincidence that UNC’s defense improved when Davis went to the Iron Five. As he said during the season, he played the people he trusted most — and that sentiment also reflected in more defensive leeway. Against Kansas in the national title game, look how Bacot and Manek — previously hidden away to prevent possible exposure — seamlessly switch, and how Bacot stays with 6-foot-8 wing Jalen Wilson to prevent the layup:
It should also be noted that, while diversifying and improving coverages helped, the Tar Heels also just played better team defense once the rotation shortened. Players got a natural feel for one another and started trusting each other to help more often. This isn’t an example of ball screen coverage, but just general help defense. In the national title game, future first-rounder Christian Braun makes a pretty post-entry pass to David McCormack, which theoretically should’ve been good for a reverse layup. Instead? Watch how R.J. Davis reads the pass and his defender simultaneously, making the decision to hard help on McCormack. Davis is there as soon as the big man lands, and by the time McCormack pivots, Bacot has regained his positioning and cut off any scoring angles. McCormack is forced to pivot again — freeing up Davis to recover to his man — and by virtue of Bacot maintaining his positioning, McCormack eventually travels:
Those are team plays UNC just wasn’t making earlier in the season. But the combination of trust, familiarity and diversified (and improved) coverages made a big difference in the Tar Heels’ defensive strides. So too did individual growth from key players.
Any conversation about UNC’s individual defenders starts with Black, a National Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season. At 6-foot-8, Black has ideal length to reasonably guard any position, making him a Swiss Army knife for Davis. Per HoopLens, in the regular season, Black was the team’s best individual defender on a PPP-allowed basis, conceding just 0.84 PPP to opponents.
While Black isn’t perfect — he can lose track of his man at times, and occasionally struggles to fight through screens — he took his defensive game to another level in the postseason. It’s really his versatility that’s so valuable. Against Virginia in the ACC tournament, Davis opted to put Black on Virginia’s 5-foot-10 point guard Kehei Clark, who initiates almost all of the Cavaliers’ offense. Not even five minutes into the game, it was clear Clark wasn’t gonna have a fun day:
Clark only scored seven points on 3-of-9 shooting, in addition to three turnovers. It was an unconventional assignment for Black, who usually defends an opponent’s best wing or scoring guard, but he was just as effective throughout the postseason. For his size, Black has an ideal combination of speed and quickness, which lets him stick with opponents step-for-step on drives and shots:
I was also impressed watching how Black fought through screens in tough situations. Here against Baylor, he does so twice in critical situations, preventing scores on both possessions. His recovery at the end of overtime was particularly impressive:
Black opted to return for his super senior year, giving Davis his defensive stopper. But other Tar Heels stepped up, too, and should hopefully be able to alleviate some of Black’s defensive burden.
Chief among those players is Puff Johnson, who returned midseason from various injuries and worked his way into becoming the team’s sixth man by March. Johnson posted the highest PPP differential on the team between the regular-season and postseason, per HoopLens, allowing .21 PPP fewer in March and April than he did in the regular-season.
But when Johnson first returned in mid-January? Yikes. It took a while for him to get back up to speed, both mentally and physically. Here, he just flat-out misses the switch:
And here, he doesn’t fight through the ball screen to contest a shot:
As he regained his conditioning, though, Johnson’s constant effort and length proved more and more valuable defensively. Against UCLA’s wing tandem of Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang, look at how much stronger Johnson’s base is, and how he uses his length — Johnson is listed at 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds — to disrupt two short shot attempts:
Same goes for the national championship game, when Johnson had a breakout performance offensively. That — and him getting sick on the court — attracted most of the headlines, but his defensive aptitude was key in a game where both Manek and Bacot were injured. Another example of him using his length in conjunction with a stronger base:
Another encouraging sign with Johnson, who should once again be UNC’s sixth man this season, is his rebounding. Per KenPom, Johnson had the third-best offensive rebounding rate on the team last season (behind Bacot and Garcia) — and as is clear in this next clip, his understanding of positioning comes up big even when he’s not getting the board. It’s no small feat to box out UCLA’s 6-foot-9, 225-pound Cody Riley, but Johnson does so here and allows Bacot to corral the rebound:
Johnson is a key piece of North Carolina’s improved depth this season, and that’s especially true on the defensive end. While Northwestern transfer Pete Nance should start at the four, he’ll moonlight at center when Bacot sits — and Johnson is an ideal backup four given his comfort defending bigger, stronger forwards. He’s capable against quicker wings, but less so because he doesn’t quite have the foot speed to keep up with their sudden movements. Imagine how much better he can be after his first healthy summer in Chapel Hill.
The last individual I wanted to spotlight, naturally, is UNC’s best player: Bacot. And while most of his acclaim comes from his offensive and rebounding prowess, he also became a much more intelligent defender by the time the postseason arrived.
Look at him against Purdue, for instance, which featured arguably the nation’s best frontcourt rotation in Trevion Williams and Zach Edey. Because those two were such a unique combination — and because Edey is such a physical freak at 7-foot-4 and 285 pounds — the Purdue game isn’t the most representative for assessing Bacot’s defense, but it’s hard to ignore his poor positioning here. There’s almost no resistance at all before, and after, Edey receives the ball:
Same deal here, where it takes Edey all of two (gigantic) steps to get Bacot unbalanced. By the time Edey lands after catching the pass, he’s already in the circle — which, for someone his size, is an automatic bucket:
Those positioning issues took a while to resolve. Here, Bacot initially gets good position against Tshiebwe, but then quickly relinquishes it after two shot fakes. Notice how Bacot is playing off his toes, and jumps for the second fake as much out of anticipation as because he’s losing his balance:
Now compare those clips to Bacot in the national championship game. His strength and positioning, even on a bum ankle, are substantially better than during the regular season — and it’s not like he’s playing a nobody, either; McCormack was named to the All-NCAA Tournament team, and still posted 15 points and 10 rebounds in the championship.
That’s rock solid interior defense. Bacot isn’t lunging or leaping; he’s maintaining pressure on McCormack without fouling, and he understands spatially where he is in relation to the basket. Bacot will still be vulnerable at times next season in the open court, but his strides individually and within a team concept bode well for UNC out of the gate.
Film study confirms what the advanced metrics say about UNC’s defense in the regular season versus the postseason. Individually, multiple players took strides, which coincided with Davis cutting his lineup down. The same applies within a team concept, where the Iron Five learned to trust and read one another, so they could help and stunt more effectively. And of course, diversifying (and improving) the team’s ball screen coverages went a long way toward the march to the national title.
But to get back to that point this season — and to finish the job — the Tar Heels will have to carry those improvements over. All are possible, and new additions should make that task less daunting. Nance should be an upgrade over Manek, and the team’s top-rated freshman, guard Seth Trimble, should make an immediate difference, too. (I wouldn’t be shocked if Trimble is one of the team’s better on-ball defenders in terms of applying pressure.) The challenge, on the other hand, will be integrating more depth than the team had last season. Will eight or nine players be able to match the cohesion the Iron Five had by the postseason?
Only time will tell. But the postseason was proof Davis can coach defense as well as offense — and he’ll need to once again for the Tar Heels to hang another national championship banner.
(Photo of Armando Bacot (left) and Leaky Black tying up Kansas’ Jalen Wilson: Stephen Lew / USA Today)