Commentary

Can the Tar Heels' defense hold up in the Final Four?

Originally Published: April 1, 2008
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

North Carolina enters the Final Four with the best offense (nominally) and the worst defense (by a decent margin) of any team left. While all four remaining teams finished the season in the top seven (yes, even UCLA) in adjusted offensive efficiency, Carolina (19th overall) is far outstripped on the defensive end, where the other three all finished in the nation's top five.

Given the caliber of the opponents left, however, we can't rely on the overall numbers. The Tar Heels haven't played anyone this good all season. We can get some hints, though, from their games against their best opponents.

What we learned from games against comparable foes
As for overall talent, depth and statistical comparability, the best comparables to the Final Four teams are Clemson, Duke and Louisville -- and the Tar Heels didn't have a real easy time in any of those six games, even though they went 5-1. A big-picture look at all of UNC's RPI top-50 games shows a couple of interesting trends.

UNC's Big Picture

  Tempo Offense PPP Defense PPP
Season Average 75.2 1.18 0.95
RPI Top 50 Average 73.5 1.11 0.95
RPI Top 50 Median 73.0 1.03 0.98
Tempo is the amount of possessions per game. PPP is points per possession.

The Heels were more or less able to play at their preferred pace, no matter who they played. The surprising thing here is that the Heels' offense seems to stagnate a little against the better opponents, not their often-maligned defense. In 13 games against top-50 opponents, Carolina's median offensive performance isn't considerably better than the national average for the season (1.00 points per possession).

While the overall defensive numbers look good, six of the Heels' last nine top-50 opponents have posted effective field-goal percentages (a statistic that adjusts for 3-pointers) of at least 50 percent. UNC compensates for its relatively weak field-goal defense with outstanding work on its defensive glass and by not putting teams on the free-throw line, but a team like Kansas has enough weapons to make Carolina pay.

What we learned from their losses/close calls
Despite Tyrese Rice's 46-point explosion, it's rarely a one-man show that troubles the Heels. Rather, teams with balanced scoring and strong frontcourts seemed to give Carolina the most trouble this season, which might be good news for Kansas (if its frontcourt guys can awaken).

In Maryland's win at the Dean Dome, the Terps had four players in double figures and James Gist had a big day.

Clemson, led in part by James Mays and Trevor Booker, had a total of nine players in double figures in its two overtime losses.

Georgia Tech had four in double figures, including forwards Jeremis Smith, Zach Peacock and Gani Lawal, and three more with at least seven points.

In the Heels' first full game after Ty Lawson hurt his ankle at Florida State, Duke had six double-figure scorers at UNC. Earlier, when UNC was without Lawson for most of the game, BYU's Trent Plaisted and Jonathan Tavernari combined for 42 in a close game in Vegas.

Most often, when the Heels got into trouble this season, it was because their defense didn't hold up. Non-NCAA tournament teams such as Maryland, Georgia Tech, Virginia and BC all had big games offensively. Carolina has shown it can defend in spots (down the stretch against Duke and Louisville, for example), but this NCAA tournament run has mostly been fueled by exceedingly good offense.

Trends of note
• UNC finished first in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. The past three national champs (Florida, Florida, UNC) finished either first or second in that category.
• The Heels finished 121st in 2-point FG percentage defense, which is the worst mark of any team in the past five Final Fours.
• Carolina has scored at least 1.2 points per possession in four of its past seven games, which is incredibly good in league tournament and NCAA tournament play (even with Mount St. Mary's thrown in).

Closing thoughts
When Kansas is going well offensively, the Jayhawks are extremely efficient scorers from inside the arc and out. Carolina defends the perimeter fairly well, but definitely can be had at times from inside the arc. Which version of Kansas' frontcourt shows up and how well Carolina can stop Kansas from scoring easy baskets in both the half-court and transition games will be a huge key to the semifinal. Defensively, Kansas has the length and bodies to throw at Tyler Hansbrough, but does it have the skill and the will to stop him? Few do. With the way Tar Heel point guard Ty Lawson has been playing, UNC could have an advantage there offensively. Also, watch for a guy like Danny Green. When KU has been hurt this season, a lot of the damage has come from supporting cast players like K-State's Jacob Pullen and Texas' Damion James. Carolina has a big edge in experience in the coaching matchup, although you wonder if getting past the Elite Eight round will allow the better KU (and Bill Self) to reappear after the shaky Davidson game.

[Editor's note: Season stats and rankings courtesy of kenpom.com]

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.