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March 18, 2012

Defense, rebounding key

Creighton is one of only three teams in the nation that shoots 50 percent or better from the field as a unit.

In fact, the Bluejays led the country in field-goal percentage at 50.7 percent.

This is where Carolina's work at becoming a powerful defensive and rebounding club will become a critical factor.

The top-seeded Tar Heels (30-5) will play the eighth-seeded Bluejays (29-5) at 5:15 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Creighton's trademark is its 3-point shooting. The BlueJays average 8.2 made per game, slightly more than Duke at 8.1.

"This team is very similar to Duke," UNC sophomore Harrison Barnes said. "You got to run them off the 3 point line, got to make them beat you in other ways. And they're very well coached, and they play very well together. So this is going to be definitely one of our hardest games in terms of all around complete basketball teams."

If there is a blueprint, it would be the Tar Heels' 88-70 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the final regular-season game of the season. Carolina worked hard take away Duke's 3-point shooting that night, which meant the Blue Devils had to deal with UNC's height on the interior.

"They shoot the ball," UNC sophomore Kendall Marshall said. "You may not take away all their attempts, but you want to make it as tough as possible. If the degree of difficulty is a lot harder, then there's a better chance the ball's not going to go in."

Just as important, if not more so, is the attitude Carolina played with in that victory at Duke. At no point in this season have the Tar Heels performed with such confidence and ferocity. If they bring those attributes today, execution of offensive and defensive principles are almost sure to follow.

"The main thing you can take away from that game is the chip on our shoulder that we came out and played with, the intensity," Marshall said. "We were, like Harrison said, running them off the 3-point line and that's huge for us to be successful.

"Obviously, defensively Duke and Creighton aren't very similar. But on the offensive end, they share some things that they like to do: the pick and pop fours, very unselfish, things like that. So we just want to translate what we learned from the Duke game into this game."

Carolina fans seem to be in a constant state of fear about other teams shooting 3-pointers, but what so many people fail to understand is that the underlying structure of Carolina basketball, as created by Dean Smith and taught in a slightly different way by Roy Williams, is to trade outside shots attempts for shots by Carolina's big men near the basket.

This does not mean Williams wants to allow opponents to run down the floor and shoot wide-open 3s. He does not. But he wants to make sure his team looks inside for its shots before swinging the ball to the perimeter for jumpers.

This particular UNC team may miss an uncommon number of shots within three feet of the basket, but those are exactly the places from which Williams wants his team shooting. The odds still favor Carolina making more of those than jump shots.

The other factor in defending the 3 is the Tar Heels' running game. For example, if Carolina can hold Creighton to one shot fairly regularly and then race down the court for easy buckets, keep the tempo at a high rate, tired legs will do as much to defend Creighton's jump shots in the final 10 minutes of the game as Reggie Bullock's long arms and tenacious defense.

This is also where rebounding is critical and cannot be separated from defense. A team's defensive time on the floor is not completed until it rebounds the ball or the other team scores. Preferably it will end with a miss and a rebound.

The Tar Heels do an excellent job of rebounding as a rule, but it has slipped some of late. Part of that is the absence of John Henson, who has been out since falling on his left hand and injuring his wrist in the first game of the NCAA Tournament against Maryland.

Henson averages 10.1 rebounds per game, and often gets as many as 15 or more. When he and 7-foot Tyler Zeller are in the game together, the difference in rebounding between UNC and the opposition can be astounding.

Williams continued to say he did not know whether Henson would play this afternoon or not, but from the comments Williams made after UNC's game against Vermont, it sounds as if Henson will return to the lineup just in time to help disrupt Creighton's offense.

"He can catch the ball now," Williams said. "He can palm the ball now."

There was still enough discomfort with some other areas that Williams chose to hold Henson out of Friday's 77-58 victory against Vermont.

But it is clear UNC's defense is not the same without the ACC defensive player of the year.

"John will help us out a lot," Marshall said. "He brings another dimension on both sides of the court. I think that to be able to throw him at Doug [McDermott] with his length, it will make it a lot harder [for McDermott].

McDermott, a high-school teammate of Barnes, is the third-leading scorer in the nation at 23 points per game and was named an All-American by at least one group.


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