North Carolina's Death Squad of Death -- Joey Sankey, Marcus Holman, Jimmy Bitter, Pat Foster, Davey Emala, Chad Tutton, Steve Pontrello, and all the rest of the mercenaries sent from the hills with rifles and a taste for blood -- deserves the ink that it gets: There may not be a program in the country with the depth and talent on the offensive end that the Heels have at their disposal. It's almost an afterthought that Carolina could lose a player of Nicky Galasso's caliber and not miss a beat. (Although, it does create a depth issue at attack if freshman Pat Kelly has trouble adapting to the college game.) And all of that is fine in the context of what Carolina brings on one end of the field (or on both ends, if you think about what Carolina's midfield is capable of doing in transition). It does, however, fail to define the Heels as a team and address the biggest issue in Carolina's recently underwhelming seasons: The Tar Heels' defense is ultimately going to determine just how far Carolina goes in 2013.
I don't ascribe to the notion that "defense wins championships"; I also don't believe that defense is meaningless. At the end of the day, the best teams are generally the ones with the strongest balance between offensive and defensive production; strength at both ends of the field create a completeness in a team, even if especially strong performances in one aspect of play can overshadow weaknesses in another area (for example, the 2012 iteration of Notre Dame). For the last two seasons -- years in which Chapel Hill has seen a roster of talent that only a few other programs can compare -- Carolina has put together defensive performances that have done a poor job at supporting some of the better offensive efforts in the country:
2011: Adjusted Offensive Efficiency -- 11th; Adjusted Defensive Efficiency -- 30th.
2012: Adjusted Offensive Efficiency -- 11th; Adjusted Defensive Efficiency -- 35th.
The result has been two campaigns in which the Heels have crashed out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round. Simply, the respect that Carolina's offense deserves has hidden the fact that the team's defense has been nothing more than average relative to the rest of Division I; the team's poll rankings -- which have been consistently higher than what was deserved (the Tar Heels' adjusted efficiency margin rankings were only 19th in 2011 and 22nd in 2012) -- have obfuscated exactly what Carolina was accomplishing on the field on a game-in and game-out (and even possession-by-possession) basis. Until the Heels address their defensive issue, the story of 2012 may be the story of 2013:
A lot is made of North Carolina's desire to shift defenses -- sometimes mid-possession -- from zone to man to "thing getting abused." It was that last defensive strategy that North Carolina seemed to excel at during major stretches of its season and it was the biggest reason that the Heels crashed out of the NCAA Tournament in the opening round. Despite playing only around 31 defensive possessions per 60 minutes of play (a strong mark considering the Heels played at a pace that finished 13th in the country), the lack of defensive posture exposure did not help Carolina all that much: Only five teams were more prone to ball-watching, yielding assisted goals all over the place, and the team's raw defensive shooting rate (30.22 percent) finished in the bottom third of the nation. The combination of Steven Rastivo having a difficult time with ball stopping (he held a 50.4 save percentage) and the Heels' field players failing to mark both on- and off-ball drove an adjusted defensive efficiency rate that ranked just 36th in the country. With such little actual defensive exposure and against a schedule ranked around 24th in opposing offenses faced, North Carolina should have performed much better in the defensive end. Alas, treachery does not always work within the structure of sensibility.
Even with the departures of Charlie McComas and Mark Staines, there is talent on the roster that is capable of reversing Carolina's defensive trend. Kieran McDonald and Jordan Smith are two strong anchors to build around, both upperclassmen that started last season for the Heels. Ryan Kilpatrick, Logan Corey, and Matt Shannon provide pole support along with Ryan Creighton at the short-stick position. Throw in Rastivo having another year of seasoning under his belt and there is potential here -- for the first time in a while -- that Carolina could finally have a defensive unit sufficient to complement its offense.
The Heels -- due to their conference affiliation and elite national status -- will stare down a bunch of opposing offenses that are more than capable of tearing the Heels to shreds if Chris Feifs can't get his unit to perform at a high level, but this is still a unit with the ability to perform at a high level in 2013. The only question is if it will.