I harped on it and harped on it and harped on it last year and only a select few actually listened: North Carolina was only an above-average team in 2012 -- one of the better twenty teams in the country, but not among the national elite -- and the ceiling that kept them from really achieving greatness was due to the team's overall defensive mess.
This season, though, the issue appears to have finally permeated the meat of the national consciousness, as Matt Forman of Lacrosse Magazine, an underrated publication that you all should read on a regular basis, addressed the issue in his recent contribution to the site's fall ball countdown series. Forman pulled a lot of material from Carolina head coach Joe Breschi, but from the tone of the piece, I'm not sold that the Heels have really established what they want to do on the defensive end of the field in 2013 or whether the staff has a great idea of what their defense is going to look like:
But the Heels' Achilles, in recent years, has been on the defensive end, as they allowed 9.88 goals per game in 2012 — only Colgate, Stony Brook and Canisius, among NCAA tournament teams, allowed more.
To be kind, coach Joe Breschi said: "Defensively, we were inconsistent at best last year."
It's a trend Breschi wants to stop.
"We think we're going to score goals," he said. "But we've got to take care of business at the defensive end. We've really got to focus on our defense."
* * * * *
"We've got to find a good, sound identity for who we are, what we want to do, and how we want to get there. We've had good leadership, but we need great leadership," Breschi said. "We didn't have great leadership on the field, compared to Marcus Holman on the offensive end, controlling the tempo and the strings, plugging guys in different directions and organizing. We need that — a voice — at the defensive end.
* * * * *
The wheels are turning. Last week, LaxMagazine.com caught up with Breschi, in advance of the Capital Lacrosse Invitational, which on Sunday featured the Tar Heels, Penn State, Cornell and Johns Hopkins in scrimmages. We asked: What were the reasons for Carolina's defensive inconsistency last year?
"We didn't handle adversity as well as we should have, because we didn't have great leadership," he said. "And that allowed for the inconsistency, because we didn't have that guy who was in the middle.
"Scheme wise, when we played our style and attacked it, I think we did some really good things. Some games were really good. But if you don't have that leadership out there on the field — and they're all really good kids who play hard — you don't respond and make the next play. It starts between the pipes and works its way out to the defensive front, with the d-middies and the poles. It's a whole group."
The concept of leadership breeding consistency and effort isn't off-base, nor is it so intangible that it's difficult to realize tangible results. Former Loyola and Maryland head coach Dave Cottle obviously understands this, and he hinted at this void in Carolina's construct in a tweet this weekend while watching the Heels scrimmage in the Boiardi event:
Carolina has talent but until they start playing tougher when the ball is on the ground and it kills them to be scored on it will not change— Dave Cottle (@CoachCottle) October 8, 2012
I'm just a little shocked that it has taken this long for people to start recognizing this as Carolina's biggest issue; that all the talent that Breschi has stockpiled down in Chapel Hill is limited by the performance of the team's overall defensive production. It's not that the Heels don't have defensive talent to move production in the right direction; it's that the execution -- consistent execution-- has been lacking. I outlined some of things that worry me about Carolina going into 2013 (here and here), but I'll highlight, again, some of the bigger items:
- It's not that Carolina gave up 9.88 goals per game in 2012 that is necessarily an issue for me. Hell, only 13 teams played more possessions per 60 minutes of play last year than the Tar Heels. At that kind of pace, it's expected that Carolina is going to have larger numbers in both the goals-per-game and goals-allowed-per-game metrics (which are silly metrics). What concerns me is the rate at which Carolina gave up goals on a per-possession basis: In that measure, the Heels were only 35th in the country (on an adjusted basis), giving up about 31 goals per 100 defensive possessions. That's miserable. The big thing that saved Carolina last year was that no team dominated possession margin quite like the Tar Heels -- they played about six more offensive possessions per game than their opponents in 2012 -- and yet the relative defensive exposure mitigation still couldn't push the Heels into an overall efficiency position among the national elite. The offensive flood simply couldn't work in Carolina's favor because everything was leaking on the back-end from an efficiency standpoint.
- We can talk all day about effort on ground balls and things like that, but what killed Carolina in 2012 -- and given some of the holes that the Heels need to plug on the defense in 2013, could be an issue again next season -- was the defensive unit's overall inability to work cohesively and limit great opportunities from opponents. Only five teams were more prone to ball-watching last season than the Heels, 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. This is a combination of performance out of Steven Rastivo and getting the unit in front of him to attack and limit preferential chances. This goes to Breschi's comments about playing within the scheme and executing -- consistently -- within it. If Carolina can limit Rastivo's exposure to preferential shots, and Rastivo can respond, the Heels end up in a much stronger position. Rastivo wasn't stunning in 2012, but it wasn't all his fault. Getting great play between the pipes is obviously important, but it's also what Rastivo is forced to stop while standing between the pipes that dictates what Carolina is capable of accomplishing.
I don't know where North Carolina goes from here, but I'm glad that this issue has finally bubbled up to the surface for discussion.