The Tar Heels Have No Interest in Defense (and Other Observations From North Carolina-Kentucky)
Top-ranked Kentucky and no. 5 North Carolina played the most anticipated college basketball contest of the young season Saturday and delivered a game that more than lived up to its hype. Kentucky came out with the one-point, 73-72 win thanks to Anthony Davis’ block on what would’ve been the game-winning shot from Carolina’s John Henson. With as many as 12 potential first-round draft picks playing in this game, there was certainly enough to keep viewers entertained. But here are the three things I couldn’t help but notice while I watched:
1. North Carolina has no interest in playing any resemblance of defense whatsoever
For most of Saturday’s game, it seemed as though North Carolina coach Roy Williams told his guys to just stand there on defense until the Kentucky player they were matched up with got the ball. With the exception of Henson coming over from the weak side to try to block shots every now and then, the Tar Heels’ off-ball defense was nonexistent to the point where if you would’ve paused the game during any Kentucky possession, there was a good chance you would’ve found four North Carolina players standing straight up with locked knees. From what I could tell, there was no communication, no fighting through screens, no playing passing lanes, and really no concept of help-side defense at all.
And honestly, the on-ball defense wasn’t much better. Sure, a North Carolina player would actually get in a stance when the guy he was guarding got the ball. But there was virtually no ball pressure at any point in the game. (I know Kentucky’s guards are ultra-athletic and the knock on them is that they can’t shoot all that well, but sagging five feet off of a ball handler should never be an acceptable defensive strategy. Plus, who knows — if North Carolina would’ve pressured Kentucky’s freshmen guards, maybe it could’ve forced them into a bunch of turnovers and bad shots.) And, most of the time, the guys guarding the ball had their hands below their waists. It looked like Carolina’s guys weren’t playing defense in the biggest college basketball game of the year, but were instead trying to figure out the most effective posture for taking a shit in the woods.
Of course, this isn’t really shocking news to anyone who has watched Williams’ Carolina teams. It’s common knowledge that he subscribes to the belief that the best defense is a good offense. Considering all the talent North Carolina has on offense, this isn’t exactly a terrible idea; there’s no doubt that over the years, it’s certainly worked out more often than it has bitten the Tar Heels in the ass. But I still don’t see how North Carolina can win a national title playing the same defense it played Saturday. The fan in me loves Carolina’s brand of basketball because it’s exciting and assures me that the big games the Tar Heels play won’t be boring defensive slugfests like the LSU-Alabama football game earlier in the year, but the analyst in me can’t help but think that if North Carolina wants to cut down the nets in April, at some point Williams’ guys are going to have to guard somebody. The Tar Heels don’t exactly have to be a defensive juggernaut, but executing basic defensive principles that are taught in every grade school basketball camp is a good start and would certainly be an improvement from their defense against Kentucky.
2. Kentucky is clearly the most talented team in the country
Just so we’re clear, I would still feel the same way about Kentucky even if Davis didn’t get a hand on the game’s final shot and Henson’s buzzer-beater gave Carolina the win. Before the season, I said Kentucky was so talented that if you threw a dart at its team picture, there’s a good chance that whomever the dart hit would be the best player on just about every other team in the country. And eight games into the season, nothing has changed my mind. The Wildcats are far from a perfect team, as their defense is only a little bit better than North Carolina’s and they play a little too much one-on-one on offense for my liking, but there is no denying that this Kentucky team is by far the most talented in the country. I still think it will lose a handful of games throughout the year because of its youth and the fact that, as Wildcats coach John Calipari likes to remind us every time he’s in front of a microphone, they’ve been playing together for only a few months. (Games at Florida and Vanderbilt will be tough ones, and Kentucky’s upcoming matchup at Indiana has “potential letdown game” written all over it.) And it remains to be seen whether or not the Wildcats have what it takes to go the distance in March, especially since they won’t have the luxury of sneaking up on some teams like they may have had last year. But a third of the way into the regular season, it’s glaringly obvious that not even North Carolina or Ohio State has nearly as much talent.
If for some reason you disagree, think about this: Kentucky just beat North Carolina, which was the consensus preseason no. 1 team in the country, was much more experienced than Kentucky, has a core group of guys who have been playing together for much longer than Kentucky, and is still considered by many analysts to be the second-best team in the country despite two early losses. And the Wildcats did so with Davis, their best player and probable top pick in the NBA draft, disappearing for long stretches of the game. (This isn’t a criticism of Davis — like Clark Kellogg pointed out during the broadcast, his nonexistence was at times a result of him being patient and not wanting to force anything.) Can you imagine how good Kentucky will be once Davis gets an aggressive side to him and doesn’t defer to his teammates so much on offense? Here’s a hint: really f’ing good.
3. Basketball players celebrating routine 3-pointers will become the bane of my existence before the end of the season
I was almost ready to cut my ties with Ohio State, move to Lexington, and join Big Blue Nation when I saw Kentucky’s student section before the game on Saturday. That’s because not only were there signs and shirts celebrating Anthony Davis’ unibrow, but it also looked like the entire Kentucky student section was wearing oversize foam hands that were in the shape of the “loose butthole” gesture from Workaholics. As a fan of Workaholics and as a guy who has adopted the tight butthole/loose butthole description as a way of voicing my pleasure or displeasure of something, I was thrilled to see what I thought was Kentucky’s student section telling North Carolina that the Tar Heels were most definitely loose butthole. But then the game started, someone on Kentucky hit a 3 and put the loose butthole sign to his eye, and everything instantly became clear. After screaming at the Kentucky player in an attempt to inform him that he was going to give himself pinkeye, I realized that this loose butthole to the eye gesture is apparently Kentucky’s way of celebrating made 3s. Suddenly, my enthusiasm for Kentucky basketball quickly vanished.
Before I go any further, it should be noted that I don’t have a problem with the Kentucky fans embracing the loose butthole monocle, because I’m not a self-righteous douche who tells fans how to act (I believe it’s always acceptable to rush the field or storm the court), and I know that I would absolutely do the exact same thing if I were a Kentucky fan. And it should also be noted that nobody in the world is a bigger fan of touchdown dances than me. I really do believe that the NFL should let its players do literally whatever they want after touchdowns, so long as the celebrations don’t exceed 10 to 15 seconds and delay the game. But having said that, this loose butthole monocle thing the players do, along with every other form of celebrating routine 3s, has got to stop, and it’s got to stop now.
Now, I know that the guys on Kentucky aren’t the first and certainly aren’t the only ones to do something like this, so don’t interpret my complaint as an attack on the Wildcats. No, my complaint is an attack on every player who thinks that hitting a wide-open 3-pointer with 13 minutes left in the first half to give his team a five-point lead is some sort of crazy accomplishment that should be celebrated. Not only is it an incredibly obnoxious equivalent to a wide receiver celebrating a 5-yard first-down catch in his team’s half of the field, but it makes guys look like they’re awful shooters who are stunned to see the ball actually go through the rim.
Maybe I’m just old school or something, but I was always taught to celebrate things that are actually meaningful. I’m all for guys throwing up the loose butthole monocle when they hit a game-changing 3 toward the end of the game, hit a 3 at the buzzer (including the shot-clock buzzer), hit a 3 to cap off a big run by their team, or hit a heat-check 3. But there’s nothing more ridiculous than when guys do the loose butthole monocle with 11 minutes left in the first half after they hit a shot to make them 1-of-4 on the game. In fact, I think that if a guy celebrates a made 3 in the first half that isn’t a buzzer-beater, isn’t his third (or fourth, fifth, sixth, etc.) in a row, or doesn’t result in the other team immediately calling a timeout, the game should be stopped and that player should be ejected and banned from ever playing NCAA basketball again. (Go ahead and laugh, but the NCAA has banned guys for less.) It’s to the point that watching guys celebrate after making routine and forgettable 3s is almost as intolerable as that Dr Pepper commercial with the sunglasses-at-night douche who keeps telling me to have a real good time.
Previously by Mark Titus:
Challenge Talk: An ACC Fan Gets Real With A Big Ten Fan
Introducing the Club Trillion National Player of the Year Belt
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased Pac-12 College Basketball Spectacular
Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is scheduled to be released in March. You can follow him on Twitter at @clubtrillion.
Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.
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