No. 3 UNC is leaning on a season-long defensive surge entering rivalry game with No. 7 Duke

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — It wasn't long ago, during North Carolina's best start in Atlantic Coast Conference play in more than two decades, that veteran big man Armando Bacot surprised his coach with a confession.

The storied program's career rebounding leader had found unexpected joy in another bit of often-unheralded work: getting stops.

“Coach, this is the most fun I've ever had playing defense,” coach Hubert Davis recalled Bacot telling him.

Scoring has long been the headliner in Chapel Hill with efficient offenses humming at run-run-run pace. But much of the third-ranked Tar Heels' surge this year entering Saturday's rivalry tilt with No. 7 Duke is about the other end of the court, where UNC ranks among the nation's best in making things difficult on opponents.

“We've done a great job of also trusting each other," said senior guard RJ Davis, named Tuesday as The Associated Press' men's national player of the week. "I think early in the season, we were worried more about our man than being on the help side. We're doing a better job of doing that and communicating, talking. I think that just comes with experience and maturity.”

UNC (17-4, 9-1) is coming off Tuesday's loss at Georgia Tech on a final-seconds basket, with the Yellow Jackets' 74 points being the most allowed by the Tar Heels in an ACC game so far. Still, they ranked fourth in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency by allowing 92.5 points per 100 possessions as of Friday, behind No. 4 Houston (84.6), No. 5 Tennessee (90.9) and No. 16 Auburn (91.7).

North Carolina has finished a season ranked in the top 10 in that metric only four times previously going back to the first year of available data in 1997, its final season under late Hall of Famer Dean Smith. UNC hasn't finished ranked higher than 11th since 2011 and had an average finish of 33.5 in the years since.

There are multiple factors in a rise coming after last year's crash from preseason No. 1 in the AP Top 25 to missing the NCAA Tournament. A roster overhaul added versatile transfers in Cormac Ryan, Harrison Ingram and Jae'Lyn Withers for a reliably deeper rotation, which showed in the Tar Heels' use of a fullcourt press to rally past Florida State in December.

With the 6-foot-11 Bacot providing a reliable defensive anchor inside, the team ranks among the top 10 among Power Five and Big East schools in field-goal percentage defense (seventh, .398) and 3-point percentage (sixth, .299).

And the long-running emphasis on boardwork has carried right from retired Hall of Famer Roy Williams to Hubert Davis, with the Tar Heels — behind Bacot and Ingram — routinely snagging rebounds that seal a one-shot stop.

“The communication is really good, whether it’s on offense or defense,” Davis said. “We talk all the time about talking early, loud, clear and constant. Not just on ballscreens, but in transition — whatever action we’re talking about: out-of-bounds, underneath. So there’s a lot of dialogue out there, whether it’s in practice, shootaround or games, in terms of just ... making sure everybody’s in the right spot.”

Digging deeper, the Tar Heels have made multiple gains.

According to data from Synergy Sports, the Tar Heels have improved in six of 11 defensive areas from last season, including against post-ups, hand-off plays and defending screeners in pick-and-rolls. Most notably, they've gone from being rated as “poor” to “excellent” in transition (0.841 points per possession, down from 1.087) and against putbacks (0.884, down from 1.212).

They also remained steady at “very good” against spot-up shooters (0.883 this year) and “good” against ballhandlers in pick-and-roll sets (0.745), often with Bacot or Jalen Washington dropping back to potentially yield a midrange jumper rather than an unobstructed path to the rim.

As a result, the Tar Heels have had six different stretches in which they forced an ACC foe to miss at least eight consecutive shots. They've also come up big late by holding Clemson without a point for the final 5 minutes of a Jan. 6 road win, then allowing one basket in the final 5 1/2 minutes of last weekend's win at FSU.

The next test comes against the Blue Devils (16-4, 7-2) with KenPom's No. 9 offense (119.9 points per 100 possessions).

“They really put an emphasis on protecting their paint while at the same time defending the 3,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “It’s what we try to do. ... You can’t have a good defense if you don’t guard the ball and if you don’t guard pick-and-roll (offense). And they’ve done that.

“So it’s not a team where you can look and say, ‘All right, you need to drive him or attack him.’ They all are capable defenders. And they have five guys that defend together.”

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball