No. 19 North Carolina’s defensive struggles continue in loss to No. 20 Clemson

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For the first time since January of 2014, North Carolina is on a three-game losing streak.

No. 19 North Carolina has not won since January 20th, a win that capped a four-game win streak in the aftermath of its 61-49 loss to Virginia on January 6. Tuesday night it was No. 20 Clemson that did the job, holding off a second-half Tar Heel rally to win 82-78 and end a 10-game losing streak in the series.

Brad Brownell’s team picked up its biggest win since senior forward Donte Grantham went down with a torn ACL in a loss to NC State on January 11, and the Tigers did it thanks in large part to their three-point shooting. Clemson, which did not make a two-point field goal until 7:50 remaining in the first half, shot 15-for-30 from beyond the arc on the night.

Gabe DeVoe made five, with Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell making three apiece, and the struggles defending the three has been a theme for North Carolina throughout the season.

Roy Williams’ team entered the game ranked 309th in three-point percentage defense, with opponents shooting 37.9 percent from three. During the current losing streak, the Tar Heels have allowed each of their three opponents to shoot better than that percentage. Virginia Tech shooting 40 percent (12-for-30) wasn’t significantly better than the percentage that the Heels are allowing on the season, but both NC State and Clemson shot 15-for-30 from deep.

Obviously, that can’t happen if a team is to be successful. But why is it happening? Far too often Tuesday night, North Carolina’s perimeter defenders were caught over-helping on dribble drives. Not having their best perimeter defender in Theo Pinson, who left the game with a strained left shoulder after taking a hard fall early in the first half, certainly didn’t help matters. But this was more about the players who were on the court than who wasn’t.

If anything, North Carolina’s struggles in defending the three are a combination of things as opposed to just one issue. There’s the struggle to defend on the ball, as Clemson’s guards were able to break down their defenders off the dribble. And whether it’s to compensate for the on-ball defender getting beat, or not fully trusting that man to handle his assignment, others get caught too far away from their matchups on the perimeter. As a result opponents have managed to find good looks, and at that level more often than not teams are going to take advantage.

Here’s something else to ponder when it comes to North Carolina’s defense. Could the questions surrounding the front court have something to do with the perimeter defending? As in, is the apparent need to cover up for their inexperienced bigs resulting in North Carolina’s perimeter defenders overcompensating in an attempt to cut off dribble penetration?

While Sterling Manley gave North Carolina some solid minutes off the bench, finishing with six points, six rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes, Garrison Brooks accounted for just two points and four rebounds. Luke Maye has been outstanding throughout the season — Tuesday’s four-point, nine-rebound, three-block effort notwithstanding — Manley and Brooks have out of necessity been thrown into the deep end of the pool so to speak.

Both freshmen have a ways to go from a development standpoint. But to put North Carolina’s perimeter defending woes on the need to cover for the front court may be unfair. At a certain point the guards and wings have to be better, and be more committed, when it comes to not only defending on the ball but remaining focused off of it.

Yet even with those defensive struggles North Carolina had an opportunity to essentially steal a win, thanks to Joel Berry II and Cameron Johnson. Berry tallied 27 points and Johnson 32, the most he’s scored in a North Carolina uniform. Pinson’s playmaking ability would have helped, especially with Seventh Woods injured and Jalek Felton suspended, but once again not having the senior wing on the court was not why North Carolina lost.

Clemson deserves credit for what it was able to do offensively, thanks in large part to a perimeter that has become a source of strength after being a bit suspect last season. And with Wake Forest and Pittsburgh next on the schedule, the Tigers have the opportunity to build on this momentum ahead of a stretch run that includes games against Florida State (twice) and Duke.

But this result says even more about North Carolina and its continued struggles defending on the perimeter. If they don’t get this addressed, and soon, this group won’t be around long come NCAA tournament time.

The good news for North Carolina in the meantime: next up on the schedule is Pitt.