By Rob Daniels
To find a place where they stress defense as fervently as they're doing at Fleming Gym these days, you'll probably need to go to the Pentagon. And you can get into Fleming a lot easier than you can access the well fortified walls of the military.
The UNCG men's basketball team begins its 2011-12 season with defense as the primary point of emphasis, which isn't really as obvious as it sounds. A year ago, the Spartans worked diligently at stopping the other guy, but their main concern was more profound than even a major portion of the game; they were trying to stay afloat against a schedule that included nearly half the ACC and four of the NCAA tournament's eventual Sweet 16.
This year's slate is still tough, mind you, but the offensive improvement the Spartans displayed in Southern Conference play a season ago does bring the importance of defense into focus.
Even in going 7-24 overall and 6-12 in the SoCon, the Spartans could run their stuff, placing in the top one-third of the nation's 345 Division I teams in points per game and within shouting distance of the national average in field-goal percentage. No fewer than six returnees to this team scored 23 or more points at least once in 2011.
On the other end, UNCG permitted 80.7 points a game, an average that ranked 341st, on 47.4-percent shooting (332nd).
"Defense is going to be the big issue here," sophomore guard Trevis Simpson said. "If we can defend, this team can play with teams because offense is not going to be a problem."
One issue is limiting dribble penetration. Frequently, a failure to do so left the Spartans on the wrong end of numerical mismatches in the paint. And that often led to foul trouble for center Aloysius Henry, who averaged 9.5 points a game but did so in 22.5 minutes per contest, his time often reduced by early second and third whistles. At his production rate, Henry would have averaged 13.5 points if he had been able to log 32 minutes a game.
Guard Kyle Randall is a big believer in Henry who understands the collective dynamic at work here.
"We all have to get better from last year," Randall said, "and I think we all did."
It certainly looked that way in last week's exhibition game with Greensboro College, UNCG's Division III next-door neighbor. The level of competition wasn't anything like what the Spartans will face in a stretch of five games over 10 days that begins the campaign. But they were communicating clearly, getting out in passing lanes and directing ball-handlers into sidelines.
"I've been barking at them the whole time," coach Mike Dement said. "We have a short amount of practice time left. They have given great energy, and they have tried to listen every day. It's going to be something to do over the course of the season, and we're certainly not there yet. By any means."
What should help is the return of players who were Division I newcomers a year ago, people like Simpson and Henry and swing man David Williams and forward Aaron Brackett. They now have a season's worth of experiences to their names and relative comfort with Dement's precepts. If depth develops as expected, there should be enough player combinations to permit changing defenses and elements of surprise.
And, well, a "Next Man Up" mentality that gently encourages the five on the floor to keep at it, lest a capable replacement be summoned to the scorer's table.
The challenge begins with a contest at Tennessee on Friday and another at Georgetown on Monday. The goal of the pre-conference schedule – besides winning, of course – is proof that the improvement is real. How quickly can the Spartans switch on screens? Do they pick and choose the right moments to trap? And so forth.
But Dement seems more confident in the immediate future than he did a year ago, and that's a start to what the Spartans hope will be a breakout year.