John Henson won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award for the second consecutive season. Tyler Zeller has won more defensive player of the game honors from the Tar Heel coaching staff than anyone on the roster. Which begs the question, who’s really The Tar Heels Best Defensive Player?
Being more honest here than I really should. I honestly was leaning towards Tyler Zeller going into the ACC Tournament. Either way, it was extremely close and I had Zeller as my #2 Defensive player in the ACC this year. Needless to say, both these guys are great at what they do on the defensive end of the floor. Then Henson got hurt in the ACC Tournament and my whole view changed.
Before the injury it was pretty easy to rationalize in my mine. Henson gets more recognition because he blocks more shots, and many of his blocked shots are big time swats that pump the crowd up and make Sportscenter all the time. Big Z, he can block some shots to, but he’s no John Henson. And the seniors soft play early in the season on both ends of the floor didn’t help the perception I had built.
But watching Zeller go into every game and play as hard as he does on the end of the floor. And defending his man one on one as well as he does while making all the hustle plays was compelling as well. Another thing going for Tyler, is he rarely gets himself in trouble by trying too hard to make the spectacular play and send the ball into the stands. Instead, he plays steady, tough, fundamental defense game in and game out.
That all changed once Henson got hurt. What the Tar Heels have lacked without him in the lineup is the intimidation factor. Teams aren’t afraid to dribble penetrate the block Henson used to occupy. James Michael McAdoo has done a nice job offensively and on the boards as his replacement. He often leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive end and has a lot of growing to do on that end of the floor.
Spacing is another concern without Henson in the lineup. Perimeter defense may seem like it’s all about the perimeter players but it’s not at entirely. When a slasher loses his man or is in need of a little help defense to cut off the lane he is attacking. That naturally draws a big man, usually Henson or Zeller out of their usual position. Without the other remaining positioned down on the post, suddenly teams have something they haven’t seen against the Heels in two years. The low block without Henson or Zeller, and that’s been a problem for Carolina.
With reports that Henson is feeling better and has less swelling and pain in his injured left wrist. Indications are he should be back to his old self no later than the sweet 16 next Thursday. The Heels are a good team without Henson, if they had played without him all year like they have Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald. Maybe they would have found a way with McAdoo, Desmond Hubert and Justin Watts to get by and still be a national title contender. But it’s clear now more than ever, UNC needs Henson if they want to cut down the nets in New Orleans this year.