Ford playing defense as a freshman against N.C. State in 1975

They said I wasn’t a very good defensive player my freshman year, although I thought I was trying very hard. Maybe Coach Smith didn’t agree, because we sure played a lot of zone that season while I was “learning” to play defense!

But through my playing days, and into coaching, I developed such a respect for the players and teams that play good defense. It is so important in basketball, which was illustrated by our last two victories over Virginia and Georgia Tech. Even though Virginia shot the highest percentage (58%) of any Carolina team under Coach Williams in a victory, we played good defense in three important segments of that game. First, getting back into it after falling behind by 10 in the first half, then outscoring them 8-0 to open the second half and, finally, holding them off late after it seemed they were making every tough shot.

Fortunately, we were so efficient offensively against Virginia (we had to be in order to win). They are really good and Joe Harris is so underrated. Honestly, they have enough talent to win the ACC Tournament. And it was a great win because we HAD to beat Virginia after losing up there in January. Playing the small lineup with P.J. in there most of the time with Reggie was a good match-up for us, and P.J. like everyone from both teams in the second half was really shooting the ball well.

He had a tough night offensively at Georgia Tech, but I was impressed with his maturity in other parts of the game. Young shooters, when the ball’s not going in, have to give the same effort and concentration on defense, boxing out and other aspects of the game. P.J. is growing, because his other stats were good. I’m not sure that would have been case last year or even earlier this season.

Even though we were getting good shots that weren’t going in, we were still getting those shots and got enough offensive rebounds to win in a hostile environment. We had a low loss of ball, which was very important in not giving them easy opportunities to score.

It wasn’t such a good match-up for P.J. but he did a great job on the bigger kids he was guarding and penalized them on the other end. He  stayed  between his man and the  basket and made them shoot straight up and over him. Sometimes young players won’t try to get it back on defense when their shots aren’t falling. But that’s how far defensively P.J. has come.

Now State Saturday will be awfully tough because they have everything — size, talent, good shooters outside and inside and plenty of size — really they have all the parts to win a national championship.

We have to be ready to play from the tip, unlike it was over in Raleigh. Some people say State plays to the level of their competition, and if that’s the case they will play great in the Smith Center. They will be fire and ice when they see all that blue. Our team has to remember what they did to us over there before we made the comeback in the second half. I’m looking forward to an outstanding game and I hope we have one because State is not a team you can blow out. It’s not an impossible task, but it will be hard. It IS doable if we play the way we’re capable. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more minutes from our other big guys because of C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell. Both of those guys are so big and really good inside.

And with us, State and Virginia all tied at 8-5, the game is very important for the ACC Tournament. You want to finish in the top four so you don’t have to play on Thursday and win four games to win the tourney. I don’t think anyone has won four games in the tourney. So, with Miami in first and Duke looking like it will finish second, one of those three teams is going to finish fifth. That’s why this game is so important. We’ve already split with Virginia and now we need to split with State.

I am really excited. It’s going to be a great environment, like the old games  I played in against DT (David Thompson) and the games against some of the great teams that Coach V had when it was show time for State. I just hope we’re ready to play from the start and the crowd gets there early and really helps us. Their crowd was great in Raleigh. We have to provide the same kind of support Saturday.

Phil Ford was a three-time All-American at UNC, 1978 ACC Player of the Year and went on to be the NBA Rookie of the Year and an NBA all-star.