BY JOHN MARSHALL
North Carolina has gone through a bumpy national title defense, most of its struggles coming during the ACC season.
The Tar Heels went 11-2 during the nonconference season but have opened league play 5-4 after losing both of their games last week. North Carolina dropped nine places to No. 19 in the AP Top 25 in this week.
“We should be better than 5-4 in the ACC,” North Carolina wing Cameron Johnson said.
The Tar Heels (16-6) have a chance to get back on track this week.
First up is Tuesday against No. 20 Clemson, a team they beat 87-79 on Jan. 16. That’s followed by North Carolina’s first game against Pittsburgh this season.
The key in those games: Defense.
North Carolina gave up 95 points and 15 3-pointers in an overtime loss to North Carolina State last Saturday, and 80 points and another 12 3-pointers in a loss to Virginia Tech.
The Tar Heels are 194th nationally in scoring defense at 72.7 points per game, and are 316th guarding the arc, allowing teams to hit nearly 38 percent of their 3-point shots.
“I mean we’ve just been one of the worst defensive teams, if not the worst defensive team I’ve ever coached,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “The kids are great kids. They’ve got to buy into it 100 percent, not 80 percent. We’ve got to get better. I’ve got to do a better job with it.”
The last meeting with Clemson ended in an 87-79 Tar Heels victory, keeping them undefeated in 59 all-time games at the Smith Center.
This time, the Tigers (17-4, 6-3) will be at home, but playing without forward Donte Grantham, out for the season with a torn ACL. Clemson also has lost 10 straight to North Carolina and has to play with a short turnaround after playing on Sunday.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult turnaround for us, a team we’ve had a hard time playing against lately, so we’ve got to figure some things out,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
TEXAS TECH TWO STEP: Texas Tech moved back into the top 10 this week after climbing four spots in this week’s AP Top 25.
But the Big 12 rarely has easy games and this week presents a couple of challenges.
The Red Raiders (17-4, 5-3 Big 12) first play Wednesday against Texas. The Longhorns (14-7, 4-4) have been playing well recently and beat Texas Tech 67-58 in Austin on Jan. 17.
The Red Raiders follow with a road game against TCU (15-6, 3-5) on Saturday, facing a team that was 12-1 and a top-10 team earlier this season.
VILLANOVA ON TOP: Villanova may have lost some first-place votes to No. 2 Virginia in this week’s poll, but the Wildcats were still the clear No. 1.
Villanova (20-1, 7-1 Big East) received 47 of 65 first-place votes in the poll and has not lost since a 101-93 road setback against Butler on Dec. 30.
The Wildcats have a couple of potentially difficult games this week, playing Creighton on Thursday and Seton Hall on Sunday.
KANSAS’ CUSHION: No. 7 Kansas gave itself some cushion in its bid to win a 14th-straight Big 12 title Monday night, beating rival Kansas State 70-56 on the road.
The Jayhawks (18-4, 7-2 Big 12) play next on Saturday against Oklahoma State, which has struggled in conference play, losing five of eight games.
Texas Tech, No. 12 Oklahoma and No. 15 West Virginia are tied for second behind the Jayhawks at 5-3 in conference. The Sooners play Baylor and Texas this week. The Mountaineers have games against Iowa State and Kansas State.
A little over a month left in the season, the Jayhawks are still in control.
More AP college basketball: collegebasketball.ap.org and twitter.com/AP_Top25
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.