North Carolina is doing something this year we haven’t seen consistently in a long, long time, going with a small ball lineup with four perimeter players on the court at once. Roy Williams has two options in PJ Hairston and JP Tokoto that work well in this type of lineup at the power forward position, both players are big and strong and can play physical basketball when asked. Tokoto has impressed early with his rebounding and ability on the defensive end, whereas Hairston is simply built like a PF.
Going with four perimeter players at once accomplishes several things for Carolina, let’s take a look.
Gets the most talented players on the floor: James Michael McAdoo is the best player on the roster despite what some may think he is the go to guy. Outside of McAdoo the next four best players all play on the perimeter and getting Reggie Bullock, PJ Hairston, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald on the floor together means having the best players on the floor.
More minutes for primary perimeter players on a roster stacked at those positions but thin at others: With five talented wing players on the roster in Hairston, Bullock, McDonald, Strickland and JP Tokoto and only two positions and 80 minutes to go around between them Roy has no way of giving enough minutes to all these talented players without going small and playing some out of position. Some (including I) would argue that scorers like Hairston and McDonald should be given more minutes no matter what the cost, setting that aside this is a way to get these players minutes and limit the minutes at positions the team is thin at.
This roster has some young talent inside in Brice Johnson and Joel James but clearly Roy has reservations around playing them for big minutes as evidence by their combined playing time of just 30 minutes a game. Roy is currently playing the combination of Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons almost 16 minutes per game and those are not players that the Tar Heels can compete with on the floor, going small allows them to limit the playing time of these inferior players and distribute more to their vast talent pool of perimeter players the better.
Allows for a more up tempo style of basketball UNC is used to playing: This years Tar Heels are an unconventional group in the sense that they rely more on the three point shot and much less on transition baskets. Watching the Indiana game it was almost like the Hoosiers and Tar Heels switched jerseys if you paid attention to their style of play. The loss of their top two rebounders from last season and a PG with a gift for getting the ball up the floor in a hurry are the main factors to the Heels lack of ability to get out and run the floor.
Having faster players on the floor who can handle the ball, spread the floor and more experience running the traditional UNC offense has helped so far in the small doses Roy has employed “small ball” and the more the team gets used to it the better they will get at getting out and running.
Opens up the floor in the half court for the shooters: One of the biggest problems this season in the half court is the lack of offensive creativity. UNC does not have many players who can create their own shot off the dribble and those that they do have aren’t playing enough. Putting them on the floor together along with several of them being big time shooting threats opens things up and spreads the floor. Defenses can no longer key on one or two guys, they have to account for four on the perimeter. Cheating in the passing lanes, playing off or less aggressively against anyone with so many offensive threats on the court together. The strength of this team is their shooting ability and putting the most shooters on the floor who also thrive in transition makes a lot of sense.
The small ball lineup isn’t something Roy can get away with employing for 40 minutes per game. He needs the continue to develop his young big men and center this offense around feeding McAdoo in the post. In short bursts throughout each game this type of lineup plays to the teams strengths and keeps defenses on their heels. The team is also struggling defensively, they are practicing zone defense and we have no idea how that will work out, when they do try it utilizing the zone with quicker more athletic players is a big advantage.