UNC players embrace small ball experiment

North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams did something last Saturday so out of character that it required a double-take for those watching the Tar Heels taking on East Carolina.

The Hall of Fame basketball coach often says the players determine starting lineups and rotations based on their performances, and in the win over the Pirates, the players dictated that sometimes-stubborn Williams deviate from the norm and go small. Anyone who knows much about Williams in his 26 years as a head coach — the last 11 at UNC — recognizes he’s quite married to a set of theories that have stood the test of time and helped his teams win 80 percent (683 victories) of their games.

Many of Williams’ principles came from his mentor, legendary former UNC coach Dean Smith. But while Smith was also one of the more flexible coaches to ever hold a whistle, Williams isn’t. It’s often his way or the highway.

So when Williams put a lineup on the floor of all guards and wing players near the mid-point of the second half vs. ECU, one had to look, rub eyes, and look again to make sure the Tar Heels had no bigs on the floor.

How did small ball go for the baby blues?

“There was one possession down there where (ECU) got four shots,” Williams said last Saturday in the Dean Smith Center. “Why is that? That’s partly my fault because we don’t have any big guys in the game. So why don’t I have any big guys in the game? Because they weren’t getting rebounds either. Everybody’s got to pitch in and do a better job.”

For the first time in Williams’ career, none of his big men grabbed an offensive rebound in the entire game. In UNC’s win over East Tennessee State a week earlier, the big men in the rotation managed just one offensive rebound. That’s one offensive board by big in the rotation in two games.

Chapel Hill, we have a problem.

“No, I was trying,” said UNC sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo when asked about the goose egg. “I felt like my teammates were trying.”

McAdoo played hard, but he didn’t always play smart. For example, the 6-foot-9 super athlete rarely boxes out, which is essential to great rebounding and is also something players can do on the offensive end. They also must know when teammates are taking shots and from where, and learn to anticipate where the ball may fall if missed.

UNC out-boarded the Pirates 40-36, grabbing 10 offensive rebounds in the process, including four from 6-7 junior Reggie Bullock and three from 6-5 sophomore P.J. Hairston. So with that in mind, Williams teamed that pair with 6-5 freshman J.P. Tokoto, 6-3 senior Dexter Strickland, and 6-5 junior Leslie McDonald. Tokoto, who averages 12 minutes per game, played the five (center).

While both teams scored, the 10-point margin didn’t change by the time McAdoo re-entered the game and UNC returned to a more conventional balance. But the message was sent by Williams to his team, and also to a massive legion of fans that have been critical of the No. 23 Tar Heels (8-2) thus far.

Bullock didn’t mind the new look at all.

“Personally, I like when we go small because you can put J.P. at the four (or) P.J. at the four, Mac (McAdoo) at the five,” Bullock said. “I feel like we can be quick on our feet getting out in transition. The most challenging thing is getting rebounds because we’re so small out on the court, but I feel like we could throw a lot of traps at teams and get the ball put in transition.”

Imagine athletic, long-armed wings ranging from 6-5 to 6-7 scrambling and trapping and then churning their wheels up court after forcing a turnover. Few teams can employ such a look with the degree of talent UNC will use, and it’s a unique change for a program known for running everything through the post for the last half-century.

And, it should work.

“I think it can,” Strickland said. “I think we’ve got guys on the team that are willing to run and push in transition and get easy buckets. I think us as a team do a great job of getting the ball out and just running… So I think going small is not a bad option at all.”

Williams half-joked he will go small more often if the bigs don’t start getting more “freakin’ rebounds.”

He may go there even if they do. More than forcing his system, the ever-competitive Williams wants to win more than anything, and if it means running the mighty mites out there, he will do whatever it takes.