CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina head coach Roy Williams has always preferred to use a dominant big man with an experienced, capable (and preferably play-making) point guard.
From Raymond Felton and Sean May to Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough and even Kendall Marshall to Tyler Zeller, he’s had quite a few successful combos. But last year, he played a freshman point guard and inexperienced big men, with James Michael McAdoo — not a center by nature — being forced to play the 5-spot out of necessity.
Williams tried a number of combinations in the starting lineup before switching to a smaller group midway through ACC play, keying a season turnaround when guard P.J. Hairston (who ended the year as UNC’s leading scorer) added an offensive spark.
Point guard Marcus Paige thinks that spark came less from eliminating a big man than it did from Hairston himself.
“I think the lineup change last year got P.J. a lot more minutes, which helped us because he can score the ball so well, and that was a big problem we had was not being able to score as much as past Carolina teams,” Paige said. “Having him on the floor helped a lot, and I felt like that was more of a change than necessarily going small, having him and Reggie (Bullock) out there at the same time.
“I think we’re going back big this year and we have a couple big guys like James Michael that are capable of handling the ball on the perimeter and playing a little bit of 3.”
Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson all started at center last season before that experiment ended. Hubert (now a junior) was a fantastic defender, but had very little offensive touch. Johnson — long but incredibly wiry — was too thin to stand up to the physicality of opposing centers. James was far too raw to be productive as a freshman, having just started playing basketball in the 10th grade.
And so there’s still plenty of uncertainty as to what North Carolina’s lineup will look like.
“I hope to stay big, but what I’ve got to do is pick out the best five guys and put them on the court. But I do hope to stay big. … Somebody’s got to step up,” Williams said. “If you look at our stats last year, we didn’t get to the free-throw line nearly as many times as we have in the past. Down the stretch, people out-rebounded us. Down the stretch, we didn’t defend the rim very much at all — or very well at all. We did it as much as we could, we just didn’t do it very well.
“So I think we’ve got to have some size out there, but we’ve got to be able to shoot the ball in the basket too. So I like to think that we’ll get back to a better balance.”
He’s still going to play his best five guys, though. Which brings up the issue of Hairston, who likely will miss at least one of the Tar Heels’ first few games. Williams still hasn’t decided exactly what his punishment will be, so he’s trying to use his practices leading up to the first game to experiment with lineups without Hairston. Or just experimenting in general.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with (Hairston) … so one of the things we’re doing early is trying to do more just freelance stuff, to play with two point guards in the lineup, to play with three big guys in the lineup,” Williams said. “So we’re going to do more freelance earlier this year than we ever have and focus on it even more.
“We could go little, we could go extra little with two point guards in the lineup. We could go bigger. … We could see three guys 6-8 or better, or we could see two guys that I look eyeball-to-eyeball with. So I think that’s something we’ll have to figure out, too.”
Paige could be sharing the point guard duties with freshmen Nate Britt, and the idea of having two ball-handlers on the court at the same time is something that excites the sophomore point guard.
“I love it,” Paige said. “Two guys that really know how to play the game, like to get other people involved and can attack the basket like we can on the court at the same time is going to make it easier for everyone else. We understand spacing and both of us being able to shoot will help as well.”
Still, Williams wants to go big if he can. And his options at center have heeded his advice and tried to step up.
Johnson has addressed his offseason problems, gaining weight (he’s up to 207 pounds, three away from his target weight) and improving his defense.
“I’m seeing a big difference. I can hold my position a lot more now,” Johnson said. “Last year, everybody could just push me when they felt like it. You have to fight me now.”
And James is still learning the various aspects of basketball that come second-nature to his teammates, many of which have been playing the game since they were six or seven years old.
“The only way you can get experience is by doing it. So this summer, I was a big advocate of playing pickup, as much basketball as I could possible, every day, as much basketball as I can,” James said. “The only way to get better is to do it every day, so that’s what I tried to do every day. Hopefully, it works.”
James said during a press conference in June that he was confident he would win the starting spot at center for the Tar Heels. And he stands by that.
“Basketball starts up here,” James said, pointing to his head. “So if you have the confidence, you can do anything. I feel like I have the confidence to win the starting center spot and that’s what I plan to do.”