Tar Heels trying out 'small ball'

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 8, 2012 

— During Roy Williams’ tenure at North Carolina, the Tar Heels have been at their best offensively when they’ve relied on an inside-out philosophy led by capable, and sometimes dominant, forwards and centers. Early this season, though, the Heels have excelled with their version of small ball.

While young frontcourt players like Joel James, Brice Johnson and Desmond Hubert continue to develop, North Carolina has found success with a lineup comprised essentially of four guards. The Tar Heels’ home game tonight against East Tennessee State, which won’t start a player taller than 6-foot-7, could again allow North Carolina to go small.

Then again, playing against the Buccaneers could allow the Tar Heels to experiment. ETSU will be without it starting point guard, and the team will bring just seven scholarship players into the Smith Center.

The Buccaneers lost by 25 points in their most recent game at James Madison, and they mustered just 38 points in a defeat at Georgia on Nov. 23. Even at full strength, ETSU wouldn’t have been expected to pose a challenge to UNC. As it is, the Bucs’ injuries and their shortage of players have made this game more of a mismatch.

Still, the Tar Heels will have a chance to improve from their most recent performance – a lackluster 104-82 victory against UAB that at times had Williams fuming. UNC didn’t pull away in that game until it utilized a smaller lineup – the kind that sparked its second-half comeback earlier this season against Butler, which held on to win after UNC cut its 29-point second-half lead to six.

“I hope that we don’t have to go small by necessity like it was against Butler,” Williams said after the victory against UAB. “But [against UAB] we went small because I thought it would help us. But we’ll play that lineup. It’s hard to guard. But we’ve got to do a better job on the defensive end, too, and protect the goal.”

If Williams decides to use a smaller lineup today, he’ll likely have one more guard available than he did on Sunday against UAB. Marcus Paige, the freshman point guard, is expected to return to the lineup after sitting out with a shoulder injury.

During the second-half comeback against Butler, Paige led a lineup that included fellow guards Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and either P.J. Hairston or Leslie McDonald. The four-guard lineup leaves the Tar Heels with one traditional frontcourt player – usually either Johnson or James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward.

As productive as North Carolina’s small lineup has been offensively – it allows shooting opportunities from the perimeter, while also providing an opportunity for dribble penetration – it has at times been a liability on defense. Lapses in transition defense especially infuriated Williams during the victory against UAB.

“I felt like we [weren’t] talking enough on the defensive end of the floor,” Bullock said of the defensive breakdowns on Sunday. “We were letting their shooters just come off and just drill us without talking, saying, ‘Switch.’ Because we were small, we could really switch with anyone.”

Those problems are to be expected, perhaps, given the experimental nature of North Carolina’s small lineup. Williams has only used it in long stretches twice this season but Friday could offer the Tar Heels a chance to hone what’s likely to remain an important part of their repertoire.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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