With a little less than five minutes left in the first half of his team’s 78-47 victory against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinals, North Carolina coach Roy Williams made a subtle substitution that helped inspire a dramatic change.
Williams at that moment, with 4 minutes, 49 seconds to play in the half, replaced Joel James, a burly senior forward, with Theo Pinson, a lithe, 6-foot-6 sophomore who plays a variety of positions. The Tar Heels scored the next 14 points and took a commanding 41-22 lead into halftime.
In replacing James with Pinson, Williams went small. The lineup left UNC with one traditional post player on the court, 6-10 junior Isaiah Hicks, and essentially four guards: Pinson and Justin Jackson on the wings, and Joel Berry and Marcus Paige in the backcourt.
The results were especially dramatic at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., in that March 11 game. The Tar Heels used a smaller lineup for nearly 10 1/2 minutes against Notre Dame, and during that stretch UNC outscored the Fighting Irish 26-7, including the 14-0 run to end the first half.
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The success provided one example of what can happen when UNC goes small. And while UNC’s small lineup isn’t usually so decisively effective, it has become a regular component of Williams’ strategy – a viable, proven option that UNC continues to utilize in the NCAA tournament.
“It helps a lot,” Paige, a senior guard, said of going small. “Being able to use different lineups in the tournament is huge, because it’s not ACC play, when you get three days to scout somebody and you’ve played against them before and you know what they’re going to do.”
Williams, whose No. 1-seeded team Friday will play against No. 5 Indiana in an East Region semifinal, is a traditionalist. He prefers to use lineups with two post players, and most often does. Going small this season, though, has “been out of necessity,” he said this week.
He identified two reasons. The first, he said, was to improve his team’s defense, and especially its ability to defend screens.
As Williams often does, he began to tell a story about Tyler Hansbrough, a former All-American who helped lead the Tar Heels to the 2009 national championship. The story took Williams back to a game against Florida State several years ago.
“Florida State tried to screen on the ball three straight times and the point guard couldn’t beat Tyler,” Williams said. “He slid his feet so well, I didn’t ever have to make a change.”
The Tar Heels don’t have that luxury this season, though. Their big men – Brice Johnson and Hicks, James and Kennedy Meeks – aren’t as adept at positioning themselves after screens and defending quicker players.
“And so a little bit of it is getting guys out there that can play,” Williams said, continuing his reasoning for going small.
The other part of it, for Williams, is that using a smaller lineup helps preserve UNC’s post players, and offers more of an assurance that they’ll be available if needed later in games. Johnson and Hicks, especially, are prone to committing a high rate of fouls.
During the 85-66 victory against Providence last weekend in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Hicks and Johnson both had four fouls with less than 10 minutes remaining. Johnson didn’t play during the final six minutes, and Williams again went small to finish the victory.
Overall, UNC used a smaller lineup – one with one traditional post player – for more than 13 minutes against Providence. It helped the Tar Heels defensively and also helped Johnson and Hicks avoid fouls.
“I don’t like both those guys getting four fouls with 10 minutes to play,” Williams said Tuesday, the day before his team left for the regional in Philadelphia. “So if we can do something going small to help that, that’s the second reason.”
There’s another reason, too, that helps explain UNC’s use of a small lineup: Sometimes the Tar Heels simply seem to play better with it.
Going small clearly provided a spark during a victory against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. The Tar Heels went small again in key moments in the second half of their championship-game victory against Virginia, and Williams entrusted the lineup with preserving the lead late against Providence.
When they use a smaller lineup – which usually leaves either Pinson or Jackson at the power forward position – the Tar Heels are quicker and faster. They’re more often “flying around,” said Berry, a sophomore point guard.
“When Theo comes in, I think that helps us … because he’s more agile of getting out into the lanes and being able to move a little bit faster,” Berry said. “When he gets in, it kind of like speeds up the game and gets us flying around and (makes) us active.”
Williams hasn’t gone small for long stretches in every game this season. He used smaller lineups more sparingly early in the season, but they still made appearances – sometimes to great effect.
UNC, for instance, used a smaller lineup for a little more than 13 1/2 minutes in its victory against Clemson in late December. During that stretch the Tar Heels outscored the Tigers 38-23. Outside of those 13 1/2 minutes Clemson outscored UNC 46-42.
Not long after that game, in a memorable victory at Florida State on Jan. 4, Johnson, a 6-10 senior who earned first-team All-ACC honors, was the only traditional post player UNC used during the final 16 minutes. Early in the second half of that game, Johnson played alongside either James or Hicks in the post.
When Williams replaced Hicks with Luke Maye, a freshman forward, UNC led 55-54. The Tar Heels wound up with a 106-90 victory in which Johnson finished with 39 points and 23 rebounds. Either Pinson or Jackson played power forward for UNC during the final 15 1/2 minutes of that game.
Johnson’s performance at Florida State will be remembered as one of the most statistically impressive in school history. It came in part because he had more freedom amid the smaller lineup, and Johnson said he “definitely liked” the moments when he’s UNC’s only traditional post player on the court.
But, Johnson said, “I think I like playing with Isaiah a little bit better, just because we kind of cover each other up on the defensive end. We know that we can come over the top and be able to block shots. Just save each other’s rear ends in that regard.
“But playing with the small lineup is a lot of fun, just because I’m the only big in there. I mean, coach is always like, ‘Let’s use it to our advantage, and we can post up all the time down there because you’re the only big in there.’ You want to be able to use that to our advantage.”
The Tar Heels often have used the smaller lineup to their advantage, and in a variety of ways. Down low, either Johnson or Hicks have more freedom to establish position without another post player occupying space.
The lack of a second post player also means there’s more room to penetrate the lane, and it creates better spacing and driving lanes on the perimeter. Defensively it creates potential advantages for UNC, too – especially against teams with forwards who are capable of shooting and driving.
Providence’s Ben Bentil, a 6-9 forward, fit that description. He’s among the Friars’ best 3-point shooters, and he had an advantage early in the game Saturday when he was defended by Meeks, the Tar Heels’ 6-10 junior who isn’t accustomed to spending time on the perimeter.
Bentil’s offensive advantage disappeared when UNC went small. In those moments Pinson usually defended Bentil. For Bentil, Pinson’s defense was “a different look than probably he’s used to,” Paige said.
And yet that might be the most significant question about UNC’s small lineup: how it affects the Tar Heels defensively – especially when Jackson and Pinson are left to defend bigger, stronger players.
At times in the smaller lineup Jackson said he doesn’t even realize that, technically, he’s playing power forward. When UNC uses a smaller lineup, Williams said, there isn’t much difference between the power forward and small forward positions, anyway.
There’s an array of differences between the small lineup and the more traditional one, though. Some are more visible than others, like the spacing. And some, like the energy the smaller lineup seems to provide, become visible in other ways.
“When we go small,” Jackson said, “it seems like our intensity level goes up a whole other notch. Because we have to fly around, we have to box out and work hard. …
“So I like whenever we go small, because I feel like we just play a little bit harder sometimes.”