Rarely has a basketball coach seemed so unhappy about a successful gambit than Roy Williams and his small starting lineup.
When he first made the change, in the close-fought loss at Duke, he spent most of his time lambasting critics who had previously encouraged him to make a change without knowing “the dickens” about his team. Even now, two wins later, he admits he’s still out of his coaching comfort zone.
Yet there’s no denying since inserting P.J. Hairston into the North Carolina lineup before the Duke game and going with what is essentially a four-guard offense and against Williams’ usual practice, the Tar Heels have played some of their best basketball of the season, and Williams said he’s sticking with it against N.C. State on Saturday.
“I’d like to get the basketball inside and score inside more and have better balance, but the fact of the matter is we don’t have that kind of player now,” Williams said Friday. “Whether I’m comfortable or not, you’ve got to put guys out there that give you the best chance to win.”
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While some coaches will tinker to a fault, a certain strategic inflexibility is often both a strength and a weakness for Williams. He recruits specific kinds of players for specific roles in his offense. He very often gets the players he wants, and when he has them, he very often does quite well with them – four Final Fours at Kansas, three Final Fours and two national titles at North Carolina.
His teams get the ball up the court quickly in the hands of a speedy point guard, from fast break to secondary break to half-court offense. When they’re set up in the half court, they’re going to play inside-out through a dominant offensive big man, playing alongside a frontcourt partner who focuses on defense and rebounding, while shooters and drivers lurk threateningly on the outside.
When it all works right, it might as well be nuclear-powered. It’s when Williams doesn’t have the pieces that things can fall apart, as was all too apparent in 2010, when injuries piled up and the Tar Heels were caught in the talent gap between the Tyler Hansbrough era and the impending arrival of Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes.
Here the Tar Heels are again, in another talent-gap year after Marshall and Barnes and John Henson and Tyler Zeller all departed, and for three months Williams tried to cram another set of square pegs into round holes at forward, where James Michael McAdoo struggled as the primary offensive threat and a trio of younger players – Desmond Hubert, Joel James, Brice Johnson – proved too raw.
By ignoring one of his prime tenets and putting Hairston in the lineup alongside Reggie Bullock, Williams opened up space for McAdoo inside and put his best offensive lineup on the floor without removing Dexter Strickland, Williams’ favorite defensive player.
“I’m still uncomfortable with part of it, there’s no question,” Williams said. “But I think it gives us the best chance to be successful.”
Few ACC teams have the beef inside to make North Carolina pay (although N.C. State is certainly one of them) and Hairston and Bullock are both unusually tall – even if guarding C.J. Leslie certainly wasn’t what Hairston expected his role to be at North Carolina.
“That was definitely not the plan,” Hairston deadpanned Friday.
Williams still isn’t giving up on James and Hubert and Johnson, not “until the day they put me underground,” but by going against the formula that has brought him so many wins in the past he’s given the Tar Heels a better chance to win this season. That part, at least, he’s happy about.