Can UNC’s ‘small ball’ lineup overcome a big challenge at Florida State?

Roy Williams searching for a 'perfect' UNC lineup

UNC basketball coach Roy Williams talks about searching for a perfect lineup he likes following the Tar Heels win over Wake Forest.
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UNC basketball coach Roy Williams talks about searching for a perfect lineup he likes following the Tar Heels win over Wake Forest.

Roy Williams has 828 reasons for North Carolina to play the way he wants to play.

That’s how many wins the hall-of-fame coach has in 30 seasons at UNC and Kansas and the majority of them have come with two traditional bigs and by working the ball inside first.

With so many new parts on this UNC roster, and his best parts not exactly fitting the traditional mold of how Williams prefers to play, the Tar Heels (12-2, 1-0 ACC) are at a crossroads just one game into ACC play.

Playing the way Williams prefers requires some time for UNC’s young forwards to mature. Playing what has been the best lineup the past three games requires a fully healthy Cam Johnson and the right matchups.

No. 12 UNC will get an up-close look at one of the ACC’s biggest teams on Wednesday at No. 24 Florida State (11-2, 0-1). The Seminoles have a lineup, with forwards Phil Cofer (6-8), Ike Obiagu (7-0) and Mfondu Kabangele (6-9), that is closer what Williams traditionally employs.

The UNC coach is not oblivious to the talent on his own roster, or the trend of going “smaller” or playing “positionless” basketball at the college and pro level, rather he understands what has worked for him.

“I still believe, in the bottom of my soul, that the most important thing is getting the ball inside,” Williams said last week.

Going inside works two ways, Williams pointed out: more free throws for your team and more fouls for the other team.

“If you get guys in foul trouble, that helps you because you’re not playing against their best players,” Williams said.

That strategy worked out well for the Tar Heels in the 2017 national title game with Gonzaga’s bigs getting in foul trouble. The issue for UNC, and Williams, is he doesn’t have the same, experienced talent inside that he had on last year’s team or the one that reached the title game in 2016.

Even junior forward Luke Maye, who lead the Heels in scoring (18.4 points per game) and rebounding (10.9 per game), is more of a stretch “4” or faceup forward (20 percent of his field-goal attempts are from the 3-point line).

At the “5,” or center spot, the Tar Heels are relying on a group of freshmen. It’s not entirely different from what Williams went through when Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks were younger. Given time, it worked out for that group and likely will for this one.

But in Saturday’s 73-69 home win over Wake Forest, UNC’s three freshmen forwards (Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman) combined for eight points and 11 rebounds in 35 minutes.

Those aren’t bad numbers but UNC was outscored 63 to 56 when any of the freshmen bigs were on the floor.

Conversely, when Williams went smaller – with Joel Berry at point guard, Kenny Williams and on the wings, Theo Pinson at the “4” and Maye at the “5” –the Heels were a plus-11 (outscoring Wake, 17-6) in 5 minutes and 33 seconds.

Williams used the smaller lineup at the end of each half. With Wake giant Doral Moore (7-1, 280 pounds) occupying space in the lane, Williams tried to keep Brooks, Manley or Huffman on the floor for as long as possible.

“Yeah, everybody knows coach,” Pinson said. “Two bigs is the way he has been doing it for a long time. We understand that. We have to figure out a way to either get it done that way or do whatever it takes to win.”

That’s what UNC did on Saturday with the smaller lineup leading a late surge, after Wake Forest took a 69-65 lead, to pull out the win.

Two things UNC does well with that lineup: floor spacing and switching on defense. Williams noted the reason he went “small” – a relative concept with the length of both Pinson (6-6) and Johnson (6-8) – at the end of the game was so defensively UNC could switch on all screens. Wake, which shot 50 percent in the second half, was getting too many clean looks for Williams’ liking.

On the offensive end, UNC has been difficult to stop when it goes smaller. Johnson missed the first 10 games with injuries but since his return, that lineup has been a plus-30 (51 to 21) in 16:34 together. They’ve held their own rebounding, as well, with a 22 to 10 edge on the boards.

Johnson played 27 minutes against Wake – 10 more than he logged against Wofford and four more than he played against Ohio State – and is starting to get into game shape.

The value of the lineup was illustrated when Pinson made perhaps the most important play of the game with UNC down 69-65. Pinson started on the left wing, drove around the Wake forward defending him and then pulled Moore away from Maye. Pinson dropped a perfect pass to Maye for a layup with 1:59 left in the game.

With Pinson, as the 4, initiating the sequence that’s not a traditional way for Williams’ teams to play but it does fit Williams’ preference for getting the ball inside.

Williams, whose primary concern with going small is rebounding, has said there are trades with each lineup decision.

“We can paint lineups all day long and say strengths and weaknesses,” Williams said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Those trades (on both sides) will be on full display at FSU on Wednesday night.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

No. 12 UNC at No. 24 Florida State

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Tucker Center, Tallahassee, Fla.

TV/radio: ESPN2, 106.1-WTKK

UNC (12-2, 1-0 ACC)

G Joel Berry 17.2 ppg, 3.2 apg

G Kenny Williams 12.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg

G Theo Pinson 9.3 ppg, 4.5 apg

F Luke Maye 18.4 ppg, 10.9 rpg

F Garrison Brooks 6.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg

FSU (11-2, 0-1)

G C.J. Walker 9.5 ppg, 3.2 apg

G Braian Angola 12.5 rpg, 3.3 apg

G Terance Mann 14.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg

F Phil Cofer 14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg

F Ike Obiagu 3.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg

Storyline: UNC has won seven straight from FSU but the games, notably at FSU, are usually memorable. Brice Johnson had 39 points and 23 rebounds in UNC’s last trip there. FSU’s last home win, 90-57 in Jan. 2012, was the infamous game where UNC coach Roy Williams took his team to the locker room in the final moments and left his five walk-ons on the floor.

Joe Giglio

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