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After two straight losses, UNC had to do something. Here’s what Roy Williams did.

UNC's Roy Williams explains his decision to go with a smaller lineup

University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams discusses his decision to go with a smaller lineup in the win over Boston College after back-to-back losses to Florida State and Virginia.
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University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams discusses his decision to go with a smaller lineup in the win over Boston College after back-to-back losses to Florida State and Virginia.

Roy Williams didn’t make a big deal about changing his starting lineup before North Carolina’s game with Boston College.

He didn’t afterward, either.

The Tar Heels went “small” to start both halves in a 96-66 win over Boston College on Tuesday.

This is a relatively big deal because Williams doesn’t like to change lineups, and he doesn’t necessarily like to play small.

But after two ACC losses, including a listless offensive effort at Virginia, Williams decided to put wing Cam Johnson in the starting lineup and bring forward Garrison Brooks off the bench.

“We got beat twice in a row, and we weren’t playing well, so I decided to do something,” Williams said.

We got beat twice in a row and we weren’t playing well, so I decided to do something.

UNC coach Roy Williams

The starting lineup had been the same since the second game of the season, and it was only different for the opener because senior guard Joel Berry had a hand injury.

The same four players – guard Kenny Williams, wing Theo Pinson, forward Luke Maye and Brooks – had started the first 16 games together. Once Berry was back, he started 15 straight games.

But the return of Johnson from a knee injury on Dec. 20 has caused Williams to do some tinkering. Johnson, at 6-8, gives UNC some flexibility to move Pinson to the power forward or “4” spot and use Maye, a bit undersized at 6-8 for the 4, at the center or “5” spot.

The lineup had been Carolina’s most effective combination until the Virginia game. Williams only used that group together for 1 minute and 19 seconds in the first half, and only in the first half, of the 61-49 loss to the Cavaliers.

Williams did experiment in the second half with a super-small lineup with Pinson at the 5 and liked how that group rebounded (although it didn’t score).

So he put Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh, into the lineup for the first time on Tuesday.

And?

Well, the Heels won big, started the game very quickly and finished with an unbelievable 58 to 23 rebounding advantage.

But … the starting lineup was actually outscored 22 to 21 in its 9:14 on the floor together. That’s because BC came out blazing in the second half and had a 16-11 run in the first 5 minutes of the half.

Then Williams didn’t go back to the lineup. There was no need. The game was already in hand.

It’s clear, though, which lineup the players prefer.

Maye had a career-high 32 points and was the focus of the offense early. The players made a concerted effort to get Maye going in the opening minutes, and he delivered with 21 points in the first half as UNC jumped out to a 50-35 lead.

The floor spacing also gives Pinson and Johnson room to attack the basket. They finished with five assists each on Tuesday. When they drive, it opens up shooting lanes for Berry and Kenny Williams.

After the game, Berry, who had 13 points and much more help than the previous three ACC games, was asked if the small-ball lineup was UNC’s best.

“Honestly, I think so,” Berry said. “We want to have two big men (on the floor) because of the rebounding (but) it’s just a different team this year.”

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Roy Williams’ preference has long been to have two traditional forwards on the floor and run the offense through them. UNC’s size, depth and post production were one of the main reasons it won the national title last season.

But with so many of those parts gone, and the new ones available a better fit for a different style, Williams has shown he is willing to change.

The matchups, he said, will dictate how much, though.

“We decided to go ‘small’ and change something, and it was a good team to go small against,” Williams said. “I may go back ‘big’ next time, who knows?”

Johnson, who played a season-high 32 minutes and pulled down a career-best 11 rebounds, said the coach never told him he was going to make the change.

Johnson went out for practice on Sunday and was ready to go with the backups.

“I walk out on the court and we’re going first five,” Johnson said. “They’re going, you are out here.”

With Notre Dame, also a smaller team, up next on the schedule on Saturday, maybe Williams will stick with the lineup. The next four games are set up to go small.

The issue, as Williams has said all along, is rebounding.

“If you want to play small, you better rebound or we ain’t going to play small,” Williams said. “It’s pretty simple.”

The players got that message. UNC turned in season-bests in rebounds (58), offensive rebounds (23) and rebounding margin (plus-35).

And the freshmen bigs didn’t seem to be fazed by the change. Brooks had four points and four rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench for the first time this season. Sterling Manley, who has come off the bench all season, had nine points and five rebounds in 11 minutes.

The two were a combined plus-35 in their court time on Tuesday, compared minus-12 at Virginia. Both were good in spurts, which is probably what Williams had hoped would happen with the change.

“Sometimes you need a little bit of change,” Johnson said.

The change certainly worked on Tuesday.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

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