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How did UNC basketball respond to Theo Pinson's absence?

Theo Pinson returned last weekend, but UNC had plenty of success while he recovered from injury. You can thank Luke, Justin, and Kenny for that.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season, Carolina fans were pumped to see Theo Pinson step into a prominent role. As a reserve player for last year’s national runner-ups, he continually proved his worth as a Swiss army knife of a player. As we all know, Pinson, who was expected to start the season at the shooting guard position, broke a bone in his foot and missed the first 16 games.

For some teams, this would have derailed early season expectations and results. In fairness, there were plenty of legitimate questions that did not have any immediate answers. Who was going to start at the shooting guard? Would UNC still be able to go small? Did they have the depth in the post to handle a lack of Theo Pinson at the four?

At the time, I surmised that Theo’s injury may just turn out to be a blessing in disguise. While that may seem odd, in sports when someone gets injured, another player has to step into that vacant position. Entering the season, there was some concern of some depth on this team. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to see if those fears were well founded, or to allow other players to gain valuable experience.

There were some corners of the internet that didn’t like the wording or the idea that not having Theo for a while may actually be a good thing for the long term success of the Heels. Personally, I felt awful for Theo, and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, games aren’t won with hope. Now, with Theo firmly entrenched back in the lineup as he continues to regain his rightful spot, let’s look at some of the ways UNC responded to Theo’s absence.

Kenny Williams Emerges

Nate Britt, Brandon Robinson, and Kenny Williams all were expected to see increased playing time once Theo went down. How that playing time would break down was unknown, though most expected Britt to see most of the action. While playing two undersized point guards at the same time seems counterproductive, Roy understandably prefers seniors to have the first chance in situations like these. I hated that idea, but it wasn't unreasonable.

Yet, after alternating starts in the early part of the season, Kenny Williams firmly established himself as the starting shooting guard. It wasn’t even really much of a competition. Clearly motivated after an underwhelming freshman season, Williams quickly established himself as Theo 2.0, where he affected every facet of the game. There’s a strong argument that Kenny Williams’ sophomore season has the potential to statistically be better than Theo’s sophomore year. See the table below, which also compares Britt's numbers from this year. The stats are courtesy of sports-reference.com

Player MPG ORtg PPG RPG APG DRtg SPG
Pinson ('15-16) 18.7 111.7 4.5 3.2 2.9 102.8 0.6
Williams ('16-17) 23.7 122.0 7.2 3.4 2.2 95.7 1.1
Britt ('16-17) 21.1 103.8 5.6 2.2 2.7 93.1 1.4

There are a lot of games left to play, and Williams’ minutes and stats are likely to regress. Nonetheless, if anybody had told you that KWill would provide this kind of production before the season, you probably would have laughed and asked them to pass you whatever it was they were smoking. Even more impressive is the fact Williams predominantly plays one position (compared to Theo’s versatility), and is equal to, or better than, Pinson’s numbers.

Also, it's obvious that Britt has continued to receive plenty of playing time as well. His role on this team is rock solid, and he will continue to contribute as UNC makes their run to Phoenix.

Justin Jackson at the 4

Much has been, and will continue to be, said about the versatility that Theo brings to the lineup. He can consistently provide a favorable defensive matchup against four of the five positions on the court. Last season, Roy flirted with the small-ball lineup in limited amounts and against specific mismatches.

This season, there was the belief that Theo’s development and growth as a player may have allowed UNC more freedom to try it more often. When Pinson went down, most thought that UNC was going to depend on Tony Bradley to pick up the slack. Occasionally Justin Jackson would likely slide to the four for offensive mismatches. That’s not exactly what happened.

Tony Bradley started the season on a tear, recording double digit points in his first six games. However, as the season has continued, his production has declined. This shouldn’t be surprising. He’s a freshman, and freshmen often have peaks and valleys. He will continue to provide much-needed depth and skills throughout the season. At 15.1 minutes per game, he just didn’t have quite the increased workload that some may have expected in Theo’s absence.

Instead, Justin Jackson has seen more time at the four than had been originally thought. In fact, according to kenpom.com, the second most common lineup over the past five games has been with Justin Jackson at the power forward position. Joel Berry, Britt, and Williams round out the rest of the perimeter in that scenario. Yet, Jackson isn’t averaging much more playing time than he did last year. Last season he was on the court for 28.2 minutes per game. This season, he’s averaging 30.2 mpg.

The increased play at the four is partly why he has flourished offensively. Taking advantage of defensive mismatches, he averages 17.7 ppg, is shooting over 39% from three, and has an ORtg of 127.0. All of those are improvements from last season, when he primarily played the small forward position.

Luke Maye Surprises

As it turns out, Tony Bradley was not the post player who has benefitted most from Theo’s injury. Instead, Luke Maye has staked his claim as the most improved/surprising player of the year. Averaging 13.3 mpg, he is often the first post player off the bench. Again, most of you would have laughed at that notion before the season started.

However, he’s using those 13.3 minutes and proving his worth almost every game. Averaging 3.7 rebounds in such a small amount of playing time is impressive. His ability to shoot the three has been on display, where he is hitting 38.5% of his three point attempts. Granted, his sample size is small (5 makes, 13 attempts), but it’s enough to keep opposing defenses honest. Most importantly, he has been surprisingly good on defense, with a DRtg of 90.5, good for sixth best on the team. (Fifth best if you don’t include Aaron Rohlman, who may be the best statistical walk-on in the country).

UNC needed some depth in the post. Theo was the most likely candidate to help mask that deficiency. Instead, Luke Maye has helped ensure that UNC’s post play would continue to be an asset, even if it is not in the traditional Roy Williams/UNC style that most of have come to expect. Much like Jackson, Maye has surprised at the power forward position. Again referencing kenpom.com, the third and fourth most common lineup over the last five games had Maye on the court at the four spot. Not Hicks. Not Meeks. Not Bradley.

UNC weathered the proverbial storm during the non-conference season. With the exception of that odd Georgia Tech loss, an outside observer could almost argue that Pinson’s injury didn’t affect this team at all. While no true UNC fan would ever suggest such a blasphemous idea, it is fair to say that Pinson’s return certainly feels more like a luxury than a necessity at this point in the season. That’s certainly a blessing we could not have fathomed before the season started.