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UNC Basketball: Don’t call it small ball

UNC has a new starting lineup. Let’s leave it at that.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

For the last two games, Roy Williams has rolled out the supposed “small” lineup of Joel Berry, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, Theo Pinson, and Luke Maye. Some call it the “death” lineup or a “Warrior” lineup. Both are presumably in reference to the Golden State Warriors when they put a guard-oriented offense on the floor in late game situation to close out an opponent. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but as we alluded to on Friday, switching out 6-9, 215lb Garrison Brooks for 6-8, 210lb Cameron Johnson isn’t even really “going small”. In reality, the size is staying the same. Only the skillsets are changing.

Then vs Now

Just look at the numbers. Joel Berry (6-0, 195), Kenny Williams (6-4, 185), Theo Pinson (6-6, 220), Cam Johnson (6-8, 210), and Luke Maye (6-8, 240) are actually slightly bigger than the 2012-2013 squad that is so often used as an blueprint. It’s smaller than what UNC is used to, but not exactly tiny compared to realistic options on this year’s roster.

The 2012-2013 team? That was certainly a small lineup considering Joel James, Brice Johnson , and Desmond Hubert were all on the bench despite standing 6-9 or taller. The eventual starting lineup that saved that season was Marcus Paige (6-0, 157), Dexter Strickland (6-3, 185), P.J. Hairston (6-5, 220), Reggie Bullock (6-7, 205), and James Michael McAdoo (6-9, 230). This year’s team is taller, heavier, or both at every position. Not to mention, more well-rounded and diverse in their talents.

Instead, UNC is showing more faith in a guard-dominated offense that in limited time on the court, has displayed an emphasis on ball security, high percentage shots by attacking the rim, ball movement, and exploiting offensive and defensive mismatches. This is not a surprise. The possibility has been touted for the past six months by players, coaches, and the media. Let’s end this nonsense.

As Good as Advertised?

North Carolina is certainly a different team than previous years, but this particular lineup isn't particularly smaller than the Heels’ other current options. For the immediate future, this is North Carolina’s new normal. Unless Roy Williams decides to play musical lineups, which he has absolutely zero history of doing, let’s just go with the “starting lineup”. Full stop. Anything else is largely overblown, overstated, and possibly overrated.

For instance, in the past two games, the new starting five have actually been outscored by both Boston College and Notre Dame. And while they collectively out-rebounded both teams, that number is buoyed by an insane performance against the Eagles. Notre Dame easily outclassed these new-look Heels on the boards yesterday. You wont be shocked to learn more teams resemble Notre Dame’s size than they do Boston College’s. As we know, it is the ability to rebound the ball that often garners playing time in Roy’s system, and a major reason he is so wary of using four guards at the same time. At best, the rebounding prowess of this group is to be determined.

It is also worth mentioning that the new lineup isn’t spending significantly more time together on the court. Prior to the Boston College game, this “small” lineup saw anywhere from 4 to 7 minutes per game. Some of that can be explained by Cam Johnson easing himself back into game condition. Over the last 80 minutes of action, the starting lineup have played approximately 20 minutes together, give or take a few seconds. That's an average of 10 minutes per game. A noticeable increase, but not a departure from anything resembling North Carolina basketball.

The new lineup is NOT a cure-all for the Heels and they will still have plenty of struggles. For more, read new N&O UNC beat reporter Joe Giglio’s great analysis.

Same Players, Different Roles

Now that we have all reached that basic understanding, let me be clear. It is obvious that the new starting lineup consists of the best five players on UNC’s roster. Switching to this new lineup is not insignificant and has numerous benefits. Only some of those are noticeable at the first glance of the box score. The increased ball movement, up-tempo play, and lack of turnovers have all been mentioned. They will continue to be mentioned. This is not about that. (For two of the better breakdowns on the new starting lineup, check out ACC Sports here and WRAL’s Marilyn Payne, here.)

Instead, of equal importance (if not more), is that the new starting lineup arguably allows for more flexibility with personnel throughout a game. That may surprise some of you, but it’s true.

While it’s still too early to glean too much about future playing time, the new lineup isn’t taking significant playing time from main contributors. Cam Johnson has seen a recent uptick, which means Brooks has seen a minor decrease. When removing a starter, that can sometimes be a dicey situation, but Brooks has averaged 15 minutes in the last two game. He only has averaged 18 mpg for the season. So far, so good. That means all previous rotations remain viable options.

Also, Pinson is almost always the first player to be subbed out of the game. Prior to Boston College, Cam Johnson would enter in place of Pinson. That left the young and undersized Garrison Brooks logging more early minutes in the traditional offense. That effectively delayed the guard-dominated lineup from taking the court together. If one wanted to figure out why UNC struggled to so many slow starts, that would be a solid starting point.

While Brooks is an absolutely underappreciated defender and solid rebounder, it was clear that he was beginning to hit the freshman wall. His productivity was down, his body language showed more frustration and less confidence, and the adjustment to conference opponents clearly had an affect on his play. Maybe he felt pressure starting as a freshman. Perhaps the addition of Cam Johnson made him question what his role really was. Whatever the reasons, he no longer has to carry that burden. As the first substitute, he can relax, get a feel for the opposition in the opening minutes, and decide where to best focus his efforts. It should not be a surprise if his efficiency begins to improve as he adjusts to his new role.

Manley’s Minutes

The delay in Brooks’ minutes set off a chain reaction with Manley. Check out the time in which Manley entered the games since ACC play started.

Wake Forest: 15:05, 8 total minutes
Florida State: 14:44, 15 total minutes
Virginia: 11:39, 12 total minutes
Boston College: 9:37, 11 total minutes
Notre Dame: 6:37, 10 total minutes

The new starting lineup has impacted when Manley enters the game, but not necessarily how much he plays. His playing time depends on certain matchups and how he performs on any particular night. As the season continues, Roy’s lineup will become more solidified, but this is an encouraging indicator for the future. How, you may be asking, is this a positive development? Shouldn’t Manley be playing more minutes if he performs well?

Quite simply, Sterling Manley is still trying to find some level of physical conditioning that allows him to play at a productive level for more than two minutes at a time. That’s only a slight exaggeration. By waiting until deeper in the first half to bring Manley on the court, UNC is able to take advantage of a fresher Manley against more tired opponents. With both teams in more of a rhythm, it also means that Manley’s height and length are an effective change of pace, allowing him to impact the game in a more noticeable way. Thus, Manley has appeared to be focused and productive the previous two games. He is essentially the new “small-ball”, only in reverse. It’s still early with the new starting lineup, but this indicates Manley may be carving out a specific role in this year’s team.

Those substitution patterns carry over to the second half, where Roy Williams can now decide which big man is the better option based on the game situation. Against Boston College’s smaller, faster lineup, Garrison Brooks was the first off the bench in the second period. Against Notre Dame’s larger roster, it was Sterling Manley.

Did you notice it was Sterling Manley who had his name called for the initial game-winning attempt on the baseline out of bounds play against the Irish? He wasn’t even on the court against Florida State when the game was on the line. This flexibility is not a bad thing and doesn’t box any one player into any specific expectations. For these reasons, and contrary to my colleague Roger Burton, I am not one to advocate for Manley entering the starting lineup. I‘m not even convinced he should be the first big man off the bench.

Faster, Better, Stronger

Additionally, the new starting lineup allows for your best players to see action early, get acclimated to the game, and open up offensive options. Consider these facts from the past two games:

  • Luke Maye at the five spot provides a bigger offensive mismatch than when he plays the four. It’s hard to ignore his combined 34 points and 19 rebounds in both first halves.
  • Theo Pinson has been noticeably more aggressive as he exploits the athletic advantage he has as the “power forward”. After a few uneven games, his 21 points, 19 rebounds,and 9 assists are proof.
  • Cam Johnson, a old-school “tweener” on the wing, has displayed a more diverse skillset than previously expected. (20 field goal attempts, only 8 from deep).
  • Kenny Williams, UNC’s best two-way player, maintains his presence without ceding time to Johnson. If there was any doubt to KWill’s value, please check out Al Hood’s “Three Things Learned”.
  • Joel Berry does not have to be the main offensive threat, which is a good thing for all involved. His field goal attempts, points, and turnovers are down while his assists are up.

As mentioned earlier, this lineup is only playing 10 minutes per game as. Yet, no starter has played less than 26 minutes (Pinson, against Boston College). That indicates that this lineup is influencing the entire flow of UNC’s game, and not just when they are on the court together. That’s a departure from when the lineup was used strictly to close out a half to exploit mismatches or change the pace.

To be honest, I was skeptical of this new starting lineup. Not because I didn't think they were good or the best UNC had to offer - they most definitely are. Nor am I a die-hard cult-like believer in the traditional 3 out-2 in system that UNC is known for. I’ve had my doubts about holding onto a more traditional offense that doesn’t quite mesh with the high-caliber athlete that adorn the AAU circuits these days. (There ARE multiple ways to get inside the paint, as this lineup has proven).

Instead, my concerns were mostly related to how effective this lineup could perform in extended minutes. As a change-of-pace, end-of-half lineup, it had great success and had a true niche. However, it became abundantly clear that UNC just does not have the talent in the post to survive an ultra-competitive ACC. There were going to be games when Berry, Williams, Pinson, Johnson, and Maye had to be on the court sooner than the final media timeout. A change was needed.

Two games are a small sample size so some of this can, and will, evolve. Coaching staffs will watch hundreds of hours of film, tendencies will be discovered, and teams will adjust. But for now, the early results have been encouraging.

It’s exactly what one should expect from a starting lineup.