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Examining UNC basketball lineup combinations

Lacking experienced post depth for the first time since 2012-13, UNC’s lineups may look a little different this year.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As the basketball season gets closer, UNC fans will continue to read and listen to reports about the depth, talent, and experience on the perimeter. They will also be inundated with stories describing how the departures of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley left a gaping hole in the paint. Only Luke Maye returns any significant experience as a post player, so growing pains are to be expected with the freshman triumvirate of Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, and Sterling Manley.

With so many questions at key positions, there are more than a few ideas about how Roy Williams could or should use the wealth of guards, “small” forwards, and stretch-4/hybrid forwards. Some point to 2012-2013 for inspiration, when a late season change in the starting line-up likely saved UNC’s season. Others, like our own Brandon Anderson, point out that UNC and Duke could possibly see a slight role reversal with personnel on the court.

That got me thinking, what might some of those line-ups look like? Below are a few possibilities. Some are realistic while others are a bit more…creative. If you’re reading this, you probably have a few ideas as well. It’s the offseason, recruiting classes are finalized, and we all find different ways to pass the time.

Nobody knows what the staff will decide to do, and Coach Williams certainly is not changing the principles upon which his system thrives. They aren’t going to abandon the secondary break or their motion offense for a Kentucky-styled dribble-drive philosophy or start regularly shooting 30 three-point attempts per game. However, it’s fair to think that there will be some non-traditional UNC squads that take the floor.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Lineup 1:
PG: Joel Berry
SG: Cameron Johnson
SF: Theo Pinson
PF: Luke Maye
C: Brooks/Huffman/Manley

The two lineups UNC fans will most likely see aren’t too surprising. The first lineup is the tried and true Roy Williams lineup with his traditional 3-out, 2-in set-up. Last season Bradley or Hicks usually filled in at the center position. This season, we’re likely to see a rotation of the freshmen as they settle into a positional pecking order. How often we’ll see that lineup is a separate conversation. One could argue for Kenny Williams to start in that lineup, but coming off additional knee surgery this summer, combined with Johnson’s proven scoring ability, this seems the most likely scenario.

Lineup 2:
PG: Joel Berry
SG: Kenny Williams
SF: Cam Johnson
PF: Theo Pinson
C: Luke Maye

Kenny Williams should see plenty of burn in that second line-up. Tar Heel fans saw variations of this lineup last year, albeit, rarely (never?) with Luke Maye at the center spot. With another offseason to improve, Maye’s incredibly high basketball IQ will make up for whatever athletic deficiencies he may have. A fully healthy Theo Pinson sliding into the 4 spot provides the Heels some additional size on the perimeter and quickness on the interior. With four legitimate three-point threats in this crew (Berry, Williams, Johnson and Maye), there should be plenty of slashing and driving lanes to take advantage of.

If you’re looking for Roy Williams to make any realistic or long-term changes to his winning formula this second lineup, or something very close to it, is your best bet.

Likelihood of being used: 100%

Bombs Away

PG: Joel Berry
SG: Jalek Felton
SF: Kenny Williams
PF: Cam Johnson
C: Luke Maye

One of the exciting areas of this year’s teams is the possibility of continued success when shooting the three. There were a few years where UNC’s long-range threats were Marcus Paige and….well that’s it. Last season, Justin Jackson’s development and Maye’s emergence helped keep defenses honest. This season, there’s even more cause for hope outside the arc. Consider these fun facts:

  • Rising junior Kenny Williams shot 33.3% from three last season (before missing the final six weeks with a knee injury).
  • Joel Berry, though streaky, had a 38.4% success rate.
  • Luke Maye made 40% of his 40 attempts in limited minutes. His minutes will increase this year.
  • Graduate-transfer Cam Johnson had the most success, hitting 78 out of 187 attempts for a 41.7% success rate. That was despite being the third option on the 268th fastest offense in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy’s Adj. Tempo calculations.

In the case of Johnson, he is expected to fill the All-American and ACC Player of the Year-sized void on the wing left by Justin Jackson. For comparison’s sake, Jackson was 105 for 284 in the country’s 41st fastest offense, and led the Heels in scoring. Get as hopeful as you feel comfortable with.

There are plenty of perimeter weapons on this year’s Heels. It could be fun if they all hit the court at the same time.

Likelihood of being used: 90%

Three and D (2016-17 Offensive Rating/Defensive Rating)

PG: Joel Berry (120.7 / 100.0)
SG: Seventh Woods (75.5 / 94.2)
SF: Brandon Robinson (104.8 / 99.7)
PF: Cam Johnson (123.1 / 110.7)
C: Luke Maye (115.8 / 98.2)

This, or some variation, may be slightly unrealistic. A lineup like this depends on the growth of Woods and Robinson. Both rising sophomore showed flashes of their potential, and both bring a defensive prowess that just needs a little guidance. Woods’ speed and Robinson’s length will eventually cause tremendous problems for opposing guards. If they both make a “sophomore leap,” the Heels could benefit this year.

Providing a mix of defense and three point shooting makes these five an interesting case-study. In theory, as a player develops, his defensive rating should continue to improve or at least hold steady. The outlier in this crew is Cam Johnson’s defense last season. Some of that can be blamed on Pittsburgh’s lack of a defensive identity and being an overall atrocious team. In this lineup, with Cam sliding to the 4, his relative speed compared to other power forwards could help improve his defensive output. He also creates mismatches on the offensive end that can’t be replicated by Pinson.

Likelihood of being used: 50%

Go Big or Go Home

PG: Jalek Felton
SG: Cam Johnson
SF: Luke Maye
PF: Garrison Brooks
C: Brandon Huffman/Sterling Manley

Like the Three-and-D lineup, this is also slightly extremely unrealistic and depends heavily on the development and growth of the freshmen. Luke Maye on the perimeter also may make some people shudder, though you can never forget that wonderful pump-fake and dunk against NC State. However, rebounding is a major tenet of UNC’s philosophy and there isn’t a lineup that could potentially grab more rebounds than this one.

Since we’re having fun with this, Felton stands at 6-3, providing a height advantage over Berry and Woods. Cam Johnson averaged 5.4 rebounds per 40 minutes and his shooting ability edges him above Pinson in this fantasy lineup—a team still needs to score points. The same rationale can be used for Maye (11.2 reb per 40 minutes) floating around the perimeter.

That leaves the freshmen down low with one goal: box out. Simplify the game, take any offensive expectations off their shoulders, and just tell them to get the ball. If a post presence is needed, Maye usually will have a size advantage on his defender.

Likelihood of being used: 10%

How fast is too fast?

PG: Joel Berry/Seventh Woods
SG: Seventh Woods/Jalek Felton
SF: Kenny Williams/Brandon Robinson
PF: Cam Johnson
C: Theo Pinson

You are probably rolling your eyes at this one. Don’t. The likelihood of this lineup, or something similar, may seem farfetched, but what happens if one of the freshman post players get hurt or in foul trouble? Pinson, Maye, Bradley, Williams, and Berry all missed time last season. It happens. With so many ball-handlers on the team, and arguably only one true traditional point guard (Woods), there are going to be some fun and fast combinations.

Where a lineup like this one sacrifices some size and rebounding, it could benefit from speed, ball-handling, and defensive mismatches. Akil Guruparan touched on the defensive prowess of the 2012-2013 team as an example of what made that small-ball lineup work so well. This lineup has all the pieces to provide the same problems for opposing offenses. Remember Theo’s performance against Florida State last season?

Offensively, any combination of Berry/Felton/Woods brings a plethora of varying skillsets (shooting, driving, defense, and passing) that could cause difficulties for opponents. Kenny Williams adds an additional outside threat that would open passing and driving lanes, though Brandon Robinson could just as easily work in this rotation. Despite his slender frame, Robinson’s propensity to show a complete lack of regard for his own body adds a toughness that a smaller lineup would undoubtedly benefit from.

As a fan, this is the one lineup I would love to see Roy experiment with.

Likelihood of being used: 40%

If anything, these lineups show how indispensable Joel Berry and Luke Maye will be to this year’s team. Raise your hand if you guessed that would be the case when Luke Maye arrived on campus. If you raised your hand, you are lying. With as much depth as this team will have, stability will be paramount to any sustainable success.

The other surprise? I didn’t expect to use Cam Johnson as much as I did. Some of that is undoubtedly a, “This is a best case, everything goes absolutely perfect” scenario, and Cam Johnson is as good as or better than advertised. If anybody would like to slap me out of my current fantasy dreamland, let me know. I fully acknowledge it would be well deserved. Theo could arguably replace him in almost any of these combinations.

However, if anything, it points to how big of a presence Justin Jackson actually was last season. His departure may be larger than most realize—regardless of the obligatory lip service that will inevitably and justifiably be rendered. Fortunately, the Heels have enough incoming and returning talent in Chapel Hill. It just may look a little different than what we are used to.