Extreme Makeover North Carolina Edition: How Small Ball Saved Tar Heels' Season

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Extreme Makeover North Carolina Edition: How Small Ball Saved Tar Heels' Season
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After watching 23 games of a poor man's version of North Carolina basketball, Roy Williams decided it was time for a change.  

The Tar Heels were on a road to March irrelevancy. A bubble team destined for either a low seed in the NCAA tournament or a rare trip to the NIT, lumbering through the ACC as an also-ran. 

Williams, call him stubborn if you want, was sticking to what was comfortable: two bigs, three perimeter players and the secondary break. 

On Feb. 13 against Duke, the coach finally gave in to what seemed like a logical shakeup. Williams went small, inserting third-leading scorer P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup at the four spot. It was North Carolina's best five players on the floor to start the game. Leslie McDonald, a wing who is arguably UNC's sixth-best player, was the first off the bench. 

"Nobody knows my team," Williams begrudgingly told the News & Observer after the Duke game. "But it's popular to say who the (heck’s) supposed to be in the lineup and you don't know what the dickens you're talking about."

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Alert the masses. Maybe there was something to the group-think that a UNC team with Hairston playing starter minutes was better off than a UNC team with Hairston playing 16.8 minutes prior to the Duke game.  

Four days after losing by 26 at Miami, playing with a traditional lineup that included sophomore forward Desmond Hubert starting up front alongside James McAdoo, Williams went small and the Tar Heels were competitive in Durham, leading early and eventually losing 66-61.

Since then, they've won three straight and look like a completely different version of the squad that got run out of the building in both Raleigh and Coral Gables.  

 

Small Equals Productive

The sample size is not quite big enough to declare the Tar Heels as Final Four contenders—no one should argue that—but the results so far are definitely eye-opening. 

During the three-game winning streak, the Tar Heels have won all three by double digits and two of those wins (Virginia and NC State) have come against likely NCAA tourney teams, both of whom had knocked off UNC earlier in the year. 

Digging deeper, it's obvious going small has been the obvious difference. North Carolina has played a majority of its possessions the last four games with some combination of perimeter players Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, Hairston and Leslie McDonald combined with a big man. 

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

That small-ball lineup has outscored the opposition 232-191 in those four games. When Williams has gone traditional, UNC has been outscored 86-75. 

To put these numbers in some context, the small-ball lineup over four games is scoring 1.15 points per possession and holding opponents to 0.96 points per possession. That 0.19 difference is better than first-place Miami, which is outscoring ACC opponents by 0.16 points per trip. 

In UNC's first 10 ACC games before Williams decided to change his lineup, his team was scoring 1.01 points per possession and holding conference opponents to. 0.98 points per trip.

So the small-ball Tar Heels are playing like a conference champ, compared to the traditional Heels, who were middle of the pack.

 

Fully Embracing a Small-Ball Offense

It is one thing to simply go small and play your best players, but credit Williams for going all the way with this approach and changing his offensive blueprint as well. 

The Tar Heels, as I documented weeks ago, were not built to play the typical UNC style that heavily relies upon low-post scorers.

This new version is still playing Williams' fast-paced style, but it's their half-court approach that looks different. The Heels are spreading the floor and opening up driving angles with both their spacing and their shooting instead of pounding the ball in the post with regularity. 

In the first 10 ACC games, the Heels attempted only 28.6 percent of their shots from deep and shot a respectable 36.1 percent. That percentage of attempts over the course of the season would rank 283rd in the nation this year.

In the last four games, the Heels are attempting 34.1 percent of their shots from deep, which would rank in the top 150, and they've upped their accuracy to 37.9 percent. 

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This type of reliance on the three would suggest less attacking and less trips to the free-throw line, but it has had the opposite effect. The Heels are attempting nearly five more free throws per game than they had averaged in ACC play. 

"We’ve got five scorers out there with a scoring mentality that can score the ball," Bullock told the News & Observer. "It helps stretch the floor (and) takes a lot of pressure off of (James Michael McAdoo) down low."

Hairston's impact as a four man is not limited to changing his team's style of play. He's averaging 18.5 points per game in the last four contests after averaging 12.1 points per game in ACC play prior to his insertion into the starting lineup. 

“It's a difficult matchup, and it is for just about anybody,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory told the News & Observer after losing 70-58 to UNC last Tuesday. "… You have to be able to defend on the perimeter. … Big guys have a tendency to keep getting stuck towards the rim when they are off the ball and if you do that, you're going to give a wide open shot."

Williams' hesitancy to go to such a lineup was not because of how he would have to change his offense; it was his defense that concerned him. 

"It's hard for P.J. to guard a 6-8, 6-9 guy for 40 minutes," Williams said. "We understand that part. But also it might be hard for them to guard him."

That first point is where Williams has been wrong thus far. UNC's defense has actually improved going small. The Heels still have good size—Bullock is 6'7" and Hairston is 6'5"—and quicker rotations and the ability for the four man to cover more space has benefited the Heels more than the lack of a true four man has helped opposing offenses. 

 

What's UNC's Ceiling Now? 

The Tar Heels will still be in a tough spot once the NCAA tournament starts as they are currently slated as an eight seed by ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi and as seven seed by Bleacher Report's Bracketologist Kerry Miller

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Williams has had only one UNC team enter the NCAA tournament with worse than a three seed and that team, his first in Chapel Hill, made it to the Round of 32. Williams has never had a team lose its opening-round game. 

We'll have a better idea of what this small-ball approach is truly capable of as the games pile up. The Heels have a good opportunity to improve their seed when Duke comes to town for the regular-season finale as well as the ACC tournament. If the Heels continue to play as well as they have since they've gone small, they could be a team that is better than their seed in the NCAAs, and they will definitely be a matchup problem for more traditional teams. 

And in a season with college basketball full of parity, Williams might just have found a lineup dangerous enough to make a run. 

All advanced statistics used in this piece come from KenPom.com or play-by-play data. 

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