After an uncharacteristically poor start to the season, North Carolina basketball is back in Chapel Hill. UNC is currently on a four-game winning streak, and the team is much more reminiscent of years past.
This is no longer the inside-out team head coach Roy Williams traditionally puts on the floor. He tried to go that route, but it just wasn't working with a face-up forward and inexperienced centers.
Something had to change, and it ended up being the starting five. With shooting guard P.J. Hairston taking over the 4-spot and James Michael McAdoo the 5, the Tar Heels are much smaller.
But they are also faster and more equipped to score.
There are still some questions to be answered about this team despite its winning ways. And the implementation of a smaller lineup raises even more.
Coach Williams has been harping on the team's lack of urgency all season long—fans have, too. But that has seemed to change since Hairston joined the starting crew.
Whether it was Hairston's intensity rubbing off on everyone else or the urgency felt with the Tar Heels on the tourney bubble, something clicked with these guys. Now they look like they are actually giving it their all on defense and they don't hesitate to get on the floor for a 50-50 ball.
However, they still have a way of falling victim to old habits.
When opposing offenses run down the shot clock and the defense goes long stretches without forcing a turnover, they become a little complacent. Big Carolina leads and poor offensive efficiency can also have the same effect on this squad.
That just can't happen in March.
The Tar Heels have to put their emotional pedal to the floor and play with urgency, no matter the situation. No lead is safe in college basketball until it becomes mathematically impossible to overcome.
Even if they have a 20-point lead, they should be playing like the lead is five with two minutes to go.
Patience is a virtue these Tar Heels have yet to fully grasp.
Whether it is player mentality or the NASCAR-paced scheme Roy Williams implements, this is a problem that will haunt UNC if it doesn't get fixed.
Roy has done a marvelous job of switching from his usual inside-out flavor to more of a motion-based offense. But he has yet to change the pace of his half-court offense.
Speed works for UNC when the team has dual post threats. The point guard can quickly get it inside to the post and score. If nothing is there, the defense has been drawn in and someone opens up on the wing. It's pretty simple to make a fast offensive set like that.
But this season, the only player that is a threat with his back to the basket is freshman Brice Johnson, and he's getting 7.4 minutes per game since Roy went small.
In a motion offense, it takes a while to get a good look. The players have to keep moving and passing until a driving lane or quality jumper opens up.
Instead, the guards are jacking up the first open three or McAdoo is flying to the basket out of control.
There is no need to speed things up if the defense is doing its job, and the team is getting out in transition. Coach Williams can get the points he wants without having a "seven seconds or less" mentality in the half court.
Carolina's small lineup has struggled to rebound for obvious reasons. McAdoo is the tallest starter on the floor at 6'9", and he isn't very physical, either.
As a result, the Tar Heels have dropped about eight boards per game from their season average. The current rotation only snags 32.8 boards per game. And in five games of work, Virginia was the only team it beat on the glass.
This was a team that led the ACC in rebounding at one point. Its five-game average is closer to the bottom of the conference with Florida State.
But this problem can be resolved with physicality and smarter shooting.
With four guards in the lineup, these guys aren't used to boxing out. P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock are excellent rebounders from the wing because they are extremely active and will fly in to snatch one away.
But with Hairston playing the 4, he's playing in an area of the floor where boxing out is essential. Likewise, McAdoo is even deeper at the 5, and getting physical is something he has struggled with despite his rock-solid 230-pound frame.
On top of that, UNC is attempting 21.8 threes per game now. Misses from that range usually turn into long rebounds, and long rebounds usually go to the other team.
The Tar Heels will probably never get back to 40.8 rebounds per game again, but they can certainly help themselves out with closer shots and boxing out.
The free-throw woes at Chapel Hill have plagued this team throughout the season—and it is a two-sided affair.
The Tar Heels are shooting just 65.3 percent from the charity stripe, and they only attempt 18.6 per game. Both of those statistics rank in the 200s on a national scale.
Comparing those numbers to last season, they shot 67.7 percent on 23.6 attempts per game.
Those numbers have improved with the new starting five, though. The team is shooting 20.2 free throws per game and making them at a 67.3 percent clip.
The shooting range of these players has spread the floor and opened up driving lanes for guys like Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland and P.J. Hairston.
Before, it was McAdoo—who is shooting 59.9 percent from the stripe—getting the bulk of the free throws. Now it's the better free-throw shooters handling business on the line.
The Tar Heels still need to penetrate more and continue racking up free throws. And everyone except Paige (86.4 percent) could stand to improve their shooting.
Marcus Paige will probably never dish out 9.8 dimes per game through a season at Chapel Hill, but he has the attributes to become the leader Kendall Marshall was.
Paige has been roughed up in his first season with the Tar Heels. But the "little freshman is a tough little nut," (h/t Inside Carolina) and hasn't seemed phased by poor performances or the blasting he has received from impatient fans.
The Carolina point guard has one job to do, and that's all he seems worried about. That's the kind of toughness leaders are made of.
Though Marshall didn't have to face as much heat as Paige, you could tell he had that same kind of toughness about him. That carried over to being a true leader of men.
Marshall didn't hesitate to instruct the players on where to be, or to chew into someone if they did something wrong. After getting injured in the tournament, he was in his suit on the sideline cheering on—and instructing—the players on the court.
It looked like he was ready to take Roy's job.
You see some of that from Paige, but he could still stand to be a little more demanding of the other guys. His hesitance was understandable, given he was a freshman still learning the game. But he seems to have a better grip on his duties and the flow of the game.
Now it is time for Paige to lead, and that means being the coach on the court. He needs to be the one to make sure his teammates are in the right position, and to settle them down when they start going at a frenetic pace.
The freshman is perfectly capable of being the floor general. He just needs to put his foot down.
As much as this small lineup brings to Carolina, it could really shine if the players can work out the deficiencies of the scheme. And if they can improve on the areas they have struggled with all season, we may be looking at a deep run by UNC in the NCAA tournament.
Otherwise, the end of the season may be as disappointing as the beginning.