The 18th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels have already racked up two wins over Top Five opponents this season—more than any other program in the nation. It certainly wasn't easy, though, and much credit should be given to UNC's head coach, Roy Williams.
His 11th year leading the storied program in Chapel Hill may prove to be his best year of coaching yet. With P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald still awaiting decisions from the NCAA, Coach Williams is having to work with only one true wing on the roster.
Between a lack of depth on the wing and an overabundance of posts, he's having to do some serious shuffling to make the pieces fit together. It has certainly made for some interesting rotations, and the timeliness of some of his groupings had a lot to do with those big wins over Louisville and Michigan State.
In the following slides, I've compiled five of the best situational lineups for 2013-14, in the absence of Hairston and McDonald.
When the time calls for some lockdown defense, Roy Williams will typically look to Nate Britt, Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, James Michael McAdoo and Joel James. It's no coincidence that this is also his starting lineup.
Coach Williams, though known for fast-paced, high-scoring offense, places a priority on defense. After all, a lot of Carolina's quick scoring has to do with turnovers resulting in fast breaks. For those of us wondering why P.J. Hairston didn't start most of last season and why Brice Johnson has yet to start, here is the reasoning.
Both players have the ability to come up with big plays on the defensive end but occasionally become complacent. Hairston shored up his defensive efforts as his sophomore season progressed, and Johnson appears to be doing the same.
But for now, the current starting five appear to be who Williams is most comfortable with and trusts the most on the defensive end of the floor.
Britt was a slight exception to the rule, as his on-ball defense left much to be desired at the start of the season. But with two of his three wings on the bench, Williams needed the freshman to start so Paige could play the 2.
Now, he's quickly earning his spot with his defensive efforts. He's doing a much better job staying in front of the ball, and he gave his all against Michigan State's star point guard. Britt helped hold Keith Appling to just 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
James may also be a surprise on this list, given he only has two blocks on the season and Desmond Hubert has been known as the team's best defensive center. But James is virtually impossible to back down, unlike Hubert, and he does a great job of standing tall and not leaving his feet.
As a result, he blocks fewer shots but doesn't get abused by shot fakes. Instead, he forces his opponent to give up the ball or put up a highly contested shot.
When points are hard to come by, Coach Williams has a couple strong groups to put on the floor—even in the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
On the rare occasion he moves Paige to the point, the best unit also includes top scorers Tokoto, McAdoo, Johnson and Meeks. Though most of the time, you will see Britt run point in this scenario. That removes either Tokoto or McAdoo, as they have been the least efficient of this grouping on the offensive end.
They are shooting 44.8 and 40.4 percent, respectively, and have been the team's two worst free-throw shooters.
No matter how the Hall of Famer juggles these guys, he still has five of his top six scorers in the game—three of who are averaging double figures (Paige, Johnson, McAdoo).
Paige has been on a bit of a shooting slump over the last three contests, but his scorching start to the season forces defenses to focus on the sophomore. He's the team's leading scorer at 18.8 per and has buried 20 of the Tar Heels' 23 three-point baskets.
That opens up looks for guys like Johnson, who has been the most efficient scorer thus far.
The sophomore power forward is averaging 13.6 points on 62.2 percent shooting in just 20.1 minutes of action per game. If he gets fed in the post, you might as well put two in the scoring column because Easy B is automatic anywhere near the paint.
You could almost say the same for Meeks, who is shooting 61.9 percent from the floor. He doesn't have the lift of Johnson, but his sly footwork in the post and his shooting range has managed 8.5 points over 14.4 minutes per game.
Not too shabby for a freshman.
As for Tokoto and McAdoo, a lot of their scoring lands in the category of activity points. That includes putbacks off the rebound, rolling to the basket and fast breaks. The steal-and-slam has been McAdoo's signature move since arriving in Chapel Hill.
Next to defense, rebounding may be the most important facet of the game in Roy Williams' eyes. For that purpose, it doesn't get any better than Paige, Tokoto, McAdoo, Johnson and Meeks.
That group accounts for 28.2 of the Tar Heels' 41.5 rebounds per game.
As mentioned in the previous slide, Tokoto and McAdoo are great activity guys, and they haul in quite a few rebounds as a result. Tokoto is averaging 5.5 rebounds per game from the wing, and McAdoo is pulling in 5.9 while working both the 4 and 3 spots.
Johnson was a solid rebounder even as a slender freshman, but the 23 pounds he gained over the summer is making boxing out much easier. He leads the squad with 6.9 rebounds a game.
James has been a much better rebounder of late, but it's tough to top Meeks in this department. Even when he doesn't box out his guy, somehow he still manages to corral the board with his superior hands. And when he has the angle, he's just as good at tipping it in.
Meeks also gives Coach Williams another weapon with his outlet passes. He buried Louisville with five or six of them earlier this season.
There are few things that will make Williams happier than a defensive rebound that turns into a quick score on the other end. That's killing two birds with one stone.
There are three key components to dominating the transition game: defense, passing and speed. Roy Williams has recruited quite a few guys who cover all three categories, making the "best" lineup a pretty tough decision.
Britt, Paige, Tokoto, McAdoo and Johnson are clear-cut favorites when it comes to turnover-producing defense that can turn into a score at the blink of an eye. The problem is that there is no true center with those five guys.
Efficiency in the half court on both ends could be problematic with this group. McAdoo never seemed comfortable at center last season, and Johnson is still undersized at 210 pounds. It'd definitely be worth a few test runs, though.
The Tar Heels were pretty successful last season with four guards and an ailing McAdoo (inflamed disk) at the 5.
If that proved inefficient, someone could drop out for Hubert (fast), James (typical center speed) or Meeks (slower, but has that wicked outlet pass). Hubert is easily the best in transition, but his minutes have been reduced to 4.5 per game, thanks to a strong showing from the freshman big, Meeks.
Pick your poison.
It isn't often you will see point guard Luke Davis in the game. Especially over the last four games in which he has failed to reach double-digit minutes. But one situation in which you will see the preferred walk-on is when Coach Williams is looking for ball security.
Davis doesn't offer much in the areas of defense or offensive production, but he only has three turnovers on the season. That's one turnover for every 32.7 minutes he's on the floor.
Comparatively, Britt offers up one turnover every 10.5 minutes, and has a near-even 1.1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
This is why Davis would take control at the point when turnovers get out of hand or when the Tar Heels need to control the ball to finish off a win. With him, there's a chance you'll see Paige, McAdoo and Meeks, along with another preferred walk-on Jackson Simmons.
Much like Davis, Simmons doesn't offer much pop on the offensive end, but he's a very smart player who rarely gives up the rock. In 325 minutes of action as a Tar Heel, the junior has only turned the ball over 10 times.
Paige and Meeks probably wouldn't be much of a surprise for any fan of North Carolina. However, McAdoo might be.
As a sophomore, McAdoo averaged a team-leading 2.7 turnovers per game. This season, though, he has reduced that number to 1.5. His one turnover every 20.3 minutes is currently better than any other option at the 3 or 4.
When the time comes to control the rock, there isn't a better unit Coach Williams can put on the floor.