Shooting guard Leslie McDonald returned to action Wednesday night as the North Carolina Tar Heels took on the Texas Longhorns. He played 22 minutes, scored 15 points and attempted nine three-pointers.
But his presence was felt even beyond the box score.
The return of McDonald allowed coach Roy Williams to do something he hadn't been able to do all season long: play a normal bench rotation.
For the first nine games of the season, North Carolina had no third guard; there was no one Williams trusted to bring in off the bench when starters Nate Britt or Marcus Paige needed a blow. He experimented with junior Luke Davis, but he wasn't cutting it. Thus, out of sheer necessity, Williams began using one-guard lineups.
These rotations were rare. Williams continued to play Paige heavy minutes and trusted Britt more and more, creeping his minutes closer to 30 per ballgame in December. However, there were unavoidable times where these guys needed a rest, and there was simply no guard available off the bench to spot them.
The main big lineup Williams dabbled with had Paige at the 1, J.P. Tokoto slotted in at 2-guard (but was really just another small forward), James Michael McAdoo playing small forward, and Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks at the other two forward spots.
With this lineup in, Carolina took on a weird feel.
McAdoo often floated outside on offense. Since Tokoto is not able to hit jump shots on a consistent basis, McAdoo became the de facto shooting guard to spread the floor. He also attempted to cover opposing guards on the defensive end. It wasn't always pretty, especially since his game on offense doesn't overpower smaller players to get much of an advantage.
This lineup was used in bunches against Kentucky, as well as in earlier games. The interesting result in the UK game was that Carolina got out-rebounded with this group on the floor. Perhaps rotations were poor, mismatches favored the Wildcats, or it was just a case of small sample size.
Whatever it was, the big lineup was not actually playing very big.
This makes McDonald's return all the more valuable. In the Tar Heels' most recent game, they didn't use a one-guard alignment for a single minute of game action. During every sequence of the Texas game, there were at least two guards on the floor for Carolina.
It must have been such a relief for Coach Williams. He also had to have been elated about McDonald's three-point shooting. The senior went 4-of-9 from three, finally giving UNC another threat from the outside to pair with Paige.
And that was really the problem with the big lineups. It wasn't that the five-man groups Williams put out there lacked enough talent to compete. It was that they lacked a skill set diverse enough to threaten defenses. Opponents could pack in the paint, leaving Tokoto wide open wherever he wanted to be.
As the season moves forward now, the one-guard lineups may be sprinkled in to simply give a team another look. McDonald will probably take Tokoto's late-game minutes for the foreseeable future and, perhaps, his starting role at some point too.
He already replaced Tokoto in crunch time against Texas. Fans witnessed North Carolina trot out something they could not have imagined just a few short games ago: a three-guard lineup!