The New Look Tar Heels Are Slowly Finding Their WayPosted by BHayes on February 20th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. He filed this report from Tuesday’s game in Atlanta between Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
While we are not looking at our daddy’s Miami Hurricanes this season, it was only 10 days ago that a 26-point UNC loss in Coral Gables seemed to indicate that we also weren’t seeing a very familiar UNC team this year. It was not the first time that these Heels found themselves on the wrong side of a lopsided scoreboard (far from it, really), and with a visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium lurking next, head coach Roy Williams decided that something needed to change. Williams inserted wing PJ Hairston into the starting lineup at the four, giving the starting five a smaller, more explosive look. Immediate results were good, as Hairston went for 23 points in a close loss in Durham before erupting for a career-high 29 in a weekend victory over Virginia. Tuesday night’s match-up with Georgia Tech featured little in the way of Hairston fireworks, but another UNC victory serves as more proof that Roy may be on to something with his new, smaller approach.
Hairston may be the player most dramatically affected by the revamped lineup – and his post defense did little to dismiss this notion – but James Michael McAdoo has also been forced to play slightly out of position at the five. There will be nights down the road where McAdoo will be more tested in his own paint, but on this evening he was a terror everywhere else on the defensive end, jumping into passing lanes and fueling a relentless UNC transition attack. The Tar Heels collected 14 steals (McAdoo leading the way with four) and forced a young Tech team into 19 turnovers, a total that ended up far too high for Brian Gregory’s team to have any chance of keeping close to Carolina.
Roy’s teams always play fast, but the four-guard lineup deserves credit for speeding up the tempo on the defensive end, then capitalizing with easy buckets the other way. The ball moved quickly both in transition and in the half-court, proof of a more unselfish, fluid offensive approach. Williams was quick to point out that his team won’t win many games shooting 38% from the field, and he is right. But one statistic never tells the whole story, and Roy quietly admitted to being happy with both his club’s number of possessions and dearth of turnovers – positives achieved against a pretty solid defensive team to boot.
There is no denying that early returns on the new lineup have looked great for a reenergized Tar Heel squad, but is this February move really a cure-all? A close loss to Duke and wins over Virginia and Georgia Tech are nice, but we won’t really know if this is a changed Tar Heels team until they really get hit in the mouth. Indiana, Butler and Miami all took their swings and found an opponent unwilling to punch back. Now that the Heels have gone even smaller, are they really in a better position to match the physicality of a team like the Hurricanes? Hairston will need to bring his energy and aggressiveness to both ends, and while nobody will ever describe McAdoo as burly, his impact must not only come on the glass (11 rebounds last night), but also as a defensive presence in the paint.
A tough, physical opponent would seem to be the starting point when talking UNC question marks, but let’s give Roy and company credit for sitting in a far better place than they were 10 days ago. The Hall of Famer has reinvented his team into a dangerous club playing with a real edge — a decisive shift from the lackadaisical attitude that permeated the first half of its ACC season. For now they will sit on the right side of the bubble, but you better believe Roy is aware of how quickly that can change. Downward mobility is alive and well in the ACC, but after the last three games, you would be forgiven for believing that the only direction Carolina is headed is up. Just ask Brian Gregory, who offered fair warning: “Watch out,” Gregory said, then, shaking his head before adding, “That team is going to make some…” before trailing off. No finish was necessary though, as anyone who saw the Heels last night should also believe in the possibility of some serious noise in the Carolina future.