Roy Williams’ Two-Point Guard Lineup Not a Return to Small Ball for UNCPosted by Lathan Wells on October 23rd, 2013
When Roy Williams stated on Tuesday that he is “convinced” that he will play both of his point guards (incumbent starter Marcus Paige and freshman Nate Britt) on the floor at the same time in the season opener against Oakland on November 8, North Carolina fans undoubtedly had immediate and mixed emotions. Last season’s UNC squad stumbled out of the gates by attempting to run a conventional five-man starting lineup, clearly not possessing enough refined talent in the post to stick with that brand of personnel. So at mid-season when Williams finally opted for a four-guard lineup that fans had been calling for, inserting P.J. Hairston into the lineup as an undersized four and moving James Michael McAdoo to the center position, the team won six straight after a close road loss to Duke and finished third in the conference, going so far as to advance to the ACC Tournament championship game.
All of that was great, Tar Heels fans would readily admit, but this is not a program that hangs its hat on regular season or even ACC Tournament success. This is a blue-blood basketball factory, and one that is supposed to reap its greatest rewards in the Big Dance. It was there that UNC ran into a Kansas team with size and experience in the frontcourt that their smaller lineup could not match, and the Jayhawks ended North Carolina’s season in the NCAA Tournament’s second round. For many, the season was not a success despite the encouraging uptick in play when the four-guard lineup was instituted.
This season is not last season, however, at least in terms of personnel and the way Williams expects to employ it. The Tar Heels’ 2013 recruiting class included forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, talented freshmen big men who are expected to contribute immediately. UNC also expects substantially more consistent sophomore campaigns from returnees Joel James and Brice Johnson. James’ offseason has been spent making his game more refined to go along with his prodigious size in the middle, while Johnson conversely has been trying to beef up in order to be able to more successfully bang with opponents down low. Each showed flashes last year, and assistant coach Steve Robinson has long been lauded for his ability to maximize the potential from big men as they move from their freshmen to sophomore campaigns (see: John Henson). With the return of McAdoo for his junior season as well as the presence of steady if unspectacular reserves Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, the Tar Heels can suddenly point to the frontcourt as their greatest area of depth.
All of the above means that Williams’ comments about a two-point guard lineup being on the floor at times in the season opener (and most likely throughout the year) is more about maximizing fast-break scoring opportunities and working to the team’s strengths than it is about going small again. While Paige had a serviceable freshman year at the point, especially in the latter half of the year, he doesn’t possess the breakneck speed of predecessors like Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson, or the uncanny outlet passing ability of Kendall Marshall, to get this machine running exactly the way Williams likes. Britt, a diminutive freshman who’s been dubbed a master distributor, may be the perfect complement to Paige on the floor. The newcomer could be the guy to jump-start the fast break and allow Paige to flock to an open spot on the wing to showcase his improved jump shot. This also allows Hairston (whenever he returns from suspension) and the other wing players in Leslie McDonald and J.P. Tokoto to find open spots on the perimeter or by slashing to the basket in transition. If the freshmen big men run the floor as well as they’ve been hyped, the patented Carolina fast break could be much more effective this year.
Of course, the added benefit to this personnel grouping is the maturity of Paige in helping Britt navigate his inaugural campaign in Chapel Hill both on the court as well as on the sidelines. And it never hurts to have two capable ball-handlers in your backcourt to keep opposing defenses honest in press and trapping situations. While Williams may be looking to maximize the potential of his two best point guards simultaneously, he also had words to soothe any fans thinking he was resorting back to small ball: “I will play two little guys together sometimes this year,” Williams said at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media day last week, before adding, “I don’t think I’ll ever play [third-string point guard] Luke [Davis], Marcus and Nate all three together. That’d be like a team full of jockeys.”