On February 13, 2013, North Carolina’s season was in limbo. That evening the Tar Heels would take a 6-4 ACC record into Durham against a highly favored Duke team, while coming off their worst performance of the conference season, a 26-point blowout loss at Miami. But for Roy Williams’ team, that UNC-Duke game was the debut of a new smaller lineup featuring P.J. Hairston starting in place of big man Desmond Hubert. Although UNC would lose that game by five points, 73-68, the new lineup had bigger Duke looking slow and confused for much of the night. From that point, the Tar Heels ran off six straight conference wins, finished third in the league with a 12-6 record, and went on to make the ACC Tournament championship game before losing to top-seed Miami for the third time. National media types lauded the lineup change as a brilliant coaching move by Williams, while many local media and Tar Heel fans were left asking what took so long for the head coach to make the move in the first place. Before we turn our full attention to the upcoming season, let’s look back at some of the truths and myths concerning that North Carolina lineup decision as well as address some reasons as to why the move wasn’t made sooner.
Truth or Myth #1 – The Lineup Change Had a Tremendous Positive Impact
This would be a big affirmative. UNC’s record improved from 6-4 in the ACC before the switch to 8-3 afterward, including the games in the ACC Tourney. But more than that, North Carolina just looked like a much better team and the stats back that up. Basically the net effect of the lineup change was to remove 20 minutes from post players Hubert, Joel James, and Brice Johnson and redistribute them among the perimeter players, with Hairston picking up more than half of what was left. As expected from a decision to take away significant minutes from big players, defensive efficiency was most negatively impacted.
In comparing the Tar Heels’ last 11 ACC games with the first 10, defensive two-point field goal percentage rose three percent and opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage rose seven percent. But the new and much quicker lineup forced more turnovers and defended the three much better. The net result was that the defense got slightly worse, allowing 1.02 points per possession (PPP) compared with 0.98 PPP in the first 10 ACC games, but the flip side is that the Carolina offense really took off. The smaller unit cut turnover percentage down by three percent, improved their effective field goal percentage by three percent, and raised the team’s overall PPP from 1.02 to 1.12. They clearly were a much better overall team after the switch — even more than the improved record indicates — especially when you consider that the only three ACC losses after the switch were to either Duke or Miami, two of the top 10 teams in the country last season.