Bigger isn’t necessarily better—just ask the Tar Heels.
Before its first meeting against No. 3 Duke (26-4, 13-4 in the ACC) Feb. 13—when the Blue Devils eked out a 73-68 win—North Carolina looked like a team that would be lucky to get an at-large bid to the Big Dance due to its constantly changing rotations and resulting lack of chemistry.
But now with a small-ball lineup, the Tar Heels (22-8, 12-5) have considerable momentum heading into their 9 p.m. showdown with Duke Saturday at the Dean E. Smith Center.
North Carolina (22-8, 12-5) first used that small lineup against Duke, and since that setback, the Tar Heels have won six consecutive games. Playing their best basketball of the year, North Carolina is now a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament and can make some serious noise in the postseason.
“That’s what we’ve talked about with this group. In the preseason I said I thought my team would get better and better as the season went along and I really think they have,” Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams said in his postgame press conference after defeating Maryland Wednesday night. “The small lineup gives too much credit to coaching. The kids have really bought into the sense of urgency, the unselfishness, the gang rebounding and the total play on the offensive and defensive end of the floor.”
After losing four first-round NBA draft picks from last year’s team, Williams deserves credit and perhaps even consideration for ACC Coach of the Year. Disregarding the orthodox starting lineup of two big men on the floor before the first edition of the Tobacco Road Showdown, Williams put his five best players on the court, regardless of position. And the strategy has worked wonders for him. Starting a lineup of four guards—Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston—alongside big man James Michael McAdoo has salvaged North Carolina’s season.
The move has allowed the team to surge to the No. 3 spot in league standings. Victims of the Tar Heels’ new lineup and renewed swagger include Virginia, N.C. State and Maryland, which have all lost to North Carolina by double digits.
“I don’t know how to make my team peak and neither does anyone else,” Williams said following the Maryland game. “None of us is that much smarter than the other guy. If I knew how to make my team peak then so would they. Everybody would be peaking and how the crap would you know who’s peaking. We work as hard as we can every single day. I tell my team all the time, if you bust your tail every day you’re going to get better as we go along.”
Maturation has been a key process in North Carolina’s turnaround. Paige—a slight but talented freshman floor general—has come into his own, for the most part, these past several weeks after a rocky first three-quarters of the season. The Iowan rookie is averaging 5.8 assists per game in the last five contests.
Netting 22 points in the team’s most recent win at Maryland Wednesday night, Hairston—a 6-foot-5 physical sharpshooter—is likely the most crucial ingredient to the team’s recent success. As a starter this year, the sophomore is averaging 17.7 points per game. Defensively, Hairston has been able to play bigger than he actually is while often guarding opposing team’s power forwards. Defending N.C. State’s 6-foot-9 C.J. Leslie in the two team’s matchup weeks ago, Hairston held him to just six points as the Tar Heels defeated the Wolfpack 76-65.
A 6-foot-9 hybrid forward, McAdoo and Bullock—a versatile swingman—have continued to play well as of late as both lead the team with slightly more than 14 points per outing.
The atmosphere of Saturday’s showdown will be amplified immensely as Andrew Wiggins—the consensus best high school basketball player and perhaps the best amateur basketball player in the world—will be in the house for his official visit.
And the intensity will only be higher since Austin Rivers’ game-winning 3-pointer lifted Duke past the heavily-favored Tar Heels at the Dean Dome last season.
“I was crushed,” Williams said in February about the Blue Devils’ comeback in that game.