Thad: Going Small

Eighteen years ago this winter, current Carolina freshmen were infants, a-32-year old retiree named Michael Jordan was plotting his (first) comeback, and NBA players at least pretended to play defense in the All-Star game.

Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, Jerry Stackhouse teamed with Rasheed Wallace to form an undersized front line that had huge success, sharing an ACC title and reaching a Final Four.

Amazingly enough, Stackhouse and Wallace are still playing quite effectively at the highest level while also wearing the hat of league elder statesmen. That duo might have plenty of solid info to impart to the players Roy Williams has asked to follow in their footsteps the rest of this 2013 season: P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo.

The seven days just past feel like a critical turning point in the story of this team, and in the evolution of both those players. First, McAdoo's "you can trust me" stock went up dramatically after his solid performance against Mason Plumlee in the game at Duke last Wednesday. McAdoo showed he could be aggressive against a formidable opponent without fouling (too much). Instead, he got Plumlee into foul difficulty and kept the Duke senior off balance much of the night (though as the really good players usually do, Plumlee ended up getting his by night's end).

True, McAdoo went too fast on a couple of moves, especially in the second half, and his foul shooting problems in Durham were very costly. Nonetheless, he showed a comfort level playing effectively as the only true big Tar Heel on the court for most of the game—that is highly encouraging.

That's critical because Williams has decided the way to get Hairston more minutes and take advantage of his astonishing offensive productivity is to go small from the start, leaving Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige in the first five and making Desmond Hubert a defensive specialist off the bench. If history is any guide, Williams is unlikely (barring injury) to change the starting lineup any further: the head coach may move more slowly to make substantial changes than many would want but once he makes a change the likelihood is he's going to stick with it.

This brings us back to Stackhouse and Wallace. Under Smith, Carolina historically almost always played two big guys together, and for a time in the mid-1980s often had three players 6-10 or taller in the starting lineup. The idea of playing a 6-5 or 6-6 guy at power forward was quite novel in 1994-95—at that point not even Duke had fully adopted the four-around-one philosophy that has been Coach K's hallmark in the latter half of his career.

It helped of course that Stackhouse was a remarkable athlete, combining strength, power, and leaping ability. He rebounded very well for his size and could both post up and slash.

Hairston is not quite the same level of athlete as Stackhouse, but he's not far off either. He is a far more prolific outside shooter than Stackhouse was at Carolina, and while he can also take it to the basket and score on occasion inside, there's no reason to discourage him from continuing to take at least six or seven three pointers a game. Further, with his quick release, high elevation on his jump shot, extended range, and ability when hot to hit even when contested, Carolina can get Hairston a shot (not necessarily a great shot, but a shot) just about every possession, if need be.

Hairston had an outstanding floor game against Duke, including several drawn charges and nearly drawing a fifth foul on Plumlee on a controversial block call late on. Despite his cold shooting from perimeter, he finished with 23 points based on his inside scoring and ability to get to the line. He followed that up with an explosive offensive performance against Virginia, scoring 29 on an afternoon it felt like he could have had 35 or 40 if the Tar Heels had really needed it. Nearly as important is the fact that Hairston collected a Stackhouse-esque 15 rebounds in the two games last week.

Even so, the effect of the lineup change is not all about Hairston and McAdoo. Reggie Bullock will benefit from the defensive attention Hairston commands. Likewise, Paige and Strickland will have a greater chance to be successful by creating fewer possessions in which the team is under duress to get a good shot and either guard is called upon to try to force something. Strickland was generally excellent against Duke, one or two errors in judgment aside, in driving the ball to the basket with the court spread open. Paige's poise seemed to crack midway through the second half in Cameron, but he rebounded with an impressive outing Saturday against Virginia. It was Paige who got the ball rolling from outside, becoming the first Tar Heel to connect on a three-pointer after five consecutive early misses.

Certainly the new starting unit has the ability to put up impressive offensive numbers, and with Leslie McDonald back in the fold as a productive player there is still some scoring punch off the bench as well. But going small has its risks as well. The challenges for this unit going forward are first, avoiding foul trouble, especially to McAdoo, second, defending the rim effectively while also contesting the perimeter, third, rebounding on both ends, and fourth, being sure to get the ball (by pass or drive) to the basket offensively on a regular basis.

Virginia started red-hot Saturday through excellent offensive execution and shooting. A two-minute defensive cameo from Hubert late in the first half produce helped slow the Cavaliers down and allow Carolina to catch up before halftime. Even so, it's fairly astonishing Carolina was able to win so handily while allowing the visitors to shoot 58 percent for the game, including 57 percent from beyond the arc.

Those are not numbers Roy Williams will want to see again from Tar Heel opponents anytime soon. Even so, it's impressive and promising that Carolina showed it could win a game simply by outscoring one of the toughest defensive teams in the country.

Back in 1995, force of circumstance, including an injury to projected starter Pat Sullivan, led Dean Smith to go small with three guards plus Stackhouse at power forward. At the end of the day, putting the best five players on the floor took precedence over other considerations.

That appears to be the case in 2013 as well. Changing the lineup around is not going to solve all problems or suddenly make this group Final Four contenders, but this team has a chance to excel against anyone in the ACC save perhaps Miami. If the spirited effort in Cameron and Saturday's shootout victory are any indication, it will be entertaining to see the Heels try to do just that the rest of the way.

Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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