Lineup Shake-Up

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Roy Williams switched up his starting lineup on Saturday for the first time since late November – a span covering 18 games – in hopes of shaking his 12th-ranked Tar Heels out of their two-game losing streak.

“You lose two in a row and you can’t just say everything’s rosy,” Williams told reporters following his team’s 79-68 win over Boston College. “I mean, I wasn’t ready to jump off the building and I wasn’t ready to panic, but you’ve got to try something different.”

Guard Nate Britt and forward Isaiah Hicks, both sophomores, started in place of sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks and junior guard J.P. Tokoto at Conte Forum.

The last time Williams tinkered with his rotation was following UNC’s 74-66 loss to Butler at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Hicks, Britt and Joel James joined Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson in the starting lineup against UCLA on Nov. 27. The Tar Heels routed the Bruins by a 78-56 margin.

Williams praised Brice Johnson, Meeks and Tokoto after the UCLA win for responding appropriately once they got in the game.

The fallout from Saturday’s shakeup was split in its effectiveness, at least with regard to this particular contest.

Tokoto, who was ineffective in Monday’s loss to Virginia after committing 12 turnovers in his previous two games, bounced back with a strong effort against the Eagles. He scored nine points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out five assists without a turnover.

“For me, it’s definitely motivating,” Tokoto said. “It’s a wake up call. It’s Coach saying that you need to start stepping up your game. I’m not a freshman. I can’t use the excuse that I’m just learning or anything like that. I’ve been here; I’ve got to set an example for the other guys.”

Tokoto said he was surprised to learn pregame that he wouldn’t be starting, but didn’t allow the decision to affect his confidence.

“You’ve just got to go out and play basketball,” Tokoto said. “That’s what you’re here to do. Whether you get kicked out of the lineup or put into the lineup, you’re still going to get in at some point, unless you really did something bad.”

Meeks seemed to struggle with the lineup change. He scored four points and grabbed two rebounds in eight first-half minutes, but played just four minutes with no further production after halftime.

“It was Coach’s decision,” Meeks said. “I’ve got to live with it. I’ve got to keep getting better. I can’t really get down on myself, but it is a little discouraging.”

The Charlotte, N.C. product told reporters his improvement needs to come on the defensive end. Meeks, who played on Monday with a fever, said he was close to 100 percent despite lingering elements of a sore throat and headache.

When asked if he took the benching as a message of sorts, Meeks replied: “I really don’t know, to be honest with you.”

Williams cautioned reporters not to make too much of the lineup change, stressing another reason was due to matchup problems against the Eagles. He highlighted the difficulties that Meeks and James would have against Boston College’s dribble handoffs, weaves and ball screens.

“We need Kennedy to be a big-time player for us and I think he still is,” Williams said.

Hicks indicated that James joined him in practicing with his white team this week, which is an indication of who will start the next game, although it’s never finalized until the team’s pregame meeting.

Paige dismissed the notion that the lineup change played a role in UNC’s sluggish start, but he did provide insight into the benefits of the Johnson-Hicks pairing.

“The only thing I would say is Isaiah and Brice aren’t used to playing a whole lot together with Brice at the five and Isaiah at the four,” Paige said. “They should get used to it because if certain matchups dictate a stretch 4 and a big 5-man, we might have to go to that lineup more often.”

As for how the lineup will evolve over next seven days ahead Saturday’s tip at Pittsburgh, even Williams isn’t quite sure.

“I don’t have any idea who’s going to start next weekend,” the 12th-year UNC head coach said.


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