Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina

Rebounding in UNC's Small Lineup

Concerns over rebounding are holding Roy Williams back from playing a small lineup more often.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It stands to reason that Kennedy Meeks’s return to the lineup will limit the usage of No. 6 North Carolina’s small lineup. That’s not the case, according to Roy Williams.

The Tar Heels pulled away from Florida State on Monday by going small with either Theo Pinson or Justin Jackson at the four and Brice Johnson at the five, prompting players such as Marcus Paige, Joel Berry and Johnson to credit the adjustment for better spacing and efficiency in their postgame interviews. https://twitter.com/FreeportKid/status/684195823727566848

With the announcement on Friday that Meeks (knee) is expected to play against Syracuse on Saturday night, Williams was asked if his addition to the lineup would affect how often he elected to go small. His response: “No.”

“What determines a smaller lineup is are we being able to guard them on the other end,” Williams said. “Or, are we scoring inside? And we told the team that before the Florida State game. You big guys, if you can score, rebound and defend, you get to stay in the game. If you don’t, you’re coming out, because it’s a bad matchup.”

A traditional lineup with two true bigs down low is a staple of Williams’s system, in large part due to his belief in the importance of rebounding. UNC currently ranks 14th nationally in rebound margin (+10.7), which is fairly standard for a Williams-coached team.

That particular statistic, possibly more than anything, is the driving force in Williams’ hesitancy in playing small more often. It was an issue when UNC turned to a small lineup in 2013, and the current lack of a wing player with a nose for rebounds – an area where J.P. Tokoto was effective last season – has given Williams pause yet again.

Jackson is averaging 4.1 rebounds per game, while Pinson is pulling down 4.0 boards per game. Those are low averages for players expected to play the four in the small lineup. Williams was asked on Friday if Jackson and Pinson rebounded well enough against FSU to satisfy his demands.

“No, if they did, we’d stay small because I like it a lot better in certain ways,” the 13th-year UNC head coach said. “You’ve still got to rebound that basketball… I still think, and it’s all right for people to disagree, but I think that rebounding is the most important part of the game.”

Williams offered former Kansas player Kenny Gregory as a guard that averaged 7.2 rebounds per game one season, as well as noting Bobby Frasor’s five offensive rebounds in the 2009 Final Four win over Villanova, in stressing the value of rebounding beyond the post positions.

“That’s been the focus the entire year,” Johnson said. “[The coaches] have been wanting Justin and Theo to rebound a little bit more. They don’t get a lot of rebounds, but we’ve still outrebounded a few teams, and we do need those guys on the board because they’re extremely athletic and they can get rebounds any time they want. They just have to go to the board and do it.”

Jackson, who logged 32 minutes in Tallahassee, made similar comments in the postgame locker room after managing just three defensive rebounds in the win.

“I still haven’t done a good job on that,” Jackson said. “When we go small, everybody has to go to the boards. For me, I’ve got to do a lot better job at that. Boxing out and just going for the ball. There are a lot of times where I’m just a second late, and that second can really get you.”

Williams prefers man-to-man defense over a zone due the accountability factor on the defensive glass, which highlights the importance of rebounding in his philosophy. The same holds true with a small lineup, which is why rebounding, and not Meeks’s return, will determine its frequency of use over the next three months.

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