CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 1 seed North Carolina’s frontline is arguably the best in the country, although its small lineup has proven equally as effective during its postseason run.
During the ACC Tournament’s semifinal round, Notre Dame appeared to catch a needed break late in the first half. The Fighting Irish forced Roy Williams to sit Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks with two fouls each and managed to cut their deficit to 23-22 with under six minutes to play.
What followed was an 18-0 Tar Heel run to close the half. The final 14 points of that game-defining spurt came with Theo Pinson manning the 4-spot and Isaiah Hicks serving as the lone post player. UNC averaged 1.5 points per possession in that final 5:52, while smothering Notre Dame into five turnovers and four missed field goal attempts over its final nine possessions.
Williams has grown increasingly comfortable in using his small lineup after expressing concerns throughout the season about rebounding deficiencies without two bigs on the court. UNC went small for different stretches during the second half of Saturday’s win over Providence, allowing two offensive rebounds over roughly 10 minutes while pushing the lead from nine points to as many as 22.
Any potential rebounding woe have been masked by a seemingly immediate burst of defensive energy paired with a high-octane transition game.
"When we go small it seems like our intensity level goes up a whole other notch, because we have to fly around, we have to box out and work hard because if we don't, then they'll take advantage of it,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said on Tuesday. “So I like whenever we go small. I feel like we just play a little bit harder sometimes."
While Williams agreed that the players fly around more in the small lineup, he wasn’t so sure they played harder, suggesting that Jackson may be referring to a need to fight more on the glass.
"When we're smaller, we may run our scrambles a little more, they talk more, they dive on the floor, those kinds of things, but they don't block as many shots, either," the 13th-year UNC head coach said.
While Pinson has assumed the bulk of the four-man duties in the small lineup, Jackson has also played in that role at times. Williams told reporters there’s not much difference in the responsibilities of the three and four within the small lineup.
“You guard this guy, and you guard that guy,” Williams said. “We don’t need you posting up. We’ve got one guy to post up, stay out of that guy’s way. Let’s get good spacing and if the guy’s open, give him the ball.”
There’s no change in the offense that UNC runs with the small group, although Williams said he cuts down on the set plays and goes almost strictly freelance. Against zone defenses, UNC has used both Jackson and Pinson to flash to the high post.
Johnson, UNC’s All-American forward, said he prefers playing with another big in the post due to their ability to “save each other’s rear ends” with help-side defense.
“But playing with the small lineup is a lot of fun just because I’m the only big in there,” Johnson said. “Coach is always like, ‘Let’s use it to our advantage, you can post up all of the time down there because you’re the only big in there.’”
Senior guard Marcus Paige credited both Pinson and Jackson for being versatile enough to allow UNC to mix up the lineup as needed, which has proven to be beneficial during postseason play.
"Being able to use different lineups in the tournament is huge," Paige said. "It's not ACC play where you get three days to scout somebody or you've played against them before and you know what they're going to do.
"You're playing teams from different conferences, just completely different styles of play from one game to the next, so having the ability to go small can save us in a lot of opportunities."