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Small Lineup Still in Play for UNC

The Tar Heels will play small ball even more in 2016-17.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Roy Williams’s plan to play his small lineup more in 2016-17 remains intact despite the loss of Theo Pinson to a broken right foot for an indefinite amount of time. The burden to man the four spot when going small now falls directly on junior wing Justin Jackson.

Exit veteran big men Brice Johnson and Joel James; enter freshman forward Tony Bradley. The loss of a fifth post player has been a determining factor in Williams’s decision to play more small ball this season.

“This year we only have four post players,” the 14th-year UNC head coach said at ACC Operation Basketball on Wednesday. “Last year we played a small lineup sometimes because it was either to match the other team or to give us an advantage against the other team. So I think that we’ll probably be more prone to do it this year.

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“Now you lose Theo, that just means that most of that time of a guy sliding down would probably be Justin Jackson because nobody else has ever practiced it.”

UNC’s effectiveness going small in last year’s postseason run has apparently cemented its role as a change-of-pace option. In the ACC Tournament semifinal win over Notre Dame, the Tar Heels outscored their opponent 14-0 with the small lineup to close the first half, averaging 1.5 points per possession and forcing five turnovers in the final 5:52. That level of production prompted its use during the NCAA Tournament to varying degrees.

“It’s a great lineup for us just because we can get the ball out fast,” junior guard Joel Berry said. “… I like going with four guards in the lineup, so hopefully we’ll play that a little bit more.”

Jackson is capable of playing the four spot, although as senior forward Isaiah Hicks noted, UNC’s success last season occurred when both Jackson and Pinson were on the floor in the small lineup. Pinson’s absence likely leads to senior guard Nate Britt playing the two and either sophomore wing Kenny Williams or freshman wing Brandon Robinson manning the three spot.

Even so, Berry believes the small lineup provides UNC with a distinct advantage.

“We want to run our secondary offense, but when we get out of it, we freelance and just play basketball,” Berry said. “At that four spot, if we can have Justin or Theo step out on the wing, more than likely he’s going to have a bigger guy guarding him, and it will be hard for them to stay in front. To be able to have that, it’s a great thing.

“On the defensive end, it’s kind of a disadvantage because we probably won’t be able to rebound it as much, but on the offensive end, we can get the ball out faster and we’ll have a guy that can take his man off the dribble, if need be.”

The rebounding topic will likely determine how much Williams goes small this season. The Tar Heels improved on the boards with the four-guard set as the calendar turned to February and March last year, although having one of the top rebounders in the country at the five spot helped.

“Brice Johnson is not walking in that gym,” Williams has said repeatedly this preseason. “He was the best rebounder in the ACC last year, either in conference games or total games. Twenty-three rebounds in one game. So we’ve got to rebound more by team, rebound by committee because you don’t have that one sensational rebounder.”

UNC mitigated the rebounding deficiency in the small lineup last season by ratcheting up its defensive intensity and being more active in the passing lanes. That trend will have to continue, even without the energy boost early in the season that Pinson so often provides.

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