Small Ball in Play for UNC Basketball in 2017-18

Tony Bradley's pending NBA decision may force the Tar Heels to lean on a perimeter-based approach next season.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina may have to play a unique style of basketball by Roy Williams’s standards in 2017-18, relying more on a perimeter-based approach than its traditional post-dominant foundation.

Williams built his programs at Kansas and North Carolina with an inside-out dynamic designed to control the glass while maximizing field goal attempts near the rim and limiting opponents’ interior looks. The plan was executed to perfection this season, as the Tar Heels led the nation in rebounding (43.7 rpg) and rebound margin (12.3) en route to their sixth NCAA National Championship and third under Williams.

All five of Williams’s Final Four teams at UNC have ranked top-20 nationally in rebound margin, including four top-10 finishes. The Tar Heels also led the nation in rebound margin during their 2007-08 Final Four run with a differential of 11.0, which is the second-best mark in school history.

Each of those five teams, including UNC’s three most recent national champions (’05, ’09, ‘17), boasted a stout frontline with quality bench depth. Sean May, Marvin Williams and Jawad Williams were the key post members of the 2005 squad, while Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson were the primary options in 2009. Last season, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye anchored the post.

“I’ve always been inside first,” Williams told Inside Carolina at a Tar Heel Tour event in Greensboro last week. “We won a national championship because we outrebounded people and won a national championship in ‘09 because Tyler Hansbrough outrebounded everybody and we won it in ‘05 because of Sean May doing that.”

Recruiting misses have finally caught up with the Hall of Fame head coach. Meeks and Hicks have graduated, while Bradley put his skills on display at the NBA Combine this past week in Chicago. The freshman center told IC he would likely stay in the draft if he received first round feedback.

"I'm getting late first round, early second round right now,” Bradley said on Thursday.

If Bradley stays in the draft, Maye will be the lone veteran big returning with an unproven group of freshman post players filling in the blanks. Four-star forward Garrison Brooks, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward out of Alabama, committed last month after obtaining his release from Mississippi State. Brandon Huffman, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward out of Raleigh, N.C., is expected to be more of a defensive option early on, while 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward Sterling Manley was signed largely based on his potential last fall.

None of the trio are expected to be ready to contribute heavy minutes by UNC’s season opener in November, although they will be given plenty of opportunities to develop early in the season.

“They have to earn it, but we always do that,” Williams said. “We give everybody a chance early and then late in the season we cut back the rotation a little bit.”

That process worked out well last season for Maye, who capitalized on early playing time to eventually etch his name into Tar Heel lore with a last-second game winner to top Kentucky in the South Region’s Elite Eight in Memphis.

If the freshmen end up needing more time to develop, Williams may be forced to play small ball with wing Theo Pinson sliding down to the four, which he’s done for stretches the past two seasons. With point guard Joel Berry back and shooting guard Kenny Williams returning from injury, UNC will have plenty of depth on the perimeter with Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson off the bench and the arrival of five-star guard Jalek Felton.

It’s not Williams’s preferred style of play given the rebounding limitations associated with removing a big from the lineup, but it’s worked in the past. In 2012-13, wing P.J. Hairston entered the starting lineup for the final 14 games in place of center Desmond Hubert, giving UNC a four-guard set with James Michael McAdoo as the lone post player. The Tar Heels went 9-5 to close out that season, eventually losing to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after being outrebounded by 14.

It’s that rebounding issue that will likely provide ample opportunities for the freshmen bigs to secure a spot in the starting lineup.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Williams said. “If that’s not our five best players then it won’t be. But that’s what we’ll try and focus on first. We’re not stupid. If it doesn’t work we’ll figure out something that does work.”

Evan Chronis contributed to this story


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