Small Lineup Gaining Traction

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – During a second half stretch of No. 21 North Carolina's 93-87 win over East Carolina on Saturday, UNC's frontcourt consisted of J.P. Tokoto, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock.

Roy Williams switched to a small lineup at the 14:46 mark of the second half, subbing in Tokoto for James Michael McAdoo after the Pirates cut UNC's 18-point lead in half at 47-38. Less than two minutes later, Bullock subbed in for Desmond Hubert, effectively sliding the 6-foot-5 Tokoto to the five spot.

McAdoo reentered the game at the 10:55 mark. That short window of time, however, was enough for Williams to make his point that post production has to improve.

North Carolina's four primary post players – McAdoo, Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson – failed to pull down an offensive rebound against the Pirates. The quartet has just one offensive rebound in UNC's past two games.

"I've never had a game where a post player never got an offensive rebound the whole game," Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.

Bullock and Hairston, on the other hand, combined for seven offensive rebounds, while Tokoto pulled down two more. That trio of wings outrebounded their post counterparts, 18-12.

Williams's reluctance to play with a small lineup for significant stretches is due to his preference to dominate the boards with size in the post. His frontcourt's inability to produce in that regard this season has given players like Tokoto and Hairston to earn more minutes in the frontcourt.

When asked if going small was a viable long-term option, Williams quipped: "If they get no freakin' rebounds, yeah."

"There was one possession down there where [East Carolina] got four shots," Williams continued. "Why is that? That's partly my fault because we don't have any big guys in the game. So why don't I have any big guys in the game? Because they weren't getting rebounds either. Everybody's got to pitch in and do a better job."

When posed the same question during locker room interviews, various Tar Heels agreed that going small could actually work.

"I think it can," said Dexter Strickland, who posted his first career double-double with 12 points and a career-high 10 assists. "I think we've got guys on the team that are willing to run and push in transition and get easy buckets. I think we as a team do a great job of getting the ball out and just running teams. So I think going small is not a bad option at all."

Bullock referenced Missouri's small lineup last season as an example of how a small lineup can be effective at the major conference level.

"I think it will be effective for us," Bullock said. "The most challenging thing will be rebounding… "We're big guards playing on the wing, so I feel like no one should be able to stop us from getting to the boards. I've got a knack for rebounding and [P.J.'s] got a knack for rebounding, so I just feel like we have to get to the boards in order for our team to be successful."

While it's expected that UNC's backcourt would be in favor of going small, the team's primary scoring option in the post was also in agreement that the small lineup can be effective moving forward.

"I hope it is; I believe it is," McAdoo said. "Not only Reggie, but Jean-Pierre, P.J., all of those guys have the ability to play the four or even the five. So I think it just comes with whatever is working best. But I do think it can be successful."

Leave it to the freshman of the group to note the most important aspect of deciding whether or not to play small.

"In the ACC, it may be different because they've got bigger guys," Tokoto said. "It's all about matchups. But with a team like East Carolina, where their three-man can play the four like us, we can go small and match up pretty well."

The players' opinions – and the fans' and media's opinions, for that matter – matter little when it comes to making the actual decision. That lies with Williams, who apparently is not ready to give up on his tried-and-true approach.

"There's no question that during parts of certain games that we're going to go small," Williams said. "… But I don't foresee us going and starting small and playing small for 30 minutes a game."

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