UNC: Moral Defeats, Bad Rebounding and Small Ball

If UNC keeps playing the way it played on Saturday, this side of Roy Williams will come out more and more.


There weren’t a lot of things that North Carolina head coach Roy Williams was pleased with after his team’s 93-87 win over East Carolina on Saturday afternoon. Not the 61 second-half points allowed – a record by a Williams-coached team at UNC – not the rebounding effort, and not the general sloppiness that characterized the last few minutes.

North Carolina didn’t allow 61 second-half points by only having lapses down the stretch, but those certainly didn’t help. Credit East Carolina for hitting some tough shots, but Carolina led by ten or more points four times in the final 2:19 and still let ECU cut the lead to four points twice in the final 27 seconds. The Pirates also hit 7-of-8 shots in the final 2:55, putting up 19 points in that span. Carolina had two turnovers in the final minute that led to five quick ECU points.

“It just shows that we need to learn how to finish games better – not that we can’t, we just have to learn how to do it better, be a lot smarter at the end and be patient,” sophomore P.J. Hairston said. “We did some things where we rushed and tried to score in the last minute instead of holding the ball, taking our time, being patient and taking what they gave us.”

Still, Carolina’s defense had been bad most of the second half. The Pirates ended the game with 87 points (most allowed by UNC this year) and 27 free-throw attempts (also the most by a Carolina opponent). “We weren’t sliding our feet and staying in front of the ball. We were reaching more than anything. They were more aggressive,” Williams said. “If you play defense with your feet, you don’t commit very many fouls.”


Williams often likes to say a player who failed to get a rebound “got as many rebounds as Wanda”, or “Wicked Wanda”, as he sometimes lovingly refers to his wife of nearly 40 years. Other acceptable variations of this joke could include a random reporter sitting in the audience, or even Williams himself. Former players have said he’ll even reference a random inanimate object. Point remains, all of those people/things had exactly zero rebounds.

On Saturday, James Michael McAdoo, Joel James, Brice Johnson and Desmond Hubert – Carolina’s four post players – combined to get exactly zero offensive rebounds. As many as Wicked Wanda. Williams said he couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.

“It’s an easy deal – anticipate your teammate’s shot,” Williams said. “You guys in the stands, the guys that are knowledgable about basketball, people that aren’t knowledgable, you sort of can tell when a guy’s getting ready to shoot. Then (you) anticipate your teammate’s shot and go to the board. That’s a pretty simple thing to do right there.”

Wing Reggie Bullock had four of Carolina’s offensive ten rebounds, while fellow swingmen J.P. Tokoto and P.J. Hairston had the other five (one was a “team” rebound). The true post players combined for 12 rebounds, all defensive (seven from McAdoo and four from Johnson). Johnson got the start for UNC as part of the constantly-rotating starting centers, but he was sick and played just 15 minutes.


Because Williams was so frustrated with his team’s rebounding, he went small. Sometimes really small. About midway through the second half, the five were third-string point guard Luke Davis (6-0), Leslie McDonald (6-5), Hairston (6-5), Tokoto (6-5) and Bullock (6-7). Carolina played with one big man and four guards in eight different lineups and without any traditional big man at all twice.

Williams was asked if that small a lineup might be seen again. “Um, if (the big men) get no frickin’ rebounds, yeah,” Williams said. But he acknowledged the lineup has its drawbacks. “There was one possession down there where (ECU) got four shots. Now, why is that? That’s partly my fault because we don’t have any big guys in the game. Why do I not have any big guys in the game? Because they weren’t getting any rebounds either.”

In the first half, Carolina’s “traditional” lineup with two bigs outscored ECU 36-21 over  16:18 while small lineups (one or fewer bigs) outscored ECU 6-5. In the second half, though, Williams played a small lineup for 11:09 out of 20 minutes and it “won”, 39-36. The traditional lineup was outscored 25-12 over nearly nine second-half minutes. Hardly overwhelming results by either. “There’s no question that during parts of certain games that we’re going to go small. … But I don’t foresee us going and starting small and playing small for 30 minutes a game,” Williams said.

Williams has been tinkering the smaller lineup since the Maui Invitational, when Carolina very nearly came back against Butler by forcing a lot of turnovers defensively and creating mismatches with Butler’s less-athletic big men offensively. Tokoto, a three, said he played both the four and five on Saturday.

It’s just another position. You’ve just got to adjust. ‘Be a basketball player’ is what (Williams) always says, and that’s what we did,” Tokoto said. “I never really guarded a five-man before: maybe on a switch 1-2 times, but not a few up-and-downs. So it was an adjustment, but it wasn’t that bad.”

Hairston insisted he thought the small lineup could be effective all the time, but Tokoto wasn’t so sure. “If we need a steal or a quick bucket or something, a small lineup helps a lot,” Tokoto said. “(In the) ACC, it may be different. They’ve got bigger guys. It’s all about matchups. 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 6-5 P.J. Hairston was playing center. He’s known mostly as a three-point shooter, but every now and then, he shows what he’s capable of when he remembers that he’s a strong, athletic wing who can absorb contact. Saturday was one of those times. “I feel more comfortable taking it to the basket than I did last year. When we got to the four guards and a big lineup, I feel like I can take any big man off the dribble,” Hairston said.

And since he played some center when he was younger, he has some natural big man instincts. “I just know there are certain things I can do to try to get to the rim and if it works, I can get the rebound and finish,” Hairston said. “On one play, I think I spun off a guy on the free throw and ended up with a wide-open lay-up. It’s just knowing where the ball is going to go and timing.”

He scored six points off of his three offensive rebounds (a third of the team’s total). All of the put-back buckets seemingly came at big moments, and he was often getting the offfensive rebound over a bigger player. There were times when Hairston seemed like the only Tar Heel who wanted to take a shot or make something happen.

“No one likes to lose – that’s anybody on any team. But you just have to want it more,” Hairston said. “I felt like that I wanted every rebound more than their big man, our big man or our guards. I just felt like I wanted the rebound more because it would help the team.”


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