Guard-heavy lineup leading No. 1 seed North Carolina
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. >> Going smaller is becoming a big deal for North Carolina.
The Tar Heels haven't hesitated to go to a lineup with four perimeter players around All-America candidate Brice Johnson or Isaiah Hicks more and more in recent weeks. It's an asset in the NCAA Tournament that allows the East Region's No. 1 seed to juggle lineups and speed up the pace against opponents heading into Friday's Sweet 16 game against No. 5-seed Indiana in Philadelphia.
"I like when we go small," sophomore wing Justin Jackson said Tuesday. "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, they'll take advantage of it."
So far at least, the Tar Heels (30-6) have been the ones gaining an edge with the lineup. Coach Roy Williams has long preferred balance, having the ability to attack teams both in the paint and on the perimeter to wear down opponents, get them in foul trouble or both.
His typical starting lineup uses 6-foot-10 forwards Johnson and Kennedy Meeks inside, with Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II in the backcourt and the 6-8 Jackson on the wing. But the Tar Heels frequently go in and out of the smaller look thanks to their size on the perimeter with Jackson and versatile 6-6 sophomore Theo Pinson, who is possibly UNC's top overall defender.
It's not a new scheme; the Tar Heels have been using it for stretches this season like an off-speed pitch to give a team a different look, buy time due to foul trouble or get more pressure on the perimeter with some scrambling traps. Of late, it's also helped offset Meeks' struggles (21 points in five postseason games) since posting a double-double in the win at Duke to close the regular season.
"Being able to use different lineups in the tournament is huge," Paige said. "It's not (Atlantic Coast Conference) play where you get three days to scout somebody or you've played against them before and 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."
Saturday's second-round win against Providence was an example of how UNC uses its small lineup.
The Tar Heels spent the last 6 minutes of the first half with Jackson, Berry, Pinson and 6-1 junior Nate Britt on the court around Johnson inside, and shifted into four-wing looks around Hicks for second-half stretches, too.
Pinson spent time defending Big East player of the year Kris Dunn (6-4) in the backcourt and top scorer Ben Bentil (6-9) as a stretch forward. And with Johnson's 10.5 rebounds per game, the Tar Heels aren't losing much of the glass, including taking a 42-24 edge against the Friars.
It doesn't change how the Tar Heels run their fast-paced offense, other than to maybe help them get out in transition a little quicker. And Williams hasn't gone away from playing two big men together, with their pull-away burst Saturday coming with Johnson and Hicks playing together.
Either way, Williams has plenty of options as the Tar Heels try to make their First Final Four since 2009.
"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," Williams said. "But no, I really haven't been afraid to go small at any time this year. . It just depends on how the game's going really."
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