UNC’s smaller lineup accepts rebounding challenge
When North Carolina went to a smaller starting lineup, replacing 6-9 center Desmond Hubert with 6-5 guard P.J. Hairston, it provided a tradeoff.
The team was adding more scoring, better spacing and quicker personnel that would allow the Tar Heels to run more effectively. However, the loss of a strong defensive presence in the post presumably would hurt UNC when it came to rebounding.
So far, that hasn’t been the case. The Tar Heels’ perimeter-oriented lineup has held its own on the glass heading into Thursday’s game at Clemson (7 p.m., ESPN).
UNC outrebounded Virginia by nine and kept the margin close against Duke and Georgia Tech. Saturday against N.C. State — the tallest team the Tar Heels new lineup has faced — the Wolfpack had a 43-34 rebounding edge, but UNC actually outscored N.C. State 15-7 on second-chance points.
After Richard Howell (13) had almost as many rebounds as the entire UNC team (14) in the first half, the Wolfpack center was held to just four boards in the second half. Small forward Reggie Bullock had a career-high 13 rebounds to help offset N.C. State’s size advantage.
“Coach told us we have to live on the boards with this starting lineup that we have with P.J. at the (power forward),” Bullock said.
UNC coach Roy Williams has said that rebounding from people other than James Michael McAdoo, the lone post player in the starting five, is critical in order for the small lineup to continue starting.
“One time, James Michael shot the ball from the baseline, and we had nobody to get the board,” Williams said after the Virginia game. “And I said, ‘Guys, you small guys that like this small lineup, I cannot do that if you guys aren’t getting to the board when James Michael shoots. We can’t tell him not to shoot. He can’t be our only rebounder.’
“The rebounding part, I think, is the most crucial part of the game.”
After averaging 3.6 rebounds this season, Hairston is averaging 6.3 in his four starts at the power forward position. But Bullock (5.6 to 7.8) and even McAdoo (8.2 to 9.0), who now guards the opposing center, also have seen their rebounding averages increase since the lineup change.
McAdoo, Bullock and Hairston also have combined to win all four of the coaching staff’s defensive player of the game awards since the starting lineup was changed.
Assistant coach C.B. McGrath thought that the challenge of playing out of position has encouraged the Tar Heels to focus more on the glass.
“(P.J.) feels like he has to play bigger or play more physical because he’s inside guarding a big guy, and Reggie slides down and has to guard a big guy," McGrath said. "So that might work on the mentality a little bit that they have to go rebound more, they have to go attack the glass more as opposed to just saying, ‘OK, I’m just going to come out and be a 3-point shooter.’
“Even James Michael goes from not usually guarding the biggest player on the other team to now he’s guarding the biggest player on the other team every time and has to box out every time. So I think that mentality has just sort of slid down to the whole team.”