On Wednesday night, Roy WIlliams shocked everyone by trotting out a new lineup to face Duke. It marked the first time since Desmond Hubert had locked down the five spot, Williams opted to change the lineup for tactical considerations. Hairston was inserted in the starting lineup at power forward giving UNC a smaller look they could use the spread the floor. It ended up being very effective, thanks in large part to Hairston scoring 23 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. Now that Hairston has lived up to the moment does UNC stay with the smaller lineup?
In his postgame press conference, Williams made it clear the change was not made in response to the clamoring from fans and in the media. In fact, the lineup shift was not even the one most people were asking for prior to Wednesday night. Most people(myself) wanted to see Dexter Strickland benched in favor Hairston while maintaining Hubert as the starting center. However as, T.H. pointed out, such a move was by no means a magic bullet. The numbers indicated there were significant tradeoffs between the offensive and defensive production making the move questionable. This was a symptom of a larger problem with the current UNC personnel in that there are deficiencies across the board. Changing one player for another means trading a shortcoming in one area for a shortcoming in another. Pulling Strickland for Hairston may have worked but it's not like trading Strickland for Bullock in 2012.
Then again, going to a lineup with Hairston at the four was and is fraught with its own concerns. Against Duke, they did not manifest themselves because as Williams indicated Duke's Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson were not "focal points" of the the offense. Duke wasn't going to suddenly switch gears and starting throwing the ball to those guys because they enjoyed a little size advantage. That is why Williams felt most comfortable bring this lineup in because it matched up really well against Duke. Hairston also benefits from not necessarily being forced to guard smaller, quicker players on the wing. Yes, he could run into his share of issues guarding bigger players but anyone who saw the UNLV game knows Hairston fears no one. He mixed it up with Anthony Bennett who was much bigger and stronger.
The question moving forward is how much of a liability is Hairston at the four against players who are legitimate offensive threats such as NC State's C.J. Leslie? Can Hairston effectively contain a player like that? If not, does the offensive benefits means everyone is going to simply have to live with the defensive deficiencies to a certain point? Because the boost Hairston provided on the offensive wasn't simply him scoring. It changed the dynamics of the offense. UNC's spacing and movement was far better with Hairston on the floor. That created driving lanes which Strickland could use to get into the lane. While Strickland gets ripped for taking ill-advised jumpers, he has great value in transition or if their is operating room to drive. If Strickland can drive the ball, it adds another element to UNC's offense. It throws an opposing defense into chaos and creates scoring opportunities for other players. The additional spacing provided by Hairston pulling the opposing four away from the basket gives McAdoo room to work as well, providing he can start knocking down his shot more consistently. In short, Hairston at the four made Strickland more viable offensively giving UNC another means of scoring.
Of course, the truth is UNC doesn't necessarily have to play small all the time, just have Bullock, Hariston and McAdoo on the court together as much as possible. The small lineup is not a cure-all because there will be games where mismatches will make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that grouping on the floor. That is where good coaching comes into play and Williams has to be flexible in ensuring he still keeps his three best offensive players on the court. UNC's scoring drought against Duke came at a time when Bullock and Hairston were out of the game. With seven ACC games left, none of the remaining games are daunting enough to think the small lineup can't be effective. But even if it isn't, Roy Williams needs to squeeze as much out of his best players as he can down the stretch.
Side note: It goes without saying that if UNC comes out on Saturday against Virginia and P.J. Hairston does not start, there could be rioting in Chapel Hill. Okay, maybe not but if everyone thought the fan base was unhappy before, just wait. It will be just like taking a new toy from a three year old.
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