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September 26, 2013

Big or Small? Or Both?

Roy Williams said Thursday that he does not have the answer to the question of when guard P.J. Hairston will return.

Williams provided a much more confident answer, however, when asked about the size of lineup he anticipates his UNC primarily playing with in the 2013-2014 season.

The goal for the coach is to return to the Tar Heels' more traditional lineup of playing with a larger starting squad, but he also sees that it's still early for a definite answer as to what will work.

"I hope to stay big," Williams said. "But what I've got to do is pick out the best five guys and put them on the court. But I do hope to stay big."

"I'm going to challenge Joel (James), Desmond (Hubert), Brice (Johnson), James Michael (McAdoo), Kennedy (Meeks), Isaiah (Hicks), Jackson (Simmons), everybody - somebody's got to step up because if you look at our stats last year, we didn't get to the free throw line nearly as many times as we have in the past, down the stretch teams out rebounded us, down the stretch we didn't defend the rim very well at all, so I think we've got to have some size out there. But we've got to be able to shoot the ball at the basket too. I like to think that we'll get back to a better balance."

The type of balance that Williams means, he said, is the type that North Carolina has coined over the years.

But until that balance is achieved, this year's UNC team will be practicing and looking to determine whether a two-guard small system - lead by sophomore Marcus Paige and freshman Nate Britt - or a big man team - floored by a committee of larger bodies who saw fewer minutes after mid-season last year - works better.

"We could go little - we could go extra little with two points guards in the lineup - we could go bigger - and play James Michael probably more so that any of the other big guys- we could possibly put Isaiah in there, but we haven't practiced enough to see yet," Williams said.

The coach noted that two of the players he personally saw development in over the summer were junior Desmond Hubert and sophomore Brice Johnson, both of whom are "bigger, better," than they were last season.

Newcomer Isaiah Hicks is a third big man Williams listed when discussing the players who he watched progress through pickup games and four official summer practices. All three players would contribute well to the large lineup Williams wants to prioritize.

But according to the returning players who have seen the early capabilities of this year's personnel in both a big and small lineup, there are advantages to either decision.

"We tried to mix up the lineup as much as possible in pick up just to get used to the way everyone plays, kind of figure out at an early stage what lineups work better than others," Paige said. "It was fun playing with (Britt on the court) at the same time, so I'm looking forward to seeing how that does in practice and in the first couple of games."

While Williams has taught Paige over the past year that from a controlling-point guard position, the philosophy is, "Whoever gets the outlet, just go," Paige says that when he and Britt are contributing minutes simultaneously, he found himself most frequently playing the two guard spot and letting Britt play as the primary ball handler on the floor, but adds that the position as primary point guard with both small men on the floor is an interchangeable one.

"I love it," Paige said of the possibility of consistently playing with two point guards. "Two guys that really know how to play the game, like to get other people involved and can attack the basket like we can on the court at the same time is going to make it easier for everyone else. We understand spacing and both of us being able to shoot will help as well."

Leslie McDonald identifies both Paige and Britt as "floor generals," in their style of play. The senior sees the advantage to the way both young guards set up the floor- and the players on the floor - in the right places.

McDonald and Paige also feel that Britt brings a natural speed to the game that will fit well in Williams' style of coaching and playing and both agree that will be an advantage no matter the size of UNC's starting lineup. For McDonald, the decision to go big or small won't be make or break, he feels confident in this year's team to effectively play with either size lineup.

"We've messed with both ends," McDonald said. "I think we can do either or. Whatever we put our mind to, whatever the coaches want us to do, we're going to implement it. If coach wants us to play small, if coach wants us to play big, we're going to do what we can to the best of our abilities."

On the big end, Hicks came to Chapel Hill weighing in at 317 pounds and saw 292 on the scale last week, in a sweat-soaked jersey Williams said. The weight loss has already aided the freshman's ability to move up and down the court, according to his roommate JP Tokoto, in a way that will aid UNC's large-size lineup if it's the one the team goes with.

Joel James would also be a contributor to a large lineup in ways he was not last season. James, who is only in his fifth year playing basketball, has come a long way since last season, especially in terms of his confidence and basketball knowledge.

For James, the key was being coached only by Williams rather than all of his teammates. Last season, James was overwhelmed by peers with years of playing experience on him.

As each member of North Carolina's team doled out advice, James seemed to become less able to receive and utilize the advice.

"Give'em one hard shoulder, just drop step and dunk on (a guy's) head," Tokoto said. "That was the main message that me and Brice would give to him going back home after a game or something."

Since Williams identified the problem, James has had a much more natural time settling confidently into his basketball big-man role and is showing the attitude that would supplement an effective large lineup.

"This year, he's become more aggressive, which we thought he should've been last year, I mean all of us," Tokoto said. "He's made tremendous improvements to his game (by) working with Eric Montross and all that stuff."

For Tokoto, the advantages of playing a big lineup are numerous and would solve perhaps the most plaguing problem of the 2012-2013 season - points off the glass.

"I like big lineups," Tokoto said."Rebounding wise and length wise, it's not easy to get past us around the perimeter with stuff like that."

But even Tokoto immediately lists the alternative advantages of a smaller lineup, saying that the offensive effect of last season's smaller lineup "created a lot of havoc for other teams."

"Honestly, we're a team that can adapt," he said. "Where ever we go, small or big, we'll be just fine."

And the team's only senior agrees. From his perspective, this team is one that has the talent and knowledge to play in whatever scheme Williams decides works best.

"When you go small, you're a little bit more offensive minded, you're faster, but when you're bigger you can attack the boards, get rebounds," McDonald said. "So there's pros and cons on both sides but (we've) just got to see throughout the season and you've got to play a couple of games to really understand the essence of which method - big or small - do you want."


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