After losing center Kennedy Meeks to a knee injury earlier this month, North Carolina has been tasked with finding ways to fill the void in its frontcourt. Joel James has stepped into the big man’s spot in the starting five, while forwards Isaiah Hicks and Luke Maye have seen increased minutes as well.
In Wednesday night’s 80-69 victory over Clemson, however, the Tar Heels took a “less is more approach” to aggravate the Tigers. UNC utilized a smaller lineup for much of the second half on their way to extending their undefeated streak against their conference foe to 58-0.
Even with Meeks out, Roy Williams has one of the deepest rosters in the country, with five other players averaging at least 9.5 points per game. For the 10th straight contest, at least four different Tar Heels scored in double figures. Much of the scoring Wednesday occurred when Williams played four guards at once.
There were times when Joel Berry, Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson were all on the floor at the same time, with either Hicks, Maye or Brice Johnson occupying the 5 spot. That adjustment created favorable matchups for UNC on both ends of the court.
“They can score in a lot of different ways, and there’s just so many of them coming at you that it’s hard to stop them,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “There’s so many weapons; there’s going to be two or three that play well most nights because there’s six or seven of them that can get 18 points.”
Berry, who finished with 16 points and four assists with no turnovers, was able to get penetration easier with the Tigers spread out defensively.
“With the four guards in the game, it kind of opens up the lanes so we can get some driving lanes, and that’s why I was able to get in,” Berry stated. “It just makes it faster, and there’s more spacing to get to the hole.”
Pinson also benefited from the additional spacing. The sophomore hit all five of his shots from the field, including three buckets from long range.
While Pinson’s 13 points were a key factor in the UNC win, he was also important defensively in the four-guard lineup. For part of the second half, Brownell had forward Jaron Blossomgame slide over to the 4. The Tar Heels were able to counter that by relying on Pinson’s athleticism in guarding Blossomgame.
“We’re a little more consistent defensively on the perimeter (with four guards),” Williams said. “It’s not that they didn’t get some post-ups or anything, but it was more of a perimeter game either shooting or driving to the basket, so being smaller for us was better.”
North Carolina’s success with the smaller lineup showed that the team can still play efficiently all around even with Meeks out and its most productive scorer, Johnson, on the bench. UNC may not use that look every game, but it could pop up again later in the year.
“I think it’s all situational, but the fact that we’re able to do that I think is going to help us against teams like Notre Dame and Duke that kind of spread the floor and try to play that game,” Paige said.
With the win over Clemson, UNC is off to a 1-0 start in ACC play. No timetable has been set for Meeks’ return, but as the team showed against the Tigers, it can still find ways to keep racking up victories in the meantime.