The Heels aren’t simply getting better; they’re getting different.
Roy Williams historically dislikes making substantial alterations to his system, even when his personnel lack ideal quality and style for his preferred freelance, uptempo offense. But without announcing major tweaks publicly, Williams clearly has shifted the club’s top offensive priority away from interior scoring and toward perimeter output.
His decision has manifested like this: The Heels are setting more screens away from the basket, freeing James Michael McAdoo — whose 19 points and 11 rebounds constituted 31 and 28 percent of the team’s respective totals — to receive more touches with a running start. McAdoo never will be a great power scorer (and has struggled as a center when Williams has employed a small lineup) but possesses better quickness than nearly any other big man in the conference.
Meanwhile, those same screens are enabling shooters Reggie Bullock (a career-high 24 points versus the Terps) and P.J. Hairston to free themselves for open three-point attempts. The club’s flaccid second half offense actually owes less to a lack of quality shots and more to random frigidity suffered by Hairston and Marcus Paige.
But even when the shots don’t fall, the offense appears more fluid and the players executing it more confident. Both Hairston and Paige made key plays late in the game, clearly more comfortable now than when attempting to run inside-out offense early this season.
Whatever my or others' thoughts about Williams’ timing, without a doubt he has made an adjustment that appears to be working. Bullock at times looks like an All-ACC player, and when he’s allowed to play power forward and not center, McAdoo at least demonstrates in flashes why he’s expected to become a first round NBA draft pick this spring.
These Heels still struggle with limitations. Because non-scorers such as Dexter Strickland and Desmond Hubert receive so much playing time — they combined for 41 minutes and just six points versus Maryland — the team can’t account for a poor game by any other rotation player, at least on offense.
Defensively, however, the club has demonstrated the ability to compete at a nationally touted level. The Heels proved against the Terrapins that they can stifle an opponent so successfully that even a tepid shooting day won’t doom them to certain defeat. In this regard Williams remains stedfast: Paige is improving his ball pressure, and Hubert has developed into a quality post defender.
Trading offense for defense will be a season-long challenge for the Hall of Fame coach, who gains scoring with freshman Brice Johnson but sacrifices defense in the process. Finessing his rotation will be a game-by-game process.
I wrote previously that, to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament, UNC likely needed to win three of its first six conference games. The Heels’ chances appeared dire after losing at home to Miami, but they now can reach that benchmark by defeating Georgia Tech at home on Wednesday.
They’ll face a steep climb at N.C. State next Saturday, but following that difficult contest Carolina slides into the easiest part of its ACC schedule. Click here to view the UNC/Maryland box score.