Smaller Tar Heels getting more comfortable
Excitement never has been lacking for North Carolina this season.
The Tar Heels have the shared experiences of enduring drubbings during games with Butler, Texas, N.C. State and Miami. But Carolina has also been on a season-long curve, adjusting first to tremendous personnel losses, then realizing what the current roster could do best. It has not been an easy puzzle.
Roy Williams’ smaller perimeter-based lineup triggered the Tar Heels’ fifth straight victory Sunday afternoon, 79-58 over Florida State in front of a sellout crowd of 21,000 in the Smith Center. They celebrated Dean Smith’s recent 82nd birthday, saw a promising burst of 6-foot-9 sophomore James Michael McAdoo and more chemistry evolve with the lineup that appears set for March.
“Coach Williams and Coach Davis mentioned in the second half, we’re growing as a team and we’re getting better,” said senior Dexter Strickland of the head coach and assistant Hubert Davis. “And they don’t know if we realize that, but they do.”
Strickland, freshman Marcus Paige and sophomore P.J. Hairston combined with junior forward Reggie Bullock to give the Tar Heels (21-8, 11-5 ACC) four starters 6-foot-7 or less.
While the offense is drawing attention for openness, at 6-foot-5, Hairston is often yielding inches defensively.
“It’s just size,” Hairston said. “But strength wise, I feel like I’m just as strong. I’m just as strong as any post man at times.”
And Williams has found the strategy exchange beneficial.
“We’re getting more confident, and should be,” Williams said. “Just an example, with P.J. guarding a post guy, he took one charge or maybe two today. P.J.’s really a good defensive player. We need him to do it all the time.
“You see your teammate take a charge, or a guy dive on the floor, that gives you a little more enthusiasm to play, too. We didn’t have those kind of plays earlier in the year that we’re having now.”
It’s far different from the Tar Heels unit that was trying to decide on a starter among 6-foot-10 Joel James, 6-foot-9 Brice Johnson or 6-foot-9 Desmond Hubert.
“It’s all about winning, so you have to be happy with that part,” Williams said. “We’re a little more active with that defense. We don’t block shots around the basket like we did before when we had Desmond, Brice and Joel playing all those minutes, but we are more active defensively.”
They’re a team which has to find rebounding, needs good outside shooting, must communicate defensively and needs to never lose McAdoo to foul trouble.
Sunday, McAdoo scored 21 points, Bullock had 20 points and 10 rebounds and Hairston scored 16 points. Florida State (15-14, 7-9 ACC), a defensive leader in the NCAA the last four years, gave up 55.4-percent floor shooting to the Tar Heels.
“Having open driving lanes is going to lead to easier baskets, and let guys like Reggie get better looks,” Paige said. “Reggie and P.J. get a lot of open looks because me and Dexter are able to attack more.”
Maryland will challenge the Tar Heels Wednesday with its primary strength inside, and Duke on Saturday with Ryan Kelly back will also present a formidable task.
“I think we’re still in the process of getting used to it,” Williams said.
But he likes the results. And March has arrived.
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