Brandon Huffman (42) slam dunks the ball during a scrimmage as the UNC Tar Heel basketball team has its annual “Late Night with Roy” event to open the college basketball season at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, on Oct. 13. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com
Brandon Huffman (42) slam dunks the ball during a scrimmage as the UNC Tar Heel basketball team has its annual “Late Night with Roy” event to open the college basketball season at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, on Oct. 13. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Luke DeCock

‘Four big guys, three scholarship, one walk-on’ – Can UNC find an inside game?

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

October 17, 2017 04:32 PM

UPDATED October 19, 2017 05:50 PM

CHAPEL HILL

For a few years, until Brice Johnson emerged as a dominant player at North Carolina, Roy Williams was fond of noting, with some wistfulness, that if you could combine Johnson’s offense and Desmond Hubert’s defense in one player, you’d have a heck of a player.

Williams was on the verge of recycling on this particular Ol’ Royism on Tuesday when he riffed on it instead.

“We’ve got four big guys, three scholarship, one walk-on,” he said. “You take the best characteristic of each one of them and put them in one player … you still wouldn’t have a player.”

Williams laughed, but there was more than a hint of gallows humor in it. One of those four – and presumably Garrison Brooks or Brandon Huffman, the two most highly regarded recruits – is going to have to start. A couple will have to play, extensively. With the Tar Heels returning several players from their national-championship team on the perimeter, including stars Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, all the questions are on the inside.

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“I’m scared to death of those big guys,” Williams said. “I don’t know which one, but somebody’s got to be a player.”

That’s a bigger deal at North Carolina than it might be elsewhere. Williams has always preferred to play two big men, ideally old-school, back-to-the-basket big men. His best teams have all had it. That’s going to be tough this year. The Tar Heels’ one returning big man, Luke Maye, is really more comfortable ranging out on the perimeter than he is in the post.

So even just to start, with Maye at one post and a freshman-to-be-named-later at the other, the Tar Heels are going to resemble the 2013 team more than their more recent predecessors. That team, with shooters Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, often had four perimeter players on the court at once. Rebounding could be an issue with that lineup, and it figures to be this year again – but it would anyway with the departure of strong rebounders like Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

Over the past two seasons, the Tar Heels dabbled in that lineup, using Pinson at power forward with Meeks or Hicks or Johnson at center. Pinson being 6-6 and Justin Jackson 6-8, it wasn’t exactly a small lineup, but that’s how it was known. There will be more of that this season, with 6-8 Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson in Jackson’s spot.

When Pinson and Maye are the two post players this year, the Tar Heels may at times resemble the five-out lineups of Boston College or Duke, with all five players set up behind the 3-point line as Maye roams away from the basket. That’s certainly the modern trend in basketball, toward a positionless perimeter game, but it has yet to take root at North Carolina, being anathema to Williams’ bedrock principles.

“I want the daggum ball inside,” Williams yelled at his team during practice Tuesday, what figures to be a familiar refrain this season.

Williams has veered from past practice before, as he did by necessity in 2013, and based on his assessment of the freshman options at forward, he appears to be considering it again.

Then again, Pinson has played long enough for North Carolina to know where this is probably headed in the end.

“Y’all know how we’re going to play,” Pinson said. “We’re going to play with two bigs. And if that’s not working, we’ll go to something else.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock