CHAPEL HILL — So you’re curious how North Carolina will do with a small lineup?
After two scrimmages with two big men on the court most of the way — one of them a loss — the Tar Heels went small to start their third scrimmage with UNC Wilmington at UNC’s Disaster Relief Jamboree on Sunday at the Smith Center.
It was only a scrimmage, and against a team with only one player taller than 6-7. And it was a small sample size. But the contrast was obvious.
With freshman Jalek Felton (in photo) at point guard, along with Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye in that starting lineup, the offense sizzled. That group scored 17 points in 5.5 minutes before being replaced on a day when Coach Roy Williams gave lots of minutes to his entire roster.
Carolina easily beat the Seahawks 38–22 in the 14-minute scrimmage as both finished with jamboree-best 2-1 records. There were six scrimmage with each of the four teams playing three scrimmages.
The Tar Heels earlier substituted liberally in a 32–24 loss to Greensboro, which used only seven players. Freshman Walker Miller, the brother of Spartans head coach Wes Miller, played five minutes in that 13-minute scrimmage and likely won’t even get into Friday’s opener with Northern Iowa.
A tongue-lashing after the Greensboro loss may have had something to do with the improved effort against UNCW. UNC lost to the scrappy and hot-shooting (67 percent from the floor) Spartans. Coach Williams almost felt bad for C.B. McGrath, his former assistant coach who is in his first season as UNCW’s head coach.
“I got ticked off after the second game and got on their rear ends and then, all of a sudden, we had guys diving on the floor instead of watching Wes’s guys dive on the floor, so C.B. you can be mad at Wes about something else,” Williams said.
Getting experience for numerous players was obviously more important than winning. East Carolina just let UNC dribble out the clock in the Tar Heels’ 21–20 win at the end of the jamboree opener.
“I guess we were scoring the ball, so it looked better,” Pinson said of the start of the UNCW scrimmage. “Coach challenged us after the second game. We didn’t play with the right intensity and whatever group went out there had to play harder and set the tone and we did.”
Having the talented Felton at point was one key there, in addition to red-hot perimeter shooting with the offense spread out against the Seahawks.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Pinson said. “When we get to spread the floor, it gets to me inside, everybody collapsed. You’ve got Cam Johnson, one of the best shooters in the nation, you have him sitting out there, that’s a luxury.”
Luke Maye, who combined for 15 points in 22 minutes in the three scrimmages, said that the amount the Tar Heels play with a small lineup is likely to vary.
“I think it’s kind of based on how the game is going and what Coach is feeling is our best lineup,” Maye said. “I think he has the most confidence in the smaller lineup because he knows that guys will kind of buy into rebounding and really focus on that.”
The good news for UNC is that Joel Berry is making progress toward his return and that small-ball lineup will obviously become much better at that point. He potentially could be back for the Stanford game.
The brace on Berry’s right hand came off two days ago. On Sunday, he only had tape holding the pinkie and ring fingers together. He’s not shooting yet but is expected to start doing that this week.
“He started dribbling about two days ago, so he’s moving forward,” Pinson said. “He’s still been working out all the time, always working just to keep his wind up. He says it’s tough not being out there. But, at the same time, he just needs to get healthy. We don’t win the national championship in November.”
Carolina made 5 of 6 shots from 3-point range, including both Johnson and freshman Andrew Platek going 2-for-2, during the UNCW victory.
Another reason the UNCW scrimmage started so well: Felton was the only inexperienced player on the court on a team with a lot of newcomers.
“I think we’ve all played together before,” Maye said. “We just all know how each other plays. Jalek’s such a great distributor and really does a great job of finding others who are open and I thought he did a really good job of making good plays.”
Pinson said that Felton, who had five assists and one turnover combined in 17 minutes over the three scrimmages, just followed the lead of the more experienced players.
“He actually picked up full court pretty well,” Pinson said. “We were talking and communicating. All of it was energy level, it didn’t matter what group was out there. We went out there with the right amount of intensity.”
Pinson said that because he’s been getting more reps at point guard with Berry out, the team hasn’t played a lot of small ball in practice. Pinson again showed off his versatility by playing both at point guard and the four spot.
“I’ve been playing the four for three years, so I’m pretty used to it,” Pinson said. “Luke, he did a really good job on the boards today. He’ll rebound the crap out of the ball. He did a good job tonight. I still got fed in the post twice.”
Roy Williams said after the game that it isn’t clear who will start at point guard in Friday’s opener against Northern Iowa. Felton has work to do on defense but it was obvious that he was the most effective of the three point guards.
“Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are going to be big days to see who plays on Friday because it is not an equal opportunity thing,” Williams said. “You get to play if you play better.”
Sophomore Seventh Woods, who only started the ECU scrimmage, combined for three assists and two turnovers in 18 minutes.
“It sort of brings me back to my high school days coming out and playing point guard,” said Pinson, who got time there his senior year in high school when the team’s main point guard got hurt.
His time at point will be mostly over when Berry returns. As to how much playing time he, Felton or Woods gets at that position in Friday’s opener will be determined this week in practice.