Less than three weeks ago, Carolina was playing one of the deepest rotations in the ten-season Roy Williams era. But as the Tar Heels prepare for tomorrow's crucial Atlantic Coast Conference battle against NC State, there's been a dramatic shift, and over the last three games Carolina has employed one of the shortest rotations during the Williams regime.
It wasn't just the starting lineup that shifted when P.J. Hairston assumed Desmond Hubert's spot in the starting lineup against Duke on Feb. 13. It was also the entire rotation. In the previous game, for example, when the Tar Heels played at Miami, nine different Carolina players saw at least 13 minutes of action. In the three games since the trip to Coral Gables, just six players combined--Hairston, James Michael McAdoo, Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock, Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland--have played at least 13 minutes in a game.
Hubert, a starter in 18 games this season, has played just six minutes total in those three games.
On his radio show this week, Williams said the genesis of the switch came in the locker room at the Bank United Center in Miami. The head coach was leaving straight from the arena to go recruit, so he wouldn't be on the team flight, and he wanted to discuss his options before he even left the building.
"We had a meeting in the locker room with just the staff right after the Miami game," Williams said. "I wanted to get some different ideas to throw out to the staff and the ideas I was thinking about. Then when we met on Sunday to grade the tape we talked about it quite a bit more. One of the things we talked about was condensing the lineup and shortening the rotation."
Since that meeting, the only reserve seeing major minutes has been Leslie McDonald, who has been important in providing some rest for Hairston and Bullock. McDonald started slowly in his relief role, shooting just 1-of-6 in 20 minutes at Duke, but contributed seven points against Virginia and then broke out with 15 points at Georgia Tech--his most points in an ACC game since notching 15 against Maryland on Feb. 27, 2011.
Now the challenge for McDonald becomes performing consistently. He's only scored double figures in back-to-back games against ACC opponents once in his three-year Tar Heel career.
"I knew once P.J. went into the starting lineup, there were going to be some big-time minutes off the bench," McDonald said. "P.J. and I were that 1-2 combo off the bench, and now it has to be me and J.P. (Tokoto) or Jackson (Simmons) and the other guys. We have to put up some points off the bench."
Williams has noted that matchups will still dictate his rotation, and with the Wolfpack boasting one of the best frontcourts in the conference, it's possible--even likely--that Hubert, Simmons and Joel James (if he's healthy) will play an increased role on Saturday. NC State outrebounded the Tar Heels 42-32 in Raleigh, Carolina's biggest rebounding deficit against an ACC team since Feb. 12, 2011.
The UNC offensive rebounding numbers have actually improved slightly since the lineup change, but Hairston will get his most formidable post test against C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell. In fact, the Pack has gotten even bigger since the teams met the first time, as Mark Gottfried started 6-foot-8 T.J. Warren (who responded with 31 points and 13 rebounds) instead of 6-foot-3 Rodney Purvis in State's win over Virginia Tech this week.
No matter how Carolina counters State's imposing front line, Williams knows an overreliance on his core rotation can have the unintended result of wearing them down physically. If the trend continues and the Tar Heels use just six players for at least 13 minutes per game, it will be the shortest rotation of the Williams era; the 2004, 2006 and 2007 squads primarily used just seven players.
-It's a delicate juggling act. Williams, as he said this week, "feels like it gives us the best chance to win" to play a shorter rotation. But he also has to manage the health and fatigue of his regulars.
After Bullock played 36 minutes apiece in back-to-back games against Duke and Virginia, the Tar Heel head coach noted the junior's nagging injuries--back and knee issues--and said, "He's going through the dog days of the season and is getting beat up quite a bit...I've got to give him a few more breathers during the course of the game."
The result? The win at Georgia Tech was the first time this season that Hairston played more minutes than Bullock (31 to 30). Still, Bullock is averaging a whopping 32.8 minutes in conference games, which would tie with Wayne Ellington in 2009 as the second-most ACC minutes played by a Tar Heel in the last five seasons (Kendall Marshall is the leader, at 35.1 MPG last season).
If Williams has proven anything this season, it's that he's willing to be flexible. Already this season, he's made a major in-season rotation change and tweaked the way his team defends ball screens. Will he continue with the smaller rotation? Stay tuned.
"We may go back and start playing 10 or 11 guys in the first half like we did for a long time if the matchups are different," Williams said. "But in the last (three) games we've thought it's been good matchups to stay small for a really, really long period of time."