There are seasons when the month of December is mostly for fine-tuning, when the Carolina rotation is set and the holidays are mostly about avoiding injury.
This year, as Saturday's 93-87 win over East Carolina showed, is not one of those years.
Ever since the fall, Roy Williams has been adamant that this is a different team, that the Tar Heels' usual reliance on the post may have to wait until one of the big man trio--Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson or Joel James--develops into a suitable complement to James Michael McAdoo, who is more comfortable playing facing the basket.
No matter how much the head coach says it, though, it's still a little jarring to see it in action on the Smith Center court. The midpoint of December has passed, and the Tar Heel rotation remains unsettled. And that's true almost as much on the perimeter, where Dexter Strickland has occasionally been more efficient at point guard than Marcus Paige, as it is in the post.
That mix will be tested again tomorrow night at Texas, as the Longhorns are 86-3 at home against nonconference opponents since the beginning of the 2002-03 season. As is typical of a Rick Barnes-coached team, Texas is stingy on defense, ranking second in the nation in field goal percentage defense and allowing opponents to hit just 24.0 percent from the three-point line.
That means Carolina will need to put five players on the score who can figure out a way to get the ball in the basket, but even ten games into the season, it's not enitrely clear which five those might be. Reggie Bullock says he's noticed that the rotation is still coming into focus, and that this team is more fluid at this point in the season than past squads.
"It's taken a little longer than usual," he said. "At the five position we can go with Joel, Brice or Desmond, and those three are totally different players, which changes what we do."
What Bullock didn't mention is that there are also times when none of the three young big men are on the court--and that might even be the best Carolina lineup. Bullock is UNC's second-best rebounder (5.0/game) and P.J. Hairston's newly found aggressiveness getting to the goal gives the Tar Heels a slashing element the offense needs.
By a wide margin, Hairston and Strickland are Carolina's second- and third-most frequent free throwers, an area where the Tar Heels have created a significant amount of offense in the past, but are lagging this season (Carolina has shot 165 free throws this season; opponents have attempted 163).
After ECU shot 27 free throws to Carolina's 24 on Saturday despite shooting almost twice as many three-pointers as the home team, Tar Heel letterman--and Pirates head coach--Jeff Lebo noted the change in this year's squad.
"One thing I know Coach (Williams) was disappointed with was how his team got to the free throw line," Lebo said. "A Carolina team usually makes more free throws than the opponent attempts. They have a different team this year. They're more perimeter oriented, and they have more three-point shooters on the court. Coach has done a great job of adjusting to that and playing to the strengths."
Whether Williams agrees with that assessment of his performance so far this season is debatable. "The head coach at North Carolina needs to do a better job," he said on Saturday afternoon, and he juggled his rotation often in the closing minutes of a tight game against the Pirates, trying to find the right mix. The Tar Heels made eight substitutions in the final 2:40, including using J.P. Tokoto for defense.
The increased role for Tokoto, who played only five minutes as recently as the UAB game and just seven at Long Beach State, is especially intriguing. The Wisconsin native is not a long-range threat, but he showed a knack for getting to the rim against the Pirates and shot five-of-five from the field. Most importantly from Williams's perspective, the head coach has said Tokoto has enormous potential as an offensive rebounder, an area of critical need.
For now, Tokoto knows his job is simple: play well enough when given the opportunity in short bursts to earn even longer chances.
"Coach wants me to play good defense," he said after the ECU game. "Get on the boards and get out and run. It helps my confidence a lot to get that chance. We were up only four and he was putting me in as a freshman, and that feels great to see how much trust he has in me. It helps my confidence a lot."