North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams is stubborn, He’ll tell you that himself, especially when it comes to his favored inside-out style of play.
“I had three NBA coaches this summer tell me, ‘I hope you keep playing the same way you’re playing, because about everybody has gone to an open offense with nobody in the post,’” Williams said earlier this season. “They say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I said, ‘Because I’m stubborn, but it’s what I believe in.’”
To that end, Williams has tried as hard as he can to stick with his belief, even though the unexpected departure of Tony Bradley to the NBA Draft after just one college season left his roster devoid of experienced big men.
But even as set in his ways as the Hall of Fame coach might be, he’s smart enough to know that you can only pound a round peg into a square hole so many times before you realize that it’s just not going to fit.
You don’t win 829 games without being at least a little flexible.
So while he continues to give young bigs Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley as many minutes as possible, Williams has begun using a smaller, perimeter-oriented lineup increasingly more over the past few games. It’s a pattern that’s likely to continue as he looks to give his Tar Heels their best chance at winning.
“We want to have two big men because of the rebounding, but it’s just a different team this year,” said senior guard Joel Berry, who has started recent games alongside fellow guards Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams, wing Cameron Johnson and 6-foot-8 forward Luke Maye.
“That small lineup is something that’s just hard to guard. When you have four guys out on the perimeter and one guy in, it spaces out the floor and they have to cover us going to the basket.”
It’s a similar philosophy to the one usually associated with different Triangle team with a Hall of Fame coach and uniforms a slightly darker shade of blue.
But not this year.
In a coincidental reversal of roles, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has also stepped out of character in the way he has his team playing.
Instead of playing positionless basketball with four or sometimes even five players on the court that are ready, willing and able to shoot from beyond the 3-point arc at every opportunity, Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils have taken a page out of rival UNC’s book by pounding the ball inside as much as possible.
The reason is the arrival of 6-11, 234-pound freshman Marvin Bagley III and his 6-10, 258-pound classmate Wendell Carter Jr. — two of the nation’s best big men.
“We’re a much different team than last year in that we’re big,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re very big and athletic. That doesn’t mean we can’t shoot, but we’re not the outside shooting force that we’ve been in some of these previous years.”
It’s an adjustment that has been much easier for Krzyzewski to implement than Williams’ switch to small ball because of the makeup of his team. With the exception of senior guard Grayson Allen, everyone in the Blue Devils’ rotation is either a freshman or his first season as a significant contributor.
And Allen hasn’t had to adjust his game much. He still has the green light to shoot from the perimeter, knowing that even a miss is sometimes a solid offensive option considering the rebounding prowess of his teammates waiting underneath the basket.
“It’s either going to go in or I guess Marvin or Wendell is going to get it, right?” Allen said. “That’s what we’d like to think. But at the same time, we also know that while those guys are down there in rebounding position, they’re also in scoring position. So our offense needs to go through them.
“The outside-in approach we used to have was mainly guards penetrating and kicking. Now entering the ball into the bigs is basically just a new form of penetration to the hoop.”
Allen said he’s not surprised that Krzyzewski so willingly embraced the change of style to fit his personnel.
“He’s the GOAT,” Allen said, referring to the acronym for Greatest of All Time. “He’s going to play to our strengths and he trusts us as basketball players to make plays.”
Though a tad more begrudgingly, Williams has done the same at UNC — even if it means taking a page out of a rival’s playbook.
“Duke for years survived on 3-point shot after 3-point shot,” Williams said. “Now they’ve got a lot of guys inside. I don’t remember them finishing last in the league anytime that was going on.”