With the announcement of the sad news that Kenny Williams is likely done for the season following knee surgery, Carolina debuted its new starting 5 on Wednesday night in Raleigh. While this group hadn’t started a game together all season (and, in fact, had only logged 7:16 as a quintet), the idea of a Berry-Pinson-Jackson-Hicks-Meeks unit certainly wasn’t a novel one to Tar Heel fans. That lineup—the expected starting group going into the season—almost certainly gives UNC its best combination of talent and experience at all five spots. If Carolina is planning to make a deep run this March in a post-Williams world, it will be leaning heavily on its new starting 5.
Let’s break down how the new starting lineup performed together to begin the game. Its minutes were limited last night due to Isaiah Hicks’ rapid rate of racking up fouls. Still, the new quintet highlighted some things it does well (and also a couple areas it will need to work on).
UNC1 (2-0): In a coaching wrinkle, NC State started out small with Torin Dorn at the 4. Running its freelance motion, Carolina capitalized on this strategy right away, posting Hicks up against Maverick Rowan (who switched with Dorn on a perimeter exchange earlier in the possession). Hicks, who received the ball away from the block on the right extended mid-paint on an entry pass from Justin Jackson, took one big back-down dribble, then simply exploded over Rowan for a layup to start the scoring.
NCSU1 (2-0): With their 4-out, 1-in lineup, the ‘Pack made it clear right away what they intended to do on the offensive end. Abdul-Malik Abu set a ball screen for explosive point guard Dennis Smith, Jr., forcing a flat hedge by Meeks as Berry fought over the top. Smith’s pure speed allowed him to easily get into the middle of the paint, drawing help from Pinson. Smith kicked out to the left corner, where Rowan missed a clean 3-point look with Pinson scrambling to recover late. This was a great look for one of NC State’s best shooters, and the type of opportunity that ACC teams have been creating all season against the Heels. Luckily, Rowan missed, with Meeks corralling the defensive board.
UNC2 (2-0): Carolina ran its secondary break, flowing right into the freelance passing game. It again looked to feed the post, this time with Jackson entering the ball to Meeks on the left block. Abu did a good job of bodying up against Meeks’ two back-down dribbles, forcing a contested turnaround jumper from the left baseline. Meeks missed, and is now shooting just 23.5% (4-17) on turnaround jumpers this season. It couldn’t be said often last night, but this was a good individual defensive effort by NC State.
NCSU2 (2-2): State went right back to another Smith/Abu ball screen, allowing Smith to crossover a flat-hedging Meeks to get to the rim. Meeks played it properly, but Smith is just an elite athlete. Hicks’ help rotation/contest at the rim was also solid—Smith just made a big-time finish.
UNC3 (5-2): Out of the secondary break, Hicks set a screen for Jackson who received a pass from Berry for a top-of-the-key 3. The shot missed, but Hicks was able to out-battle the smaller Dorn to force the rebound out of bounds against State. On the ensuing BLOB, the ball went around the horn to Berry (after he inbounded and cut to the opposite wing). He then received a ball screen from Hicks, rising up for a left-wing 3 off the dribble after an NC State miscommunication on the switch.
NCSU3 (5-2): This time, Smith turned down an Abu high screen to drive the right-side of the lane against Berry. Berry did a serviceable job of staying connected to Smith on the drive, but a Pinson over-help forced a help-the-helper rotation by Jackson on Rowan in the paint. Rowan promptly kicked out to Henderson (Jackson’s man) on the left wing, who missed a clean look over a late-recovering Jackson. For the second time in three possessions, Smith penetration led to a clean kick-out 3 for one of the ‘Pack’s best shooters. They missed both shots, however. There will probably be a learning curve for the new starting 5 with Pinson, as the team learns how to best compensate for his proclivity for gambling/over-helping.
UNC4 (7-2): Secondary again flowed seamlessly into freelance motion, with Pinson crossing over to get to the left elbow. From there, he threw a David Noel-style jump shot-turned-pass to Meeks under the hoop for the layup. Pinson (easily) leads the Heels in potential close assists, and all four of his assists against NC State were for layups. He also had two FT assists that led to shooting fouls at the rim. His four assists (and two FT assists) were all to Carolina’s bigs, too. On the season, 16 of his 27 assists (plus all seven of his FT assists) are to the UNC post quartet of Meeks/Hicks/Bradley/Maye. If you’re a Tar Heel big, you’re probably quite excited to have Pinson back in the lineup.
NCSU4 (7-4): State pushed the ball in transition, and Pinson did a fantastic job of stopping Terry Henderson’s penetration in the open court. Henderson, however, did hit a tough, step-back jumper over Pinson after having his drive denied. The ‘Pack had zero offensive rebounding support on this attempt, and a long 2-pointer a few seconds into the shot clock probably didn’t qualify as great shot selection.
UNC5 (9-4): After Pinson (on the right wing) passed up a post entry to Meeks on the right block, he rotated the ball to Jackson on the left wing. Jackson swung the ball to Berry in the left corner, allowing Meeks to cut block-to-block to receive a bounce-pass entry there. Abu gambled for a steal, leaving Meeks open to finish a reverse layup against half-hearted help-side defense. This wasn’t a great entry by Berry, and it probably would have been stolen by a better/quicker post defender (Amile Jefferson, for example). It was a good job by the Heels to reverse the ball, however, and Meeks worked hard to create post position on each block.
NCSU5 (9-5): Smith again turned down an Abu ball screen (the fourth time in State’s first five possessions that Abu was used as a high screener for Smith), blowing past Berry on the bounce. This time, Pinson did not help, electing to stick close to Henderson in the right corner (as Smith drove the right-side of the paint again). Hicks, then, was forced to help late at the rim, fouling Smith to prevent a thunderous dunk. He split a pair of free throws.
UNC6 (12-5): After Berry drew a secondary break (non-shooting) foul on Smith with a drive, his ensuing BLOB entry was nearly stolen by Rowan. Carolina was able to recover the loose ball, with the chaos creating a drive-and-kick opportunity for Hicks. He found Jackson open on his preferred left wing location, but the shot was missed. Hicks, however, crashed to grab another offensive rebound against the overmatched Dorn, drop-stepping to the rim to draw an “and-1” opportunity on the put-back. It was Hicks’ 10th “and-1” of the season (second only to Meeks’ 11) and, upon making the free throw, he’s completed eight of them.
NCSU6 (12-5): Another ‘Pack possession, another Abu ball screen for Smith. He again turned this one down, driving on Berry to force a Pinson help rotation. Smith kicked to the right corner to Henderson, but Pinson’s well-timed recovery ran him off the 3-point line. Pinson took a great close-out angle to force Henderson’s drive to the baseline, allowing Berry to help out and strip the ball (which he saved to an alert Meeks). This was a great help-and-recovery by Pinson, and a good job of Berry helping on the baseline drive (after the dribble was correctly fanned in that direction by Pinson). Really good defensive possession; UNC will need more like this against the steady diet of drive-and-kick/ball-screen offense that it figures to see the rest of the way.
UNC7 (12-5): Pushing the ball after the live-ball turnover, Berry hit it ahead to Jackson on the right wing, who immediately found Hicks filling the middle of the lane. Henderson basically shoved Hicks coming through the paint (uncalled), knocking him off balance to force a missed transition layup. Even with the contact, this is the type of play that Hicks (an elite close finisher) generally completes.
NCSU7 (12-7): State pushed it right back following the Hicks miss in transition, with Smith attempting a right-wing 3. Pinson did an excellent job of locating the ball and closing out on the shooter in the open court, helping to force the Smith miss. Abu out-battled Meeks for the long rebound, then kicked it out for an offensive reset. Smith, after using s0me slick shake-and-bake dribbling at the top of the key to freeze Berry, was able to blow by to draw a helping Meeks. Smith dished to Abu, who was able to pick up the second foul on Hicks who had rotated to help the helper. Abu made both free throws. Both of Hicks’ early fouls were as a result of Smith blow-bys on Berry (not involving ball screens). He needs to do a better job of contesting without fouling (walling without dropping his arms), but Carolina also needs to contain penetration better (easier said than done against the lightning-quick Smith). Maye would check in for Hicks at the 16:01 mark.
Following the 12-7 start documented above, the Heels would force turnovers on NC State’s next three possessions, and the Berry-Britt-Jackson-Maye-Bradley combo would go on an 11-3 run to push the lead out to 23-10. That lineup also had a 10-3 second-half run, and led 23-8 in its 6:53 of action as Maye-Bradley (possibly next year’s starting frontcourt) continues to impress from a +/- perspective.
As for the starting 5, it led 14-9 in its 6:12 of court time (Hicks would pick up his fourth foul 2:13 into the second half and not return). On the season, that group is now +15 (34-19) in 13.5 minutes, dominating on both ends so far in its small sample of shared court time (offensive efficiency of 138.8; defensive efficiency of 77.6).
I’m still working to finish charting this game, but will be back soon with a breakdown of Maye’s game against NC State and his development over the course of the season.