DURHAM, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams made a rare mid-season change to his starting lineup at No. 2 Duke on Wednesday, inserting wing P.J. Hairston for center Desmond Hubert in a move that sparked the team to a double-figure lead early before its eventual five-point loss.
The question now: Will Williams stay with the smaller opening quintet, or change it again?
“Who knows?” the coach said after the unranked Tar Heels' 73-68 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “I may start five different guys on Saturday [vs. Virginia].”
Fans had been clamoring to see Hairston -- an energetic 6-foot-5 scorer who had been averaging a point-a-minute during a recent stretch -- in the starting five. But Williams had resisted, wanting to keep senior Dexter Strickland in at shooting guard for his defense and as a confidence-boost, while sticking with a traditional center.
“I started to do it four or five games ago,” Williams said of the lineup change, “but everybody’s saying, ‘Well, you’re going to put P.J. in for someone else.’ But nobody knows my team. It’s popular to say who the hell is supposed to be in the lineup when you don’t know what in the dickens you’re talking about.”
In the end, Williams opted to make the switch earlier this week, figuring Hairston would give the Tar Heels an offensive mismatch on Duke’s 4-men because Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston aren’t the focal points of the Blue Devils’ attack.
“So we hoped that P.J. would be able to battle and guard inside,’’ Williams said. “He did fine with that.”
Hairston also tied his career high with 23 points on 8-for-18 shooting. Seven of his eight rebounds were on the offensive glass, and he posted two blocks, two drawn charges and three assists. And the smaller lineup helped the Tar Heels run up a faster start on the road than has become usual this season, as they forced three turnovers in the opening minutes and grabbed as much as a 10-point first-half lead.
“We came out with fire,” Hairston told reporters after the game, according to The Daily Tar Heel. “We came out wanting it more. We came out with intensity. We came out playing hard and playing together.”
Williams is not known for liking to make non-injury-related changes to his starting five once it is set. In 2005-06, he swapped out shooting guard Marcus Ginyard with Wes Miller about midway through the season (although both ended up playing roughly the same minutes). Four games into the 2010-11 ACC slate, he replaced point guard Larry Drew II with Kendall Marshall, and Drew ended up quitting the team and transferring four games later.
And even after an early revolving door at the center position earlier this season, Hubert, although averaging only 12 minutes, had started 18 games.
Hairston said when he learned he would be in Wednesday’s opening lineup, he didn’t jump around in excitement. “I was more like, ‘This is my time. I’m ready,’” he said, according to The DTH.
The question now: Is Williams ready to leave him there?