HOUSTON -- In a clash of contrasting styles, tradition still matters to North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
Williams isn’t swayed by the recent fascination of playing small and volume shooting 3s -- a description that summarizes Villanova’s style and is responsible for its march to Monday night’s NCAA national championship game.
The Heels have stuck with more of a traditional lineup using two post players, whether it's Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson in the starting lineup or bringing Joel James and Isaiah Hicks off the bench.
“Maybe it’s old school, it’s definitely not necessarily the way Golden State plays, and nobody loves to watch them more than I do,” Williams said.
To Williams, the benefits of playing big have defined the Tar Heels this season. During Williams’ tenure, Carolina has been at its best when its frontcourt has stepped to the forefront. This season is no exception.
The Heels rank third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, collecting 40 percent of their misses. In their 83-66 win over Syracuse in the national semifinals on Saturday, they grabbed 53 percent.
They score 61 percent of their points from inside the arc, which ranks fourth nationally, according to Ken Pomeroy. And only six teams in Division I score fewer points from 3-point range than the Heels. Against the Orange, they scored 50 points in the paint.
“We are what we are today because of our depth, especially in the frontcourt,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “We have bigs that other teams can’t match up with.”
The hidden effect of the Heels playing big against smaller opponents is the fouls that tend to accumulate trying to stop them.
As an example, Williams likes to point to a game during his Kansas days, in which Cincinnati’s Danny Fortson was dominating until he got into foul trouble. But Williams really doesn’t have to go back that far.
Syracuse guard Michael Gbinije fouled out on Saturday and freshman Malachi Richardson was hindered by four fouls. In UNC's win over Notre Dame, Irish center Zach Auguste played only 21 minutes because of foul trouble, though he managed to stay in the game. Indiana’s Collin Hartman fouled out and three other players had four fouls against the Heels. Providence leading scorer Ben Bentil fouled out and guard Kris Dunn was limited by foul trouble in its second-round loss to UNC.
“So I’ve always been one of those that felt like if we could get some of the other teams’ best players out of the game, we had a better chance to win,” Williams said. “Yet I didn’t want to recruit just big, ugly, old, big guys, smelly armpits, all that stuff. I wanted to find some pretty guys who could shoot the ball, too, because I liked the balance of it there.”
Among Villanova’s tournament opponents, Kansas’ frontcourt was probably most similar to Carolina's.
What separates Carolina’s frontcourt from others is that Johnson, Meeks and Hicks are capable of scoring 20. Even James came off the bench to make two short jumpers against Syracuse.
“We all can really score the ball down low if you give it to us in the paint, if you give it to us where we’re comfortable, we’re going to score,” Johnson said. “It does present challenges for other teams because when we get tired, there is another platoon coming in and Coach can mix and match with all of us.”
Johnson and Meeks have started together most of the season. Meeks went through a slump that led some outside the program to call for Hicks to start inside. It never became a factor in the locker room.
Hicks came off the bench to score double digits in the Heels' first two NCAA tournament games. Meeks has scored 40 points in the last three games, including 15 against Syracuse.
Johnson’s play has been steady over the course of the season. The 6-foot-10 senior is just the third player in program history to average a double-double while shooting 60 percent from the floor.
If Carolina captures its sixth NCAA title on Monday, it will likely be because its bigs played big.
“Coach always says, there’s no point in playing two big men if we don’t use our size to our advantage, especially when a team plays [small] like that,” Hicks said. “It’s all about who takes advantage of what they have.”