'Big' change coming for UNC next season?

This is why Roy Williams made it clear, earlier this month, that North Carolina’s four-guard starting lineup was fine for now, but not forever.

This is why next year’s team -- no matter who stays or goes -- will almost certainly go back to boasting more of a traditional, two-big-guys look.

Leading top-seeded Kansas by nine points at halftime, the change that propelled UNC to the NCAA tournament is the thing that ultimately pushed the Tar Heels out in the end. The smaller, faster, higher-scoring offense went cold Sunday, with UNC making just 30.1 percent of its shots for the game (including only 28.6 percent of its 3-pointers). In the second half, in particular, it had no answer for Kansas 7-footer Jeff Withey who, finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds.

The eighth-seeded Tar Heels got out-rebounded by 17, and the tallest player in its starting line-up, 6-9ish James Michael McAdoo, was 5-for-19 from the field in the 70-58 loss in the NCAA Round of 32.

“It was definitely a nightmare in the second half, there's no question about that," Williams said during the post-game news conference. “You know, the change in the lineup, I tried to get the best five basketball players on the court for us. We knew we were giving up some rebounding, but we knew we were adding some things offensively from the perimeter.

“We decided to make that change. Down the stretch we basically decided to stick with it because we thought that was best for our team.”

And until Sunday, it was, what with young centers Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson never really establishing themselves during the season, while 6-5 sophomore wing P.J. Hairston -- finally inserted as the starting ‘4’ on Feb. 13, in place of Hubert -- often looked like the best player on the floor.

In the end, the Tar Heels won nine of their final 13 games with that starting lineup -- making the NCAA tournament, something that had been in doubt before the switch -- and giving this team something to build upon.

“For me, we had an unbelievably young team, and they tried and tried and tried," Williams said. “We've got a chance to be a sensational basketball team again.”

Indeed, the Tar Heels, who finished 25-11 overall, lose only one scholarship senior, starting shooting guard/backup point guard Dexter Strickland. But the status of several underclassmen is still up in the air.

Sophomore McAdoo, junior wing Reggie Bullock and Hairston all told The News & Observer after Sunday’s loss that they hadn’t thought about the NBA yet – comments you would expect them to make in the moments after their season ended so harshly. Traditionally, Williams meets with players in the weeks after the season to discuss their options, and talks to NBA team contacts on their behalves about where each player would possibly be drafted if they left early.

Williams reports back to each player, offers an opinion, and then it’s up to the athlete and his family to make the choice.

None of that threesome are currently listed among ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford’s list of top-20 draft prospects (although McAdoo was considered a lottery pick last year, had he left). And there’s not a whole lot of time to decide.

Although the NBA’s deadline to declare for the draft is April 28, the NCAA’s early-entry withdrawal deadline is April 16. Players also can apply to an NBA undergraduate advisory committee for their feedback before making a decision, but there no longer is any time to “test the waters,” so to speak.

Whatever the decisions of UNC’s top three scorers, the Tar Heels do have another triumvirate of incoming freshmen who could make an immediate impact. Nate Britt, ranked 20th on ESPN’s list of incoming ballhandlers, should be a strong back-up to Marcus Paige at point guard. Meanwhile, Williams will certainly look to Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks -- rated the No. 8 power forward prospect and No. 4 center, respectively -- to bolster a more traditional, comfortable, big-man-in-the-post approach.

“That [four-guard] line-up has been better for us, so we’ll stick with that right now,’’ Williams said before the ACC tournament. “But Ol’ Roy is not going to be small for the rest of his coaching career, I tell you.”

Sunday showed why: Going small got the Tar Heels to the NCAA tournament. It just couldn’t keep them there.