This is our second men's basketball installment of Film Review, where we break down a particular aspect of the action to help you better understand what's happening on the court. Here's where to find our previous pieces from the football and men's basketball season.
If basketball is a science, then on Saturday, the North Carolina men’s basketball team conducted a grand experiment.
For years and years and years, basketball was played, roughly, with three players on the perimeter and two lumbering big men in the post. The main idea was to get the ball to those big men down low — in the context of the Tar Heels, think endless post-ups to Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough.
Across all levels of basketball, though, a dangerous trend has upset the traditional, safe epoch that the game has been played in. The abridged history includes chapters on Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, the Golden State Warriors’ death lineup and some KenPom.com numbers about the increase of 3-pointers taken at the college level. The trend? Small ball.
The basic idea behind small ball is to have four players on the perimeter and one big man in the post. It’s a tool that can be used to free up space in the paint for driving lanes and post-ups for the one remaining big man. But there are tradeoffs. In theory, you lose a rim protector, suffer on the boards and can be punished in the paint by the other team’s remaining bigs.
It’s a trend that ESPN’s Zach Lowe has covered well in writing and on podcasts. His November 2015 piece about small ball is a great resource if you want to learn more. Lowe has wondered out loud just how far small ball can go for the math to still work in its favor.
On Saturday, North Carolina just conducted a three-minute experiment on the subject, and the results were shockingly good.
With 4:14 left in the first half, and UNC up 37-35 over Florida State, Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson went out. In came Theo Pinson and Brandon Robinson, making Luke Maye the tallest and most traditional big on the court.
With 2:57 left in the first half, North Carolina upped the ante. With the Tar Heels leading 43-37, Maye checked out, leaving the Tar Heels with this five-man unit on the floor: Joel Berry, Nate Britt, Robinson, Jackson and Pinson.
That is five-out basketball. Five wing players against, in theory, one of the worst teams in the ACC to try this against: big-happy Florida State — a team featuring 7-foot-1 Michael Ojo and 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje.
Dick Vitale, on the broadcast during this stretch of small ball on steroids, said, “There’s a little bounce in the step by North Carolina.” Well, there’s water on the ground when it rains.
Playing five out allowed North Carolina to play extremely fast and extend its lead. UNC was up two points when Maye slid to the five, beginning the small-ball stretch until the end of the half.
After a Berry 3-pointer with seven seconds remaining, North Carolina took a 50-41 lead into the locker room at the break. Let’s take a look at how that plus-7 margin happened, as well as how North Carolina fared.
First off, who do you think gets this rebound?
Conventional basketball wisdom and anybody off the street would say Florida State. The Seminoles have three players in prime rebounding position. One of them is Ojo, the 7-foot-1 center. North Carolina has zero players in prime rebounding position and zero traditionally great rebounders on the floor (think Brice Johnson).
But North Carolina’s Kenny Williams snakes in and gets the rebound. And, in the chaos, he’s able to kick it back out to Berry for a 3-pointer.
This is one anecdotal example, of course, that clashes against all basketball wisdom. When you go small, basketball traditionalists say, you sacrifice on the boards. But North Carolina didn't lose on the boards over the last 4:14 of the first half when they went small.
UNC had eight defensive rebounds over that stretch to FSU’s six, including one team deadball rebound each. And North Carolina had one offensive board, highlighted above, to FSU’s zero.
Maybe rebounding is based more off effort than originally thought? Smarter folks than I have looked at the topic of rebounds, but North Carolina survived on the glass by throwing out three aggressive wings and two guards.
The second key example where five out clashed with basketball wisdom was here, when the Seminoles' Ojo tried to post up.
When you go small, you lose rim protection, conventional wisdom says. Rim protector is best done by the biggest players on the court, so when you take one of those guys off, your ability to defend shots around the hoop lags.
But Pinson has become the master of the second way to protect the rim — taking charges. Smaller players can put their bodies on the line and leverage their quickness and positioning against the sheer size of the opposing big.
Here against Ojo, Pinson either flops or falls victim to a no-call, depending on who you ask. Ojo ends up scoring this basket, in line with conventional wisdom and serving as an example of the dangers of small ball — opening your defense up to these kinds of post-ups inside.
But this was the only post-up Florida State could find in four minutes against North Carolina’s super small units. Instead, the Seminoles often settled for open outside jumpers. UNC’s help defense swarmed around the post, double teaming Florida State's big men. The other three defenders played their roles smartly, playing zone-ish defense when necessary.
The above possession ended in a Britt steal, as he jumped in the passing lanes when the Seminoles tried to swing the ball around the perimeter.
All in all, North Carolina’s defense held up despite playing essentially five wing players. UNC switched screens on the perimeter, a strategy that works well and often stalls out offensive possessions. There are antidotes to switching — posting up, for example — but Florida State wasn’t prepared and didn’t have enough time or the wherewithal to exploit it.
Finally, let’s take a look at the offense.
Here’s the nightmare when you play five out. It’s early in the possession, but the spacing of North Carolina’s players is caput. When you play small with four players on the wings, you want them equally spaced out around the three-point line, with the big taking advantage of the extra real estate inside.
But whether you are playing four out or five out, somebody has to puncture the defensive shell and make something happen. Cuts, passes and screens all would do the trick. This example above was early on in the small ball experiment, but as the game went along, North Carolina figured out its halfcourt offense.
The final possession from the first half is a great example of the best of what five-out can produce.
Kenny Williams has just pump faked a 3-point attempt. Notice Nate Britt and Justin Jackson acting the part as de facto bigs.
Williams passes the ball to Britt, who is hanging out on the right elbow. That draws the attention of the defense.
If this was a big man in this situation, maybe he doesn’t see Berry wide open at the top of the key. But Britt is a point guard and a great passer, so he can make the perfect pass.
Berry rises up for an open look, which he makes. He also had Jackson on the left block, wide open for a dunk.
Looking at the big picture again, North Carolina’s offense thrived playing five out. The Tar Heels played as fast as they ever have, running out after every rebound. They still got to the free-throw line, attacking the basket on those fast breaks. And playing five out generated some really clean 3-point looks, thanks to all the playmakers on the floor.
Basketball theorists at the NBA level wonder what would happen if, for example, the Pacers played Paul George at the five, surrounded him with 3-point shooters and see what happened. Coaches are scared to do so, though. Playing four out was thought to be the limit of small ball.
On Saturday, North Carolina tried playing five out with three wing players and two guards. Even if head coach Roy Williams never tries the lineup again, basketball theorists now know the limits of small ball can be pushed further than once thought.