Tuesday night in Atlanta cemented the fact that Coach Williams has fully embraced the small ball lineup. And even though all three games since making the switch haven’t resulted in wins, it can’t be denied that UNC’s season is finally looking up after a solid month of NIT talk. Point being: the new offensive philosophy isn’t going anywhere; not this season at least.

As one might expect, the smaller Tar Heels were outrebounded by the Yellow Jackets—a problem that will last all season if UNC maintains this lineup—but the final score (70-58) shows what the change can do for their offense. Georgia Tech isn’t a great team by any means, but they hadn’t given up 70 points in eight games. Those are usually the types of stats you see coming out of Charlottesville.

To Roy’s credit, the change wasn’t just made for change’s sake — small ball almost perfectly fits his 2013 squad. The system needs three things to be successful: mobile big men that can shoot, three-point shooters, and athletic wings that can drive and rebound.

For UNC: check, check, and check. The system is much like the spread offense run by Larry Fedora in Kenan Stadium — using quicker players and lots of movement to clear out the lane (and the other team’s bigger post men) to create one-on-one opportunities for their perimeter players.

It isn’t hard to imagine why this would be good for UNC. Most years the Tar Heels are simply bigger than everyone else, and have a pure point guard like Marshall or Lawson to set those big guys up. But clearly—painfully, painfully clearly—this season, that isn’t the case.

Small ball starts with solid three-point shooting. Both McDonald and Bullock are shooting over 40% on the season (Bullock at 44%), and Hairston is shooting 40% in ACC play. If this wasn’t the case, teams simply wouldn’t have to follow Roy’s offense around the perimeter. And “following” (aka movement) is what makes the whole thing work.

Without mobile bigs that can potentially shoot jumpers, the opposing post men would be able to camp out in the paint, defeating the entire purpose. But by moving your big men around, it creates lanes for your “center” (McAdoo) to score moving towards the basket, if that is his strength.

And of course, that is McAdoo’s strength. JMM wants open lanes to take advantage of his quickness. Check out the shot below to see how Hairston (playing the 4) is going to pull his defender out of the lane.

With the other Tar Heels already outside the three-point line (below), McAdoo can break towards the basket where he’s an elite scorer in open space.

Roy runs the same exact play two minutes later. In the third shot (below), you can see every Tar Heel is outside the three-point line. Try imagining that with Hansbrough, Tyler Zeller or Sean May around:

And again, McAdoo is able to sneak into the lane where he’s almost impossible to stop one-on-one:

The fifth pic below is the same exact play but it highlights how important the potential for three-point shooting is to the success of the offense. You can see at the bottom of the screen three Tar Heels and three Yellow Jackets are tangled up in a small area. GTech’s defenders have to stay right on top of the Heels because of the potential for jump shots, leaving the paint wide open for McAdoo to score (again) with an And-1:

It would be easy to say McAdoo is simply playing better—his 22/11 last night was one his best games of the season—but it’s more likely that he’s just seeing plays actually tailored to his skillset. McAdoo is not a traditional post man and it’s no surprise he hasn’t been terribly successful at trying to be one.

And JMM isn’t the only one benefiting. Dexter is coming off some of his best games of the season and can be a devastating slasher when he actually has the space to do so. Below, you can see every Tar Heel is outside the three-point line again, opening the floor up.

Strickland has taken plenty of criticism for his offensive woes, but there are few defenders in the country that can stay in front of him without the help of a shot blocker in the lane. Dexter didn’t score in the play above, but did set up McAdoo for an easy dime.

PJ Hairston has been the most publicized Tar Heel recently in terms of better stats under the new lineup but it might actually be Strickland who’s seen the biggest improvement. Dexter leads the ACC in assist/turnover ratio — something no one was going to predict early in the season.

And not only does the new system open things up for the Tar Heels to drive, but in concentrates rebounding in the hands of the their wings — which just so happens to be the only spot on the floor where the Heels have height advantages. It’s no surprise that Strickland, Bullock and Hairston combined for 18 rebounds on Tuesday night.

Small ball certainly isn’t going to make the Tar Heels’ issues go away. There’s a reason why it’s the classic style of play for most mid-majors and not the perennial powers. Bigger teams are going to give the Heels serious problems, but the idea behind small ball isn’t that you necessarily maximize what you do, but that you wreak havoc on what the other team is trying to do.

—Something that could help the Heels a lot on Saturday against the Wolfpack. The Tar Heels had two atrocious offensive sets in Atlanta that ended up as shot clock violations, but on the bright side of that teams can’t get out on the fast break if you aren’t jacking up bad shots. And NC State will absolutely be looking to run all over the Heels again like they did last month in Raleigh.

The next few weeks are going to be extremely interesting in context to Roy Williams. The Hall of Famer has been hammered his entire career for failing to switch things up or adapt to his personnel, but 2013 is looking to be the perfect opportunity for Roy to lose that old trope. And they’ve never needed it more. UNC can almost certainly only lose one more game (maybe two) making either upcoming NC State or Duke a must-win. 

If anything, Tar Heel fans should enjoy the relaxed attitude that comes from not being an absolute front-runner. There’s enjoyment to be had when the weight of a national championship isn’t the only thing that will satisfy fans. With realistic expectations, Tar Heel observers will have a front row seat to see if Roy can work the magic that many have said he doesn’t have. 

Roy has certainly gone all in. Hopefully he isn’t bluffing.

You can follow Jordan on Twitter @BlackFalcon_net

Photo by Todd Melet