CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The 3-pointers are going up in bunches for No. 10 North Carolina, even if it’s not the look-inside-first style preferred by Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams.
The Tar Heels are launching 3s at the highest rate of his 15-year tenure at his alma mater entering Saturday’s game against instate rival North Carolina State. And it seems unlikely to change much, not as they lean on a small-ball starting lineup while lacking the two consistent post threats Williams covets to attack the glass, score an easy bucket or put opponents in foul trouble.
Williams is still pushing for more inside-out balance, though it’s unclear whether the roster’s structure is capable of producing it.
“I appreciate your question because I’m still trying,” Williams said, “because I think we still need that. You ask me after the last game, I’ll tell you whether I failed or succeeded.”
The Tar Heels (16-5, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) are shooting 37 percent from 3-point range, similar to the combined average for Williams’ previous 14 seasons. The difference is volume; they’re averaging 21.9 attempts while 3s account for 34 percent of their overall shot attempts.
Those numbers are even higher since Williams turned to the small starting lineup five games ago, with 3s accounting for nearly 41 percent of UNC’s shots (26 per game).
Consider that UNC averaged 16.6 attempts before this year while 3s accounted for just 26 percent of shot attempts.
“He’s OK with the 3s, as long as they’re in the continuity of the offense and as long as you’ve proven you can make them,” said 6-foot-8 junior Luke Maye, who is shooting 49 percent from behind the arc. “We have so many good shooters on our team so I think he’s given some of our guys a lot more leeway than others.”
Ask Williams about his comfort level with his players taking a lot of 3s, he’ll often bring up that he’s fine with it when he has guys like future pros Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green on his 2009 NCAA championship squad. But that team also had program career scoring and rebounding leader Tyler Hansbrough inside.
Last year’s national championship team took more 3s than nearly all its predecessors, too, though there was also reliable interior play from Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley to balance it out.
This team just doesn’t have that.
Maye (18.0 points, 10.4 rebounds) is a stretch-4 playing in the middle of the small lineup featuring outside shooters in Joel Berry II, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams alongside swingman Theo Pinson. The big men are all unproven freshmen in Sterling Manley (5.8 points), Garrison Brooks (5.1) and Brandon Huffman (1.9).
“They’re traditionally playing with two post guys, and now they’re using more of a four-guard front as most people are,” first-year Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said. “It makes them a little bit more dangerous, because they can spread you out, they can make shots.
“The younger guys are coming along as post guys, but right now the strength of their team is from the guard play.”
Still, it’s made the offense more volatile. An off 3-point shooting night only magnifies the lack of consistent inside production, while the reliance on outside shots instead of forcing the ball into the teeth of the defense can limit trips to the foul line.
The Tar Heels are averaging 20.1 free throws a game, the second-lowest of Williams’ UNC tenure and just 14.6 attempts in ACC games.
Monday’s loss at Virginia Tech highlighted Williams’ concerns, with his team shooting 30 3s — he didn’t like the shot selection on about a half-dozen — and rarely got to the line.
“It’s not just throwing the ball to the big guy,” Williams said. “It’s driving the ball to the basket. I’m always saying get the ball in the lane by passing or dribbling. . We shot five free throws the other night, guys. Five free throws, in an up-and-down game. We cannot play that way and be successful.”
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Raleigh contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap