Think of successful North Carolina teams under Roy Williams. Who comes to mind?
There was 6-foot-9 Marvin Williams and 6-foot-9 Sean May on the 2005 championship team, listed at 230 pounds and 260 pounds, respectively. Then there was 6-foot-9, 250-pound Tyler Hansbrough, who won a championship in 2009 and left as the ACC’s all-time leading scorer.
Tyler Zeller, a seven-footer, was the 2012 ACC Player of the Year. Brice Johnson, 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds of pure muscle, took the reins from him and was an All-American in 2016. And of course, this past year, 6-foot-9 forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks led UNC to the program’s sixth national championship.
All of those forwards were back-to-the basket scorers who carved out space in the paint and won with size and physicality. And this year, the go-to forward inside is … who?
There’s not one.
Luke Maye is the obvious choice, even after his lackluster performance in UNC's 87-79 win over Clemson on Tuesday. The junior has enjoyed an All-American campaign after his breakout in the NCAA Tournament, but, at 6-foot-8, he’s undersized. Maye’s strength is his three-point shooting and quickness. He needs hook shots and turnarounds to score on bigger defenders. Posting up isn’t his natural game; shooting is.
Cameron Johnson is also 6-foot-8, but he’s less of a traditional forward than Maye is. Listed as a guard, Johnson relies on a sweet three-point stroke and crafty drives to get his shot.
There’s 6-foot-11 Sterling Manley, who has nice post moves and a knack for rebounding in traffic, but he needs to buff up some to become a legitimate post presence. In a few years, yes, but he’s not ready now. Brandon Huffman and Garrison Brooks are also freshmen over 6-foot-9, but they too need time. They have size, but not the scoring ability inside.
UNC doesn’t have a traditional big man on its roster. But grab a stat sheet, and you wouldn’t know — because North Carolina leads the nation in rebounds per game and rebounding margin.
So, how are they able to do it?
“That’s what coach (Roy Williams) emphasizes every day,” said Joel Berry, who at 6-foot averages 3.2 rebounds per game. “We’re still emphasizing, 'Get to the boards.'”
The Tar Heels didn't do their best job of that Tuesday, but they did enough to win. Carolina outrebounded the Tigers by three despite rolling out a small starting lineup for the third consecutive game.
That lineup features Maye as the center and biggest player and Theo Pinson — who at 6-foot-6 is more of a guard — as the power forward.
For Carolina, it’s mind over matter.
“You don’t have a choice playing for coach,” Pinson said. “He always pushes rebounding. We won a national championship last year, so why not trust him?”
UNC has steamrolled opponents on the glass this year, but its rebounding efficiency must remain high in order to play small ball. Carolina’s five offensive rebounds and 29 total rebounds against Clemson were both season lows.
“I hope we’re not a finished product right now,” Williams said. “We’re a work in progress.”
The nation’s top rebounding team has room for growth on the glass. Big men beware.