KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If not for a mid-February lineup switch, North Carolina might be playing in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament right now.
Yes, it was that bad.
But the change was made and the Tar Heels managed to squeeze out a late-season run and a No. 8 seed.
North Carolina and Kansas both took care of business Friday night with the Tar Heels picking off Villanova, 78-71, and top-seed Kansas finally bouncing Western Kentucky 64-57.
Now KU and North Carolina will meet Sunday. So, yes, that means another Roy Wiliams-Jayhawk reunion.
But that’s getting kind of old.
The Jayhawks and their former coach bumped into each other just last year in the tournament with KU claiming the regional victory to reach the Final Four. In 2008, KU took out Williams’ Tar Heels in the national semifinals on the way to winning a national title.
So the best story this time around is what Williams had to do to get his struggling Tar Heels into the tournament.
With North Carolina floundering at 16-7, he decided to go to small lineup.
Now, understand Williams believes with all his pea-pickin’ heart that the only way to play is go through his big guys. Switching to a four-guard lineup was hard for him to swallow.
“It was a major change for us,” he said. “It wasn’t something I was comfortable with. I’m still not comfortable with it.
“But your job is not to let things go. You have to keep trying things to be successful.”
So he pulled 6-foot-9 forward Desmond Hubert out and inserted 6-5 guard P.J. Hairston. He now starts alongside guards Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and Marcus Paige and the lone big man, 6-9 James Michael McAdoo.
“We needed more offense,” Strickland said.
Strickland is a combo guard who can’t score. He hasn’t made a three-pointer since mid-December is hitting only 18 percent for the season.
Hairston, on the other hand, is a dead-eye from deep. He’s hitting 43 percent from beyond the arc, including a 5-of-8 night Friday.
The wake-up call to make the change came on Feb. 8, the night the Tar Heels lost at Miiami 87-61.
“It felt like we lost by 150,” Williams said. “Most coaches develop a style that they stick with most of the time. If you’ve done it for 25 years as a head coach, you’re probably not going to change.
“Our rebound numbers were good early, but most important our wins and losses were not good.”
By going small, the Tar Heels have been able to spread the floor and open up things offensively and create more turnovers to start fastbreaks.
“We’re a speed team,” Strickland said. “This has allowed us to use that speed more.”
Williams made the switch for the first game after that Miami loss – a trip to Duke that resulted in a 73-68 defeat.
But the Tar Heels played better and saw a light flicker.
They followed Duke with six straight victories and eight in their next nine games before losing in Miami in the title game of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
Going small also puts North Carolina on the short end on rebounding. Since switching to four guards, the Tar Heels have been outrebounded nine out of 12 games and tied once.
That includes Villanova outrebounding North Carolina 37-28 Friday.
“We added some things in one area,” Williams said, “but gave some up in another area.
“That makes it scary, but it’s what we had to do or we might not be here.”