With junior forward Kennedy Meeks still sidelined with a bone bruise and senior guard Marcus Paige nursing a jammed ankle, depth has become an emphasis for the North Carolina men’s basketball team.
And in the Tar Heels' 96-63 victory against UNC-Greensboro on Monday night, nine different UNC players scored at least four points, as the seventh-ranked Tar Heels staked their claim as one of the deepest teams in the country.
UNC’s bench scored 41 points, including 13 from junior forward Isaiah Hicks and 11 from junior guard Nate Britt. First-year forward Luke Maye also provided a spark, snatching four rebounds and scoring five points — three of which came on a contested 3-pointer — in 15 minutes of play.
“Every game is just a stepping stone to continue to play well,” Maye said. “Coach (Roy Williams) has given me and Kenny (Williams) great confidence in practice. Keep gaining that trust from him is all we need to play well and help the team.”
Although UNC’s role players provided a lift, the usual offensive threats — Paige and senior forward Brice Johnson — still provided firepower. Roy Williams limited Paige to 21 minutes because of the jammed ankle, but the senior guard still scored 14 points. Johnson led the team with 16 points and 16 rebounds.
The bigger adjustment for the Tar Heels (11-2) has been the absence of Meeks, who averaged 12.3 points per game and 7.4 rebounds per game in the first nine games of the season.
With Meeks out, Johnson and Hicks have shared the court more often. On paper, the frontcourt combo moves Johnson away from the power forward position. But in reality, Johnson said there isn’t much of a difference when Hicks is on the floor, particularly on the defensive end.
“They’re all the same thing,” Johnson said. “The four and the five are the same thing in this program. It’s just size advantage and who you’re guarding on the defensive end. If Joel (James) is in the game and there’s someone who is 6-foot-11 and 270 (pounds), he’s going to guard him. I’m not going to guard him.”
Although he was frustrated at times with the defensive effort, Roy Williams said he was pleased with UNC’s depth against the Spartans (4-9) and throughout the entire nonconference slate.
“I think our depth is extremely important to us,” he. “And I think over the course of a marathon which we’re starting on Wednesday — 18 games against extremely good teams — I’m hopeful that the depth will be important to us.”
Williams said Meeks has not practiced since his injury and his return is still uncertain. He also hopes Paige’s ankle won’t stiffen before the next few games.
With their first three conference games in the next six days, starting with Wednesday's home game against Clemson, the Tar Heels will continue to look for multiple players to have an increased role.
“For us to get some big ones without Marcus and big ones without Kennedy does help the confidence of the guys that might not play as much when they are back,” Britt said.
“I feel like that will help us out a lot more during conference play. We have a lot of weapons, and we need a lot of guys to step up.”
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