Conventional wisdom says it’s important to have a deep roster in basketball. But when No. 8 North Carolina travels to Durham to face No. 2 Duke on Thursday, don’t expect either team to depend on their reserves too much.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics, the Tar Heels rank 202nd out of 351 Division I teams in bench minutes, while the Blue Devils are at No. 261.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have several guys on your bench ready to go if their name is called, but it’s not a necessity for success. Last year’s champion, Villanova, came in at No. 302 in bench minutes.
In 2016, when No. 10 seed Syracuse unexpectedly made a run to the Final Four, the Orange ranked second to last in Pomeroy’s metric.
“If you don't get anybody hurt, it's not a problem,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said that season. “It really isn't.”
Outside of a historically poor game against Louisville in January and a loss to No. 4 Virginia that stings mostly because of the way it unfolded, UNC has largely handled its business in ACC play, looking like a team capable of playing several rounds into the NCAA tournament.
But Boeheim’s crucial modifier is interesting because of how it relates to this year’s Tar Heels.
Players have gotten hurt.
Sterling Manley has at least started to participate in practice again, but the sophomore big man still hasn’t played since Dec. 29 against Davidson due to a sore left knee.
Because of Manley’s absence, there’s been little cover for sophomore Garrison Brooks, who plays the five in UNC’s small-ball lineup. Luckily for UNC, he’s performing well. In his past seven contests, Brooks is averaging 8.1 points (61.9 percent shooting from the field), 7 rebounds and 2 assists per game while committing only 2 turnovers.
The Tar Heels’ depth at guard took a hit when first-year Leaky Black sprained his ankle at Georgia Tech on Jan. 29. The 6-foot-7 Black can play anywhere on the perimeter, even running the point at times. UNC has certainly missed his versatility.
Even first-year Nassir Little, heralded by many as UNC’s best pro prospect, suffered an ankle injury during the first half of last week’s loss to Virginia and didn’t return. Luckily for the Tar Heels, Little was back for Saturday’s 95-57 win at Wake Forest, scoring five points in 11 minutes.
If there is a UNC bench player to watch for at Duke, it might be Little. The 6-foot-6 small forward is usually UNC’s most-used reserve and he scored in double figures in 5 of 7 games before getting injured against the Cavaliers.
Regardless, Duke-UNC should come down to how the Tar Heels’ veteran starting five perform against Duke’s core group of first-year superstars. A year ago, UNC averaged just eight bench points in its three games against Duke but still went 2-1.
But value goes beyond points. First-year point guard Coby White has been excellent as of late but he’ll be guarded by an excellent defender in Duke’s Tre Jones, while playing in a tough environment; a solid showing by Seventh Woods off the bench could go a long way.
Brandon Robinson, meanwhile, has never seen a loose ball not worth diving for. His knack for doing the dirty work might make a difference.
Every little bit counts.
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