When No. 9 Duke visits Chapel Hill on Saturday night, it’ll do so with one of its deepest rotations in recent memory.
The Blue Devils (19-3, 9-2 ACC) have used four different starting lineups in ACC play alone. Six players are averaging more than 20 minutes per game; 10 are averaging more than 12. This has inevitably made Duke’s bench a key part of its game plan.
Or, as head coach Mike Krzyzewski put it after a win at Georgia Tech on Jan. 8: “All our guys should consider themselves starters, because you are not playing behind anybody.”
In the Blue Devils’ past six games, they’ve started Tre Jones, Jordan Goldwire, Cassius Stanley, Matthew Hurt and Vernon Carey. With this starting five — and a healthy Wendell Moore — Duke’s bench is scoring an average of 27.2 points per game this season, 32.9 percent of the team's total scoring average.
That could mean trouble for the Tar Heels (10-11, 3-7 ACC), who heavily rely on the production of their starters.
North Carolina will presumably start Cole Anthony (who came off the bench against Boston College last week in his first game back in nearly two months), Brandon Robinson, Leaky Black, Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot. The weight of the offensive burden falls on the shoulders of Anthony (19.8 points per game), Brooks (15.3) and Robinson (13.1).
While Andrew Platek leads the UNC bench in minutes per game with 20.8, the typical four-man unit (which includes Justin Pierce, Christian Keeling and Jeremiah Francis) combines for just 19.6 points per contest. And keep in mind these numbers are inflated because of Anthony’s 11-game absence.
Fatigue was a factor for the Tar Heels in close losses to Wofford, Clemson and Virginia Tech. Even with a healthy Anthony, it could be a problem again against Duke. UNC doesn’t have the bodies Duke has, and it certainly doesn’t have the amount of top-to-bottom talent head coach Roy Williams is accustomed to having on his rosters.
“I think it is going to be something we have to deal with all season, and it concerns us a great deal,” Williams said in November about his team’s lack of depth.
The 69-year-old Hall-of-Famer has had to hold his breath at times when leaving his reserves on the court for extended minutes. On the other hand, weapons on the Blue Devil bench include players that impact both ends of the court — like Moore, the team’s most versatile defender, and the sharpshooting Joey Baker (41.4 percent from deep).
Even guys deeper in the rotation, like Alex O’Connell and Javin DeLaurier, have found ways to contribute in Duke’s recent wins. In a 30-point blowout against Miami on Jan. 21, O’Connell scored eight points in five minutes. Then, in the Feb. 1 win over Syracuse, he broke double digits in conference play for the first time this season with 11 points, while DeLaurier pitched in eight.
The Blue Devils reserves have hit their stride at the right time, and the Tar Heels will likely need their bench to match or eclipse that production to have any shot of an upset Saturday.
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