By Adam Lucas
In Carolina’s 85-66 win over Providence in the NCAA Tournament second round on Saturday, it’s possible the Friars might have had two of the best players on the court in guard Kris Dunn and forward Ben Bentil. Maybe they did. Maybe Dunn will go on to be a high NBA draft pick, and perhaps Bentil is one of the most improved players in the nation.
At least one national pundit opined that Providence had the two best players on the floor, and never mind that All-America selection for Brice Johnson. Perhaps he was right. But one thing is absolutely certain—the Tar Heels had the best team on the court. And that’s how they’ll continue to try and advance Friday night against Indiana in Philadelphia.
Five different players were in double figures against the Friars, including four starters plus Isaiah Hicks off the bench. Those same five players are averaging double figures in the five games of the postseason, and no one has taken more than 56 shots in the five games of the postseason.
“Their depth is outstanding,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said yesterday. “There’s a reason they’re so good in the second half, and they thrive on that.”
“I feel like that’s the way we win,” said Justin Jackson. “It’s with defense and with how deep we are. We have guys coming off the bench like Nate, Isaiah, Theo, and Kenny who come in and contribute. It shows how deep we are and how good we can be.”
Roy Williams’ philosophy for his bench is a bit of a paradox: he believes the reserves help the team if they don’t hurt the team. In other words, if there’s no dropoff from the starters to the bench, then he has a pretty formidable squad.
That’s been the case in the postseason so far, as the Tar Heels have received huge contributions from Hicks, with timely spot moments from several other players. Theo Pinson has been an important defender and playmaker. Nate Britt continues to push the tempo. Joel James scored a basket through contact against Providence. And Kenny Williams has been perhaps the most unexpected late-season surprise, as he emerged from outside the rotation and has played some key possessions, especially on defense.
“That’s the beauty of this team,” Pinson said. “You can’t just focus on one or two players. Everyone thought the focus was going to be on Marcus, and they got an All-America season from Brice. If you focus on Brice, you get Isaiah as the Sixth Man of the Year. We have so many guys who can come at you every night.”
That’s especially important in providing Williams some defensive flexibility. As valuable as the diverse scoring can be, it might be even more important to have a multitude of options on defense. At times this year, when facing a high-powered guard, the Tar Heels have used a mix of Britt, Paige, Pinson and Joel Berry to defend them, sometimes even on consecutive possessions.
Faced with a slightly bigger guard in the 6-foot-3 Dunn against Providence, Williams moved the 6-foot-8 Jackson onto him for the second half. Although Dunn still scored 29 points, he went 6-for-11 in the second half after hitting 4-of-5 in the first 20 minutes.
Dunn and Bentil both also encountered foul trouble and the Friars had no one to fill their roles. Carolina’s depth has been important in that area as well; the post quartet of Kennedy Meeks, Hicks, Johnson and James have all had important contributions when needed at varying times this year. Although Meeks did not have his best games in Raleigh, it’s a safe bet the Tar Heels will need bigger production from him as they advance in the tournament.
In the backcourt, meanwhile, Williams has mixed Paige, Berry and Britt to try and find the suitable combination for the particular moment. Eventually, the constant rotation of bodies wears down the opponent—Carolina has outscored the opposition in the second half of every postseason game, with an average edge of almost 12 points per game in the second half.
“I’ve been saying all season that our depth is what makes us extremely good,” Britt said. “We can rotate guys in and out. If we have foul trouble, we can put the other guys in the game and there’s no dropoff. Other teams get in foul trouble and it hurts their team. We try to keep that same consistent level of play.”