By Adam Lucas
Depth is having the ability for a team to get contributions from a non-starter at some point during the season.
Quality depth is getting those contributions from multiple players in multiple NCAA Tournament games.
Carolina will journey to the program's 20th Final Four this weekend with the usual array of standout players. There's consensus All-America Justin Jackson, just the 18th such player in Tar Heel history. There's senior Kennedy Meeks, who just passed Antawn Jamison for sixth place on the all-time Carolina rebounding list. There's Joel Berry, the offensive and defensive motor driving the Tar Heels.
But it's unlikely Carolina would be preparing to face Oregon in the Final Four with just those three players, even combined with fellow starters Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks. Throughout what has been a heartstopping run through the NCAA Tournament, Roy Williams has consistently looked down his bench and found key contributions from reserves.
The most well-known at this point, of course, is Luke Maye, who sent the Tar Heels to Phoenix with a buzzer-beating jumper against Kentucky. That's the shot that will live forever in Carolina history…but it will also obscure the fact that Maye had a key assist and recovery of a loose ball in the final three minutes. He also posted his first career double-double in the Sweet 16 win over Butler. He's the first UNC non-starter ever to win a regional MVP award.
“It's not all about those five guys who start the game,” Berry said after the win over Kentucky. “We need production off the bench, and that's what Luke gave us.”
But it's more than just Maye, and keep in mind the Tar Heels are doing it without Kenny Williams, who would be playing big minutes off the bench in relief of Pinson. In just eight minutes, Tony Bradley went 3-for-3 from the field, grabbed a rebound, blocked a shot and made a steal. He didn't make the game-winning shot, but in a two-point game, those eight minutes were difference makers. Taken as a whole, UNC reserves have played 37.0 percent of the available minutes this season, the most in the Williams era.
The head coach—who deserves credit for developing this depth rather than burying it and then lamenting his team's lack of players—consistently tells his reserves their job is to come in and avoid any dropoff from the starters. Don't hurt the team, he's told them ever since Danny Green was a super-sub. The bonus comes when they find a way to not just maintain the status quo, but to provide a boost. The Tar Heels have an unusual amount of experience on the bench this year, including senior Nate Britt, an intermittent starter.
That includes Stilman White, who wasn't on those teams with Green, but it seems like it. The very senior point guard was pressed into action in the first half against Kentucky when Joel Berry was injured and Seventh Woods picked up two quick fouls. At that moment, the Tar Heels felt like they were teetering. Berry was in the locker room, and the specter of recent struggles without him was looming.
White made a key reverse layup and didn't commit a turnover in his first half stint, settling what had been a tenuous situation.
“Sometimes you have to fake it to make it,” White said. “It's a mindset. I wanted to be confident and aggressive and show I belonged out there. I've been getting a lot of reps with the white team, and it definitely paid off today.”
The difficult part of being a reserve is they never know for certain when they might be needed. It's entirely possible that Isaiah Hicks could be terrific on Saturday night, and Maye's role might decrease for an evening even as he is receiving standing ovations in his 8 a.m. business class. Maybe Berry's ankle feels great this week, and White never takes off his warmups.
Or maybe they'll make some of the biggest plays of the game. Carolina likely doesn't win the 2005 title without standout substitute Marvin Williams—plus some key late game minutes from Melvin Scott in the East Regional. The Tar Heel starters were dominant in the 2009 championship run, but don't forget that Ed Davis had nine points and seven rebounds in the scare against LSU, and Bobby Frasor had 19 very solid minutes against Villanova in the national semifinal.
“Everyone loves to see the big scorers and the high profile guys,” White says. “To get here, it takes everyone on the team to come through.”