Lucas: For Starters – University of North Carolina Athletics

By Adam Lucas

PORTLAND—The numbers aren’t pretty. In Thursday’s 89-81 win over Portland, the Pilots’ bench outscored Carolina’s, 25-3.

That’s the overwhelming stat. The deeper numbers are equally troublesome.

Portland’s reserves, in about 63 minutes of action, hit nine of 17 shots from the field, while D’Marco Dunn’s Three-pointer before halftime was the only UNC bench basket in six attempts (in approximately 26 minutes).

Portland bench: eight rebounds. Carolina bench: one more rebound than Wanda.

Portland bench: six trips to the free throw line (making five). Carolina bench: zero trips to the free throw line.

Portland bench: five steals. Carolina bench: zero steals.

Now imagine you are Hubert Davis. Everyone wants you to play your reserves more. You are looking at a stat sheet that shows your starters outscored Portland’s, 86-56. If that had been the actual final score, a 30-point Thanksgiving blowout, everyone would be talking about how the Tar Heels overwhelmed the Pilots.

Instead, the storyline from Portland immediately became a less than stellar performance from the nation’s top-ranked team. Are you surprised the game is this close? he was asked on national television after 20 minutes of basketball, with his team holding a two-point halftime lead.

The ESPN Bottom Line right now reads, “(1) North Carolina withstands tough test from Portland,” and you can almost hear the entire network tsk-tsking.

This is just life in Chapel Hill. Last year’s team enjoyed two of the only months in program history when the Tar Heels snuck up on anyone. Those days are over, because when you are on popular Netflix shows and seeing your face on t-shirts and doing commercials, higher expectations are likewise part of the reward.

Many of the players reaping those off-court rewards are playing at a star level on the court. Caleb Love was Carolina’s primary offense for part of the game, and finished with 23 points on an efficient 10-for-15 shooting. Pete Nance tied his career high with 28 points and hit five three-pointers. Armando Bacot He had nine second-half rebounds, six of them offensive, meaning that he personally rebounded almost half of the shots Carolina missed (13) in the final 20 minutes.

But college basketball in the transfer portal era means that virtually every team has experienced, capable players on the bench, often supplementing their even more experienced, capable starters (Portland’s starters played at a combined eight other colleges and average nearly 23 years old).

As the Iron Five gained momentum last season, Davis spent much of the season repeating one mantra to his reserves: “I can promise you’re going to get an opportunity. I just can’t promise you when that opportunity will come.”

He was right. Dontrez Styles Was important in Carolina’s win over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, the same game when Justin McCoy played key minutes. Puff Johnson made positive contributions throughout the postseason.

Now, some of those same players—along with some new faces—are trying to carve out a niche in a rotation that again is firm at the top but very fluid in the second five. All five of Carolina’s starters had positive plus/minus figures against the Pilots, while all five of the reserves who played were in the negative. That eventually led to three starters—Pete Nance, Leaky Black and Caleb Love—playing the entire second half, with subs getting a combined total of under six minutes. Everyone in that second five has shown at some point this season that they are perfectly capable of providing key minutes. But as was highlighted on Thursday, they haven’t shown it consistently, game after game. Some of them are freshmen and unpredictability is to be expected. But there are also areas in which even young players can be constant.

It doesn’t necessarily have to show up on the stat sheet. But Davis desperately needs someone in that second group to contribute something—dive on the floor, play some defense, get a big box out—that makes a meaningful contribution. Beginning Friday, when the Tar Heels play a capable Iowa State or Villanova club, the competition will be too deep and too talented to rely on five players for the next four and a half months.

“I especially want the new guys to understand what they have to bring in terms of intensity and hard work to put themselves in position to be successful out there on the floor,” the head coach said after the win.

They’ll gain a much greater appreciation starting tomorrow. And we’ll know much more about the Tar Heels.

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