North Carolina Bench Showing Great Promise Already

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 15th, 2016

With six upperclassmen returning from last year’s National Runner-up, North Carolina entered the year with plenty of known commodities. As the 2016-17 campaign got under way, however, it was the Tar Heels’ young bench that represented the team’s biggest question mark. That group, comprised of three freshmen and two sophomores, has so far performed well. Roy Williams‘ preferred method of substitution is a one-for-one swap at each of the five positions. Ideally that means that Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley split time at the center position; Justin Jackson and Brandon Robinson do likewise on the wing; and so on. This strategy is tailor-made for North Carolina’s run-and-gun system — which requires quick attacks in transition and plenty of motion in the half-court. It correspondingly takes a deep bench to play this way, and Williams has always counted on using that depth to wear down his opponents.

Freshman big man Tony Bradley has been impressive in his first two games for North Carolina. (Robert Willett/

Freshman big man Tony Bradley has been impressive in his first two games for North Carolina. (Robert Willett/

As expected, North Carolina is getting great production from its top four returnees. Meeks and fellow senior Isaiah Hicks have been dominant around the basket and juniors Justin Jackson and Joel Berry are off to hot starts as well — Jackson tallied a career-high 27 points in the opener against Tulane, and Berry was so impressive that he was named co-ACC Player of the Week as a result. That veteran group is also getting good support from the youthful Tar Heels’ bench. Bradley has scored in double figures in both games and has already snagged a total of nine offensive rebounds. When asked about his young center’s exceptional play after Sunday’s win, Williams said, “He doesn’t try to do things that he can’t do.” The head coach also commended Bradley for his ability to run the floor.

Fellow freshmen Robinson and back-up point guard Seventh Woods also look ready for the college game. Each has scored eight points in just over 20 minutes of action. A pair of sophomores make up the rest of the reserves quintet. Luke Maye backs up the power forward Hicks, and Kenny Williams splits time with senior Nate Britt at the off guard spot. Maye has been very active defensively, registering two blocks and two steals in his 22 minutes despite leaving Sunday’s game with a sprained ankle. Williams, for his part, had an outstanding all-around game against the veteran Chattanooga backcourt — scoring 11 points; dishing five assists; snaring three steals; and grabbing four offensive boards.

The season is still very young, but North Carolina may have been slightly underrated by preseason pollsters. We expected the Tar Heels to have considerable star power in its starting lineup, but there were legitimate questions about the depth and quality of the bench. Some of those questions appear to have already been answered — particularly by Bradley and Williams. Of course, injuries can undermine any team’s depth and the Tar Heels have already lost one key player (Pinson) for the first half of the season. Hopefully Maye’s ankle ailment won’t be serious — he and Bradley are the only reserve scholarship bigs on the roster. Health concerns aside, Roy Williams must be incredibly optimistic about his available depth this season.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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