By Adam Lucas
PORTLAND—The numbers aren’t pretty. In Thursday’s 89-81 win over Portland, the Pilots bench beat Carolina 25-3.
That’s the overwhelming statistic. The lower numbers are just as problematic.
Portland’s reserves hit nine of 17 shots from the field in about 63 minutes of action while they D’Marco Dunns Three-pointers before halftime was the only UNC banker in six tries (in about 26 minutes).
Portland Bank: eight rebounds. Bench Carolina: one more rebound than Wanda.
Portland bench: six trips to the free-throw line (that’s five). Carolina bench: Zero trips to the free throw line.
Portland Bank: five steals. Carolina Bank: zero steals.
Now imagine if it were you Hubert Davis. Everyone wants you to play your reserves more. You’re looking at a stat sheet that shows your starters bested Portland’s 86-56. If that had been the actual bottom line, a 30-point Thanksgiving blowout, everyone would be talking about how the Tar Heels overwhelmed the pilots.
Instead, Portland’s story immediately became a less-than-stellar performance by the nation’s top-ranked team. “Are you surprised the game is so close?” He was asked about 20 minutes of basketball on national television, with his team having a two-point lead at halftime.
The ESPN bottom line currently reads, “(1) North Carolina stands up to Portland’s tough test,” and you can hear tsk-tsking from almost the entire network.
Such is life in Chapel Hill. Last year’s team enjoyed two of the only months in the program’s history that the Tar Heels sneaked up on anyone. Gone are those days because when you’re on popular Netflix shows and seeing your face on t-shirts and doing commercials, higher expectations are also part of the reward.
Many of the players who reap these extra-judicial rewards play at star level on the court. caleb love was Carolina’s main offense for part of the game, finishing with 23 points on an efficient 10-for-15 shooting. Peter Nance tied his career-high 28 points and hit five three-pointers. Armando Bacot had nine rebounds in the second half, six of them offensively, meaning he personally rebounded nearly 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, who often complement their even more experienced, capable starters (Portland’s starters have played at eight other colleges together and average nearly 23 years old ).
As the Iron Five picked up momentum last season, Davis spent much of the season repeating a mantra to his reserves: “I promise you’ll 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 as Justin McCoy key minutes played. Puff Johnson made positive contributions during the postseason.
Now some of those same players – along with some new faces – are trying to carve out a niche in a rotation that’s solid at the top but very fluid in the back five. All five Carolina starters were positive plus/minus against the Pilots, while all five reserves were negative. That eventually led to three starters—Peter Nance, Tasty black and caleb love– play the entire second half, with the subs totaling less than six minutes. Everyone in those back five has shown at some point this season that they are quite capable of delivering key minutes. But as highlighted on Thursday, they haven’t consistently shown it game after game. Some of them are freshmen and expect unpredictability. But there are also areas where young players can also be a constant.
It does not necessarily have to appear on the statistics sheet. But Davis badly needs someone in that second group to contribute something — bottom dive, play some defense, pull out a big box — that will make a meaningful contribution. Starting Friday, when the Tar Heels play a capable club from Iowa State or Villanova, the competition will be too strong and talented to rely on five players over the next four and a half months.
“Above all, I want the new guys to understand what intensity and hard work they need to bring to the table to be able to be successful out there on the floor,” said the head coach after the win.
You will experience a much greater appreciation starting tomorrow. And we will know a lot more about the Tar Heels.