Roy Williams has always prided himself on his teams’ depth. In past years, he was famously able to make wholesale five-for-five substitutions when he was upset with his starters’ play and still maintain a high-quality on-court product. In 2016-2017, he may not have had that level of depth, but the roster did go 10 deep, and maybe even 11 deep before injury.
After the five starters at the end of the season, Nate Britt, Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson, Luke Maye, and Tony Bradley were all viable backups, and this was after Kenny Williams, a starter for much of the beginning of the season, was out with injury. The Tar Heels were able to beat their opponents both through talent and through attrition, and for this, the entire bench deserves recognition.
One of the keys to the bench’s success was their defense. Among regular rotation players, three of UNC’s top five Defensive Ratings came from the bench: Woods, Bradley, and Maye. Britt was not far behind, and was second on the team in total steals and steals per 40 minutes (Joel Berry was first in the former category and Woods was first in the latter). At times, he was the Heels’ best on-ball defender.
In the frontcourt, Bradley was second on the team to Kennedy Meeks in blocks per 40 minutes, and with his length, was consistently able to alter shots near the rim as he became more comfortable with the college game. If and when he returns to UNC, highlight-reel blocks might become commonplace with him in the starting lineup. He’s already got a few under his belt:
The bench was able to provide offensive explosions at times as well. Bradley was one of the Heels’ most consistent scorers early in the season, posting double figures in nine out of 14 conference games while never playing more than 20 minutes in a single game. Later in the season, Maye was able to play the “stretch four” role, and he was good for an offensive explosion when his team needed it the most, including against Kentucky in December, against Florida State, NCSU, and then consistently in the early and middle stages of the NCAA tournament.
For much of the beginning of the season, Bradley was the bench’s best offensive option, and maintained the Heels’ rebounding edge when Kennedy Meeks was not on the floor. Then, in ACC play, his offensive production dropped precipitously, but his teammates helped pick up the slack. Maye became more of a scorer and Seventh Woods was able to lower his once-unconscionable turnover rate and consequently be a solid option running the offense. At his best, he was one of UNC’s best passers when he wasn’t driving and forcing the opposition to foul him.
Then, when the NCAA Tournament started, Maye won the Most Outstanding Player honor for the South Region for his play, particularly against Kentucky. Then, in the Final Four, it was Britt who steadied the Heels on the way to a championship. And now you see why I can’t just pick one guy to be the Heels’ Sixth Man of the Year: Several different players stepped up at various points in the season to allow the Heels to have the year that they ultimately did. The Heels hit opponents, just like all the good Tar Heel teams, in waves, and the entire bench deserves credit for making that possible.