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UNC basketball’s underclassmen conundrum

The Tar Heels still have a lot of talent on their bench. The problem is they’re just super young and inexperienced.

North Carolina v Indiana Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

One of the more glaring reasons for UNC’s loss at Indiana a few nights ago was the lessened impact of the bench. What had appeared to be a deep, talented strength of Carolina’s quickly turned into an inexperienced and overwhelmed unit. In a 76-67 loss where the Tar Heels played from behind practically the entire game, the bench scored just 14 points, its second-lowest output of the season.

A frontcourt tandem of Luke Maye and Tony Bradley saw minutes and would make a great hustle play, only to negate it with a missed shot or slow defensive rotation. Maye showed some nice vision with two assists and even got to the foul line, but he bricked a wide-open layup and got easily outrebounded. Bradley, too, had the worst game of his young career, scoring only four points and fouling four times. After putting up double digits in his first six games, he’s been held to six or fewer two games in a row.

As far as the wing players, Kenny Williams was arguably the third or fourth best Tar Heel on the night despite his struggles with shooting the ball. He was touted as a three-shooter coming into Chapel Hill but, outside of two games pushing his average to 40 percent from deep, the three-pointer just hasn’t been there for him. Williams finished the Indiana game with seven points and again exhibited some inspired, intelligent defense.

The other two bench guys getting somewhat consistent minutes have been freshmen Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods. As Williams and Bradley both having moments here and there, Robinson and Woods haven’t done much and look to be having a more normal collegiate start. Woods simply hasn’t been able to score efficiently—he’s under 20 percent from the field—although he has showcased some surprising point-guard ability. Similar woes can be said for Robinson.

So, what do we make of this group of underclassmen now that we’ve seen them play admirably against weaker competition but struggle in the biggest game of the season? One caveat is that the entire team played horribly against Indiana, with just two guys in double figures and both Joel Berry II and Isaiah Hicks having particularly terrible outings.

But this is still the kind of atmosphere and quality that the team will face every week in ACC play. The environment of Assembly Hall, as well as the formidable team playing there, is a lot closer to Duke, Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville than it is to Tulane or the Maui Invitational. In preparing for ACC road games and high-level competition, the bench failed its first major test.

Head coach Roy Williams also might need to rely on this unit more, as frustrating a thought that may be for someone who doesn’t enjoy playing younger guys big minutes. Simply put, with the losses of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the starting lineup doesn’t have the same firepower or leadership. When the going got tough last season, either Paige would make the right play or Johnson would demoralize the opposition with a terrifying dunk.

Now, Berry II, Hicks, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks all seem to be shying from those moments at times. In a surprise, it looks like Jackson might actually be the one for the job, as he’s finally elevated his shooting ability (37.5 percent from deep). Just watching him on the court, too, he appears much more confident than he has in seasons past.

Meeks has been solid for the team, particularly with his rebounding and defense, but it was disappointing to see the two guys most bandied about all offseason struggle against Indiana. Hicks had seven points and six rebounds but was in foul trouble the whole game; he’s struggled with fouling his entire career, and that doesn’t seem to have changed with his new role. And Berry II finished eight points and eight assists, decent numbers, but he never got his shot going and could never get the offense rolling at its normal clip.

If the starting lineup isn’t going to be as reliable, it’ll be up to the bench to help out. Talent-wise, these guys should be more than capable. What Bradley lacks in defensive awareness and understanding, he makes up for with his offensive prowess and rebounding. Sorry for the Duke reference, but he’s almost Jahlil Okafor-like in his ability at scoring in the paint. He has the best chance to have a Hicks-like impact off the bench, as long as he doesn’t infuriate Williams too much with his defensive lapses.

The other key player will be Williams, who has actually had a strong start to the season. With more than quadrupling his minutes, his scoring average is up to 5.8, and he’s rebounding well for his size with 3.9 rebounds per game. The main thing is his shooting. Yes, he is hitting 40 percent from three, but he’s only making one three a game. For someone touted as such a tremendous shooter before college and then constantly praised for his performances in practice, Williams should be doing a lot better there. UNC needs him to, as well.

The Indiana game wasn’t a doomsday alert by any stretch of the imagination. It was this team’s first real challenge and, for playing awfully, to lose only by nine points isn’t that bad. But it did reveal that the bench, among other factors, is going to need to adjust to road games and comparably talented teams. There’s no reason they can’t do that with the talent and basketball ability they all have. The question is how long will it take for them to gain the experience and confidence.