Isaiah Hicks. Nate Britt. Theo Pinson. Joel James. Those four guys were invaluable to UNC’s success last year, providing a formidable bench to one of the best starting lineups in the country. North Carolina doesn’t win the ACC or make the National Championship Game without Hicks filling in for Brice Johnson and dunking everything in his path, Britt leading the offense in Marcus Paige’s stead and Pinson and James doing the little things that offer a backbone for winning.
This year’s bench, despite its play in non-conference, is not as strong or even as experienced as last season’s. With the graduation of Johnson, Hicks has stepped into the starting power forward position and, thus far, he’s been nowhere near as reliable or consistent in that role. And he doesn’t have a junior year Hicks backing him up. With Pinson finally making his return and Kenny Williams stabilizing himself at the 2-spot so Britt can solely focus on backing up Joel Berry II, maybe the last keys for this bench are in the frontcourt: freshman Tony Bradley and sophomore Luke Maye.
Bradley has hit a small freshman wall—if you can even call it that—after starting his career with six straight double-figure scoring games. He’s reached double figures just once so far in ACC play with 11 points against NC State over the weekend. Coach Roy Williams can be frustrating with his younger guys, and it already appears that Bradley will be getting fewer minutes in major games. Yes, his defensive awareness isn’t there yet, but his offensive skills and rebounding prowess have immediately translated to the college game.
Much like looking at Hicks’ numbers last year, it’s necessary to check out the per-40 minute numbers for a guy like Bradley. Excluding Shea Rush—who leads the team in per-40 minute scoring with just 21 minutes played—Bradley is fourth on the team in scoring at a tremendous 21.4 clip. His field-goal percentage of 55.1 is stellar already, and he could be one of the most gifted low-post threats in Williams’ tenure.
But what could keep him on the floor for more minutes in ACC play is his rebounding, particularly given Hicks’ struggles in that aspect (a lowly 5.2 rebounds per game). Bradley is second on the team in rebounding at 5.8 per game, only behind Kennedy Meeks with 9.6. His per-40 average of 14.9 rebounds is strong, too. And one other little part of his game that might help him is that he doesn’t foul too often (only 1.7 times a game), or at least not as much as Hicks.
Then there’s Luke Maye, the sophomore power forward who barely got any minutes last year. While his fellow classman Williams has broken into a much larger role this year and has UNC finally hitting some threes, Maye is up to just 13.8 minutes per game. But he’s beginning to do more and more with his time, and there’s evidence that he’ll be more than just a hustle guy like Jackson Simmons or Joel James in the past.
He’s hit double figures in scoring twice this year, including a great performance in the close loss to Kentucky in Las Vegas. In that game, Maye showed a little bit of everything, knocking down two threes, finishing some inside layups and getting to the foul line. The three-point shot by the most surprising addition to his game and something that can really create some lineup problems for opposing teams. If he can hit the straightaway three with consistency, that’ll open up a ton of room for the offense and whatever other bruiser is down in the paint.
It’s heartening to see Maye slowly improve this season even while not getting big-time minutes. He and Bradley have played together, as well, and what once might’ve been a terrifying thought for next year now seems like another potent frontcourt combination for the Tar Heels. But let’s stick to this year and how they can help Hicks, Meeks and company compete for an ACC title in an absolutely loaded season.
Any minutes of rest they can give to Meeks and Hicks is crucial. Hicks still fouls way more than he should, and Meeks doesn’t have the same conditioning to play 30 minutes all the time. Where it was a three-headed monster of a frontcourt last year—spearheaded by the most dominant big man in the country—now it’s a four-headed beast that needs all heads at the top of their game.
Both Maye and Bradley can be soft and unaware on defense, but UNC’s team defense has been spectacular for stretches. The more they can buy into their roles, the better off everyone will be. So, yes, Berry and Jackson will take us far (hopefully), but the play of these two young big men could help sway a conference title in a year with so many contenders.