EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — One after another, North Carolina players slipped down to the scorer’s table and crammed the space between midcourt and coach Roy Williams.
Finally the horn sounded, and five subs entered the game for the Tar Heels.
It was a scene from no particular game this season for North Carolina (30-6) but rather one of a string of identical events. For all of the Tar Heels’ success, their signature trait remains a well of depth unseen elsewhere in college basketball. North Carolina routinely rotates 12 players with a stream of substitutions, and it barely slowed its swapping of players in the postseason.
North Carolina has made a habit of engaging in battles of attrition. It has yielded an ACC tournament title, a No. 1 seed and a date with No. 5 Southern California (25-11) in tonight’s East Region semifinals at Continental Airlines Arena.
Ten Tar Heels average at least 10 minutes. Two more play at least five minutes a night. It is a deeper team than any recent national champion and is a far cry from the eight- and nine-man rotations that produced national titles the last six years.
“It is what it is. That’s all you can really say,” guard Marcus Ginyard says. “Everybody understands when your number is called, you have to get in and you have to give us a lift. You have to keep it the same, or you have to give us a lift. You can’t come in and influence it in a negative way.”
A numbers game
Sometimes, it seems like the Tar Heels are in a never-ending track meet. Like when North Carolina made 52 substitutions in an 89-87 loss to Maryland. Or 49 lineup switches against a weary N.C. State team in the ACC final. Or an astonishing 58 moves as it eroded Michigan State last weekend.
An occasional plunge into the bench is one thing. The Tar Heels, though, deploy wave after wave every night.
“Our depth is one of our strengths, and one of the most positive things about this basketball team is there’s so many guys that are talented and so many guys that can play this game, and yet everybody gets a chance to contribute,” guard Wes Miller says. “A lot of times there’s teams where there’s a bunch of guys sitting on the bench in other programs that feel like they ought to be out there playing.”
Not at North Carolina. No one averages 30 minutes, and only Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Brandan Wright reach 25 minutes a night.
It’s a different formula than anyone has used for success in recent years. CBS analyst Billy Packer, who will call the weekend’s games in East Rutherford, isn’t sure whether such a deep rotation is tenable late in the postseason.
Yet he understands both how Williams could come into such a surplus of talent and the need to use all of it — lest a team stumble in the wake of several departures as Connecticut did this season.
“I would have no reason to question whether he knows what he’s doing; obviously he does,” Packer says. “More to the point in this modern day of recruiting, in order to keep your program steady you almost have to recruit on top of yourself because people will leave. You get caught with your pants down unless you recruit on top of yourself.”