- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

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.

Line change.

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.”

There was a time it could be done much easier because of relaxed scholarship limitations. Packer recalls when former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, with 15 quality players at his disposal, would send a group of five in for a stretch. Sometimes it would be a possession, at others a few minutes.

Former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. led the Hoyas to a national title in 1984 and capitalized on depth similar to North Carolina’s this season. Georgetown had 10 players average at least nine minutes in its championship season.

“I haven’t seen a whole lot of them use it as well as they do,” Thompson says. “It’s just a style of play. It’s how you play. … You have to have guys that can play, and they have guys that can play. Guys have to buy into it.”

A possible hiccup?

Packer warns that just about every remaining team will be able to withstand North Carolina’s swarming defense and in effect neutralize the depth differential.

Another factor that could negate North Carolina’s edge is the plethora of television timeouts. Rather than cramming a half into about 40 minutes, that total often is stretched to nearly an hour.

It was a quietly critical factor five years ago when Maryland won its title. Coach Gary Williams only had seven players average 10 minutes and just eight reached the five-minute plateau, but weariness was never an issue.

“If you have a bunch of guys from six through 10 that are even, then you have to play them,” Williams says. “But if there’s a substantial drop-off from seven or eight, they’re right [to limit it]. With TV timeouts, it’s not what it was. Some of those timeouts during the game are 2:15, 2:30. You give an athlete in good shape that much time, I don’t see why a guy can’t play 40 minutes.”

In an intriguing twist, the Tar Heels turned in arguably their most dominant performance against a quality team — Jan. 27 at Arizona — when Ginyard and Wright sat out with an illness and Bobby Frasor was still nursing a foot injury. And North Carolina essentially reduced its rotation to 10 men in the second half Saturday.

The Tar Heels could be without senior forward Reyshawn Terry (strep throat) tonight, and the thought of losing a starter this late in the tournament would fluster most programs. And while North Carolina would like to have Terry, there haven’t been many teams capable of handling it in the last decade like the Tar Heels.

“It’s something we have to continue to use to our advantage, our depth and ability to make substitutions,” Ginyard says. “Any combination of five players out there, we have the ability get it done and can stay at the same pace.”

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