Hubert Davis, whose starters are playing more minutes this season, explains how he uses his bench

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — While Hubert Davis continues to lean on his starters for heavy minutes in his second season as Carolina’s head coach, he depends on his reserves more in certain stretches this season.

But after plenty of talk about expanding the rotation, Davis still likes to stick with his starters.

Even accounting for the four overtimes against Alabama, three of the four returning starters are averaging more minutes than last season (Armando Bacot 33.2 this season, only counting regulation minutes against Alabama, vs. 31.6 last season, Caleb Love 34.8 vs. 34.2, Leaky Black 30.2 vs. 29.7 and RJ Davis 33.9 vs. 33.9) heading into Saturday’s 11:30 a.m. home game against Notre Dame (ESPN2).

Even transfer Pete Nance is averaging more minutes this season (31.1 before playing two minutes against Wake Forest) than he did last season at Northwestern (27.2) and more than Brady Manek (30.4).

When Coach Davis goes to the bench, the usage patterns from player to player have been unpredictable and have left some fans wondering how he decides who plays off the bench.

That changes from game to game for Carolina (10–5, 2–2 ACC), depending on matchups, game flow and — most importantly — performance in practice that people outside the program don’t see.

“The only thing that you have control over is your preparation, your practice and your play,” Coach Davis said. “And at the end of the day, through my experience, it has always worked out that when that opportunity comes to take advantage of it and that’s how to determine the playing time.”

Junior wing Puff Johnson (14.1 minutes per game), freshman guard Seth Trimble (13.4) and sophomore wing D’Marco Dunn (10.4) are the only reserves logging consistent minutes. Tyler Nickel (7.3) is the only other non-starter averaging more than six minutes per game.

— Johnson played 48 minutes in the four-overtime loss to Alabama, 13 against Ohio State and 21 against Michigan. But he’s only played six minutes in the last two games and didn’t play in the second half of either.

— After not playing in the previous three games, senior forward Justin McKoy (averaging 5.9 minutes in six games) got nearly as many minutes in Wednesday’s 88–79 win over Wake Forest (17) as he had all season before Wednesday (18), and started in the second half. A big reason, of course, was Nance leaving the game after two minutes with a sore back.

“He did a fantastic job of defending, attacking the offensive glass,” Davis said. “He had energy, effort and enthusiasm out there on the floor. And so I was really pleased with the way that he played. It just continues to add depth to us and allow us to have different lineups out there on the floor.”

— Freshman wing Tyler Nickel (averaging 7.3 minutes in 12 games) has gone from being a key player down the stretch with 25 minutes at Virginia Tech, to combining for 13 minutes in the next three ACC games to not playing against the Deacons.

—  After scoring nine points and bringing energy in 16 minutes against The Citadel, sophomore wing Dontrez Styles (averaging 5.9 minutes in seven games) played two minutes against Ohio State and hasn’t played in the three games since then.

— Jalen Washington (averaging 2.9 minutes in five games), who is still working into game shape, played four minutes against Wake Forest and — with Nance missing most of the game — may have played more if not for three quick first-half fouls.

Coach Davis knows what those reserves are going through because he dealt with it as a player.

“I’ve been there before,” he said. “Whether it’s college or the NBA, I’ve started, I’ve come off the bench, I’ve played big minutes, played limited minutes, I’ve gotten DNP coach’s decisions, I’ve gotten to traded cut, waived, picked in the first round. There’s nothing that any player can go through that I haven’t experienced myself.”

Davis praised McKoy and his mindset for a veteran college player who hasn’t played much this season but is taking advantage of his chances.

“That’s who Justin is,” Davis said. “He’s always been somebody that works extremely hard. He’s always been someone that is prepared for whenever his number is called, and it’s his preparation before and after practice. It is attention to details. … That’s why he’s so valuable for us.”

Davis made it clear that it’s a two-step process to get more playing time — repeatedly playing well in practice and then following that up by doing what he asks of them in games.

“Once I put you in the game, if you play well in games, that’s how when you stack good plays, then you’ll play more minutes,” he said during a response to a specific question about Styles’ lack of playing time in which he didn’t mention Styles.

Sometimes, he added, playing well in practice isn’t enough if somebody else is playing better.

“There’s competition out there also. It’s not just one person,” Davis said. “There’s a number of guys at all the positions. There’s competition at every practice. Not only as a player do you have to play well, you also have to play better than the person that’s at your position.”

Even if a reserve is doing all of that and playing better than his teammates in practice, the style and personnel of an opponent for a given game may mean that they still either don’t play or don’t get much playing time.

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Davis wants to, as he often says, tweak, pivot and adjust during a game.

“There are lineups out there on the floor that dictate certain lineups for us being out there on the floor, whether it’s to match up a little bit better defensively, or to put us in a situation where we can be more effective and efficient on the offensive end,” Davis said. “And so to be able to have that type of versatility, I think it’s really good.”

Davis said that Nance is improving every day after straining his back at Pittsburgh but admits that he was surprised that Nance could only play two minutes against Wake Forest. He said it’s a day-to-day situation and Nance will play if he feels good enough.

If Nance can’t go or is limited in any way, it will be important for Washington to play well off the bench as the only true post player to relieve Bacot.

“I thought he really helped us and [playing] really gave him a lot of confidence out there on the floor,” Davis said.

NOTES — Notre Dame (8–7, 0–4) has lost two in a row and five of their last six after dropping a 76–65 home game against Miami on Dec. 30 and losing Tuesday at Boston College 70–63. Its best win of the season was beating Michigan State by 18 points. … Fifth-year forward Nate Laszewski leads Notre Dame in scoring (13.4 points per game) and rebounding (7.7), and has 23 3-pointers, 24 assists and 10 blocks. … UNC leads the series 27–9 but lost 78–73 last season at South Bend, Ind, behind 20 points and six 3-pointers from Laszewski. … Carolina has won nine of the last 11 meetings and the last four meetings in Chapel Hill. … Black scored the game-winning basket with nine seconds left in Carolina’s 66–65 win over the Irish on Jan. 2, 2021, the last time the teams played at the Smith Center. … On the ESPN2 call of the game will be Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas.

UNC statistics


DateMonth/dayTime/scoreOpponent/event
(current ranking)
LocationTV/record
October
28FridayW, 101–40Johnson C. Smith HomeExhibition
November
7MondayW, 69–56UNCWHome1–0
11FridayW, 102–86College of CharlestonHome2–0
15TuesdayW, 72–66Gardner-WebbHome3–0
20SundayW, 80–64James MadisonHome4–0
Phil Knight Invitational
24ThursdayW, 89–81First round: PortlandPortland5–0
25FridayL, 70–65Semifinals:
No. 11
Iowa State
Portland5–1
27SundayL, 103–101,
4 OTs
Consolation:
No. 3 Alabama
Portland5–2
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
30WednesdayL, 77–65 No. 18 IndianaBloomington, Ind.5–3
December
4SundayL, 80–72 Virginia TechBlacksburg, Va.5–4,
0–1 ACC
10SaturdayW, 75–59Georgia TechHome6–4,
1–1 ACC
13TuesdayW, 100–67The CitadelHome7–4
CBS Sports Classic
17SaturdayW, 89–84, OTOhio StateNew York8–4
Jumpman Invitational
21WednesdayW, 80–76MichiganCharlotte9–4
30 Friday L, 76–74PittsburghPittsburgh9–5,
1–2 ACC
January
4WednesdayW, 88–79Wake ForestHome10–5,
2–2 ACC
7SaturdayW, 81–64Notre DameHome11–5,
3–2 ACC
10TuesdayL, 65–58No. 8 VirginiaCharlottesville11–6,
3–3 ACC
14SaturdayW, 80–59LouisvilleLouisville, Ky.12–6,
4–3 ACC
17TuesdayW, 72–64Boston CollegeHome13–6,
5–3 ACC
21SaturdayW, 80–69No. 22 N.C. StateHome14–6,
6–3 ACC
24TuesdayW, 72–68SyracuseSyracuse, N.Y.15–6,
7–3 ACC
February
1WednesdayL, 65–64PittsburghHome15–7,
7–4 ACC
4SaturdayL, 63–57 DukeDurham15–8,
7–5 ACC
7Tuesday7 p.m.Wake ForestWinston-SalemESPN
11Saturday2 p.m.ClemsonHome ESPN2
13Monday7 p.m.No. 19 MiamiHomeESPN
19Sunday1 p.m.No. 22 N.C. StateRaleighESPN
22Wednesday9 p.m.Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.ESPN or ESPN2
25Saturday6 or 8No. 8 VirginiaHomeESPN
27Monday7 p.m.Florida StateTallahassee, Fla.ESPN
March
4Saturday6:30DukeHomeESPN
ACC Tournament
7–11Tuesday-SaturdayTBATBAGreensboroTBA
If tickets for home games are available, you can purchase them here.
ACCN means the game airs on ACC Network.

Photo via @UNC_Basketball

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