After Hubert Davis’ top 7 players, who plays varies widely from game to game

By R.L. Bynum

When Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge or Roy Williams coached Carolina, the substitution patterns were consistent and predictable.

Many fans could almost predict who would come in when. With Smith, like clockwork, the Blue Team of five reserves would enter the game during the first half to give the regulars a break. You had a good idea about which player would come in when a specific player came out.

Williams’ pattern every season was to play lots of players early to see what they could do, and then pare down his rotation as the Tar Heels got into the thick of the ACC season. Many who wondered why Luke Maye was playing so much turned strangely silent after his game-winning shot in the 75–83 win over Kentucky in the 2017 South Regional final.

There has also been a lot of chatter about Coach Hubert Davis’ substitution pattern, but it’s hard to argue with his results after his first team made a run to the national championship game and his second team has won six of its last seven games.

There are many successful approaches, but how Davis uses his bench differs from every Carolina coach who preceded him.

Davis preaches that he doesn’t know when, where and how each reserve will get their chance but that it will come, and they have to be ready. He’s also said that how players perform in practice plays a big part in how much they play in games. Nobody outside the program can track that.

But Davis’ decisions about who gets substantial playing time beyond his top seven players seem to be driven by matchups, who has a hot hand, who played well in their first stint on the floor in the game and injuries to those top seven players.

His substitution patterns may be unfamiliar to longtime UNC fans but are common in the NBA.

When healthy, D’Marco Dunn and Puff Johnson (with the exception of getting six total minutes against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest) have usually played double-digit minutes. Dunn is averaging 15.4 minutes per game in ACC play, and Johnson 13.0.

Beyond those two, who Davis plays from game to game varies widely.

Seth Trimble is the only other Tar Heel averaging double-digit minutes in league play (12.6) but has played 11 minutes, 7 seconds total in the last three games.

Trimble, who started two of the three games that Pete Nance missed with back issues, has played a total of 16 minutes, 36 seconds in four ACC games (5:21 at Pittsburgh, 3:13 against Boston College, 4:22 against N.C. State and 3:32 at Syracuse) but 106:13 in the other seven league games.

Davis likely didn’t like how Trimble matched up against the players at the 2 or 3 spots against the Panthers, Eagles, Wolfpack or Orange. Against Syracuse, inexperience attacking its zone probably also played a part.

Davis and his coaching staff have shown the ability to shift strategy substantially on the fly, and that often means calling on different reserves.

Some reserves will barely play a few games, then play a vital role in the next game.


A good example is freshman Tyler Nickel, who has played 55 minutes, 29 seconds total in three games (25:00 against Virginia Tech, 18:31 against The Citadel and 11:57 against Syracuse) but only 56:01 in the other 17 games (not playing in three of them).

Nickel was a key part of the Tar Heels’ rally in the last 10 minutes of the road loss to the Hokies, collecting eight points, two rebounds and an assist.

It’s an excellent example of Davis sticking with a player who is giving him a good effort. Davis inserted Nickel with 14:40 left and didn’t take him out until the final minute — and that was when he and Leaky Black swapped out for each other a few times so that Black could be in for defense.

Nickel, providing energy off the bench, played eight second-half minutes with a 3-pointer, a rebound, an assist, a steal and a block in Tuesday’s 72–68 win at Syracuse.

Since making his college debut with two minutes against Georgia Tech on Dec. 10, Jalen Washington has played a total of 46 minutes, 17 seconds in two games (18:41 at Louisville and 26:36 at Virginia) but only 34:06 in his eight other games.

Armando Bacot exiting the game against the Cavaliers in the first 1:19 led to Washington’s big minutes. Washington’s substantial playing time in the next game against the Cardinals was a combination of Bacot getting into foul trouble and not being 100%.

Bacot’s ankle injury against Virginia was also why former UVa player Justin McKoy played 14 minutes, 37 seconds in that game. McKoy has played a total of 31:37 in that and the Wake Forest game (17:00) but has only played two of the seven other ACC games, logging a total of 6:07.

The most surprising usage for many fans has been for sophomore Dontrez Styles.

He has played a total of 16 minutes, 58 seconds in two games (8:39 at Louisville and 8:18 at Virginia Tech) and has played in only two of the other eight ACC games with a total of 4:58 (1:30 vs. Notre Dame and 3:28 against N.C. State).

Who plays off the bench other than Dunn or Johnson against Pittsburgh on Wednesday? Even if Davis has a firm idea before the game starts, that might change substantially given how the game plays out.

Trying to predict who will play is challenging.

UNC statistics

No. 16 Miami15–524–6
No. 13 Virginia15–523–6
No. 25 Pittsburgh14–621–10
N.C. State12–822–9
North Carolina11–919–12
Wake Forest10–1018–13
Boston College9–1115–16
Virginia Tech8–1218–13
Florida State7–139–22
Georgia Tech6–1414–17
Notre Dame3–1711–20

Saturday’s games
Duke 62, North Carolina 57
No. 13 Virginia 75, Louisville 60
Georgia Tech 73, Boston College 65
Virginia Tech 82, Florida State 60
Syracuse 72, Wake Forest 63
No. 26 Miami 78, No. 25 Pittsburgh 76
Clemson 87, Notre Dame 64
End of regular season

(current ranking)
28FridayW, 101–40Johnson C. Smith HomeExhibition
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:
Iowa State
27SundayL, 103–101,
4 OTs
No. 1 Alabama
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
30WednesdayL, 77–65 No. 21 IndianaBloomington, Ind.5–3
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
4WednesdayW, 88–79Wake ForestHome10–5,
2–2 ACC
7SaturdayW, 81–64Notre DameHome11–5,
3–2 ACC
10TuesdayL, 65–58No. 14 VirginiaCharlottesville11–6,
3–3 ACC
14SaturdayW, 80–59LouisvilleLouisville, Ky.12–6,
4–3 ACC
17TuesdayW, 72–64Boston CollegeHome13–6,
5–3 ACC
21SaturdayW, 80–69N.C. StateHome14–6,
6–3 ACC
24TuesdayW, 72–68SyracuseSyracuse, N.Y.15–6,
7–3 ACC
1WednesdayL, 65–64PittsburghHome15–7,
7–4 ACC
4SaturdayL, 63–57No. 12 DukeDurham15–8,
7–5 ACC
7TuesdayL, 92–85Wake ForestWinston-Salem15–9,
7–6 ACC
11SaturdayW, 91–71ClemsonHome 16–9,
8–6 ACC
13MondayL, 80–72No. 16 MiamiHome16–10,
8–7 ACC
19SundayL, 77–69N.C. StateRaleigh16–11,
8–8 ACC
22WednesdayW, 63–59Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.17–11,
9–8 ACC
25SaturdayW, 71–63No. 14 VirginiaHome18–11,
10–8 ACC
27MondayW, 77–66Florida StateTallahassee, Fla.19–11,
11–8 ACC
4SaturdayL, 62–57No. 12 DukeHome19–12,
11–9 ACC
ACC tournament
8WednesdayW, 85–61Boston CollegeGreensboro20–12
9ThursdayL, 68–59No. 14 Virginia Greensboro20–13

Photo via @UNC_Basketball


1 Comment

  1. Hubert substitutes like the pros. This can lead to problems with freshmen like Nickel. I expect transfer portal activity after the season. I expect Styles, Nickel, Trimble, and Dunn to explore other options.


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