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Tournament Depth Perception

   by Al McMordie - 03/07/2010

With college basketball tournament play exploding all around us, this is the perfect time to talk about depth perception. Only this doesn’t have anything to do with eyesight. It has to do with team numbers, such as 7, 8, and 9. Teams that are able to go 7, 8 or 9 deep this time of year with excellent depth can have a significant advantage.

Depth is a key element to examine during tournament play. What is so unusual is the amount of games played in such a short span, two games in two nights, three games in three nights. This puts enormous pressure on athletes to bounce back, mentally and physically, from night to night.

Think about North Carolina the last two years. The Tar Heels had a deep bench that ran right at opponents, trying to wear other teams down. In 2008 they won the ACC tourney by winning three games in three days, culminating in an 86-81 win over Clemson. North Carolina shot 49 percent and held a 49-34 rebounding advantage which led to 20 second-chance points.

The Tar Heels scored 24 points off the Tigers; 17 turnovers and scored 34 fast-break points by attacking Clemson's fullcourt press. A weary Clemson bunch shot 42 percent for the game. It’s another depth edge that North Carolina has this week, with five players in double figures. Last season they stumbled in the ACC tourney, but then won every game in the Big Dance by double digits

What’s important to look for is how coaches used the bench during the season. If the No. 7, 8 or 9 guy on the bench sees playing time AND puts up decent numbers in limited action, that’s a sign a coach has confidence in his reserves. Examine how that team played in overtime games during the season. Did they run out of gas? Did they wilt if the starters fouled out?

Overtime can tell a lot about bench strengths and weaknesses. Use of the bench means rest for starters, who can be fresher when games go OT, or if starters foul out, a coach has the advantage of going to reserves he can trust. More playing time can also mean more confidence for those bench players. All of these points get exacerbated during March play.

Think about the Pac 10. Maybe one night a team might have to play slow-down defensive teams like USC and Washington State, and then the next night they have to play a super-charged offense like Washington. Players have to adjust, but even more so, coaches have to use their bench properly - provided they have one.

A year ago the Washington Huskies won their first outright league title since 1953. But they stumbled in the Pac 10 tourney, losing to Arizona State, as their uptempo attack got stymied in a 75-65 loss. Perhaps it was a carry over, as it was a physical grind in the regular season finale, topping Washington State, the then-national leaders allowing 54.8 points per game.

Two years ago Kansas pulled out an incredible championship with a late comeback against Memphis, winning in OT. Kansas shot 52.7% in the title game and got 59 minutes and 15 points from its bench. Memphis shot 40% for the game, with just 31 minutes and 2 points from its bench. With that in mind, is it so surprising Kansas won the OT, 12-5, with ease?

Some may forget that that Kansas team also won the Big 12 tourney, winning three games in three days. In the clincher over Texas, Sherron Collins and Sasha Kaun combined to score 16 points with 13 rebounds off the pine. A deep bench is rare, so a few quality reserves can make a big difference. Oh, and Texas got only 2 points and half as many minutes from its bench. Texas shot 40% for the game and couldn’t hold a halftime lead, as Kansas ended up shooting 49% with a 39-28 second half edge.

That's another facet with a reliable bench: If a team is trailing at the half, there are opportunities to wager on that team in the second half. Two years ago, the UCLA Bruins suffered a rash of injuries in the first half of the season, yet instead of folding, the Bruins kept winning -- and covering. The kids Ben Howland had available that he was forced to go to turned out to be pretty good. And they got even better as the starters trickled back. UCLA had a stretch going 16-10 against the spread and 5-3 SU, 6-2 ATS as a dog.
This season, UCLA isn’t quite the dominant defensive team we’ve seen in recent years. A lack of depth means that winning three games in three days to secure an NCAA tournament berth might be too much to ask. UCLA is without forwards James Keefe, who recently had shoulder surgery, and Reeves Nelson, who is sitting out this week's games after laser surgery to repair a torn retina in his left eye. Forward Nikola Dragovic is playing with ankle and shoulder injuries. Center Jamison Morgan, who has played sparingly anyway, is coming off a one-game suspension.
Howland hopes to have better depth next season with newcomers Josh Smith (Covington, Wash., Kentwood High), Tyler Lamb (Santa Ana Mater Dei) and Lazeric Jones (Logan College, Ill.). But that won't help him this week.

Of course, playing 3 games in 3 nights brings its own unique set of dynamics to the table. Take careful note of any overtime games a team plays, then check the box score. Did they use the starters most of the game? If so, the starters could be burned out for the next night’s game. But if the coach was able to mix in the bench and cut down the starter’s minutes, it could be far less a factor for the next game. Know your depth and know how each coach utilizes it, because tourney play is unlike any other time of the college basketball season. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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