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Tournament Depth Perrception

   by Al McMordie - 03/06/2012

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.

Wichita State, for example, won the NIT last season and this year has a powerhouse team in the Missouri Valley Conference with depth as a huge asset. Three players average in double digits and six average over 8.5 ppg. Toure' Murry has embraced his newfound supporting role, a year after carrying Wichita State to the NIT title. Toure Murry averaged 11.9 points last season and began this season as the top returning scorer, but is third in scoring this season at 12.1 points per game. They not only preach team play and unselfishness, they practice it.

That’s a strength of a team like North Carolina. Roy Williams knows he has plenty of depth and talent so he runs at opponents, led by 6-8 sophomore Harrison Barnes (17.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 46%), 6-11 junior John Henson (14 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and 7-foot, 250-lb senior Tyler Zeller (15.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg) up front, with 6-4 soph Kendall Marshall (9.7 apg) running the break. North Carolina is third in the nation in scoring (82 pg), tops in rebounds, and 8-2 on the road.

We saw that depth and road play on display Saturday in an impressive 88-70 win at Duke, a revenge game plus they took the top seed in the ACC. They never trailed, and for the second straight year they rolled in a winner-take-all season finale with the ACC tournament's top seed on the line. North Carolina shot 54.5 percent, built a 45-28 rebounding advantage.

When a coach has depth he can often turn to the uptempo game, which wears other teams down, particularly in the second half or in tournament play on back to back nights. Duke is the same way, running and gunning, trying to wear opponents down while bombing away from three-point land.

In last year’s ACC tourney the Blue Devils went 3-0 SU/ATS, winning by 16, 14 and 17 points playing three games in three nights. They were favored by 9, 7 and 4 points in those games (2-1 over the total).

Both Duke and North Carolina were 13-2 entering the March 5, 2011 regular-season finale in North Carolina's Smith Center. Led by Kendall Marshall (15 points, 11 assists), Harrison Barnes (18 points), John Henson (10 points, 12 rebounds) and Tyler Zeller (14 points), the Tar Heels won 81-67 to rule the regular season and claim the No. 1 seed for the league tournament. Eight days later in Greensboro, the two met again and the outcome flipped. A 75-58 win gave Duke its third straight league tournament title. North Carolina celebrated again this weekend, but they have to keep in mind what happened last year, winning the big regular season showdown and then getting thumped in the ACC title game.

This year’s Duke team has 6 players averaging over 20 minutes per game and 2 more averaging over 12. Duke won the first meeting at North Carolina, 85-84, on Feb. 8 as a +6 dog, a total that went over 155. However, the under is 6-2 the last 8 meetings, including 3-0 under last season, something to keep in mind if they meet again this week in the ACC tourney.

Last year the Tar Heels had 6 players averaging over 20 minutes per game and 4 more averaging over 10. That allowed them to run at opponents and tire them out, in the Top 20 in scoring in the country and No. 1 in rebounds. Think about North Carolina’s more recent March runs. The Tar Heels had a deep bench that ran right at opponents, trying to wear other team’s 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. In 2009 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 UCLA and Washington State, and then the next night they have to play a super-charged offense like Washington or Arizona. Players have to adjust, but even more so, coaches have to use their bench properly - provided they have one.

Four years 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.

Four 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 that season, 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. Four 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.

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.

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