Final Four: Depth invaluable to Tar Heels
By Aaron Beard
DETROIT ó Ed Davis has everything a coach could want ó a long 6-foot-10 frame, a knack for rebounding, the timing to block shots and alter even more. Throw in an improving offensive game, and Davis is the kind of player a college program would want to build around.
Instead, the highly touted freshman is content to be a reserve for North Carolina.
“I knew when I got here I was going to have to play my role because it’s an experienced team,” he said Friday, the day before the Tar Heels were to face Villanova in the Final Four. “I just wanted to come in and try to win a national championship. I just wanted to win.”
He’s not alone.
There’s senior Bobby Frasor, who can play either guard position. There’s Larry Drew II, a freshman who can play spot duty at the point. And then there’s 7-foot rookie Tyler Zeller, who opted not to redshirt after sitting out 13 weeks with a broken wrist in what effectively became a midseason call-up for a team already loaded with talent.
Sure, North Carolina (32-4) is back in the Final Four thanks largely to All-American Tyler Hansbrough inside, Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Ty Lawson at the point and perimeter scorers Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. Yet what makes the Tar Heels different from the other teams at Ford Field this weekend is the depth behind one of the nation’s best starting lineups.
“We have a ton of big-time scorers on this team, so not everyone needs to come off the bench and put the ball in the basket,” Frasor said. “Yes, it does help this team. But if you’re out there distributing the ball to Wayne, Tyler or Ty in scoring positions, then everything will be fine.”
That nine-man rotation has allowed coach Roy Williams to roll guys in and out of his fast-paced offense with relatively little drop-off. They’ve worn down opponents in some games, overcome foul trouble that would cripple most teams in others and have had some spirited practices all season.
“If somebody’s not really getting it or scoring points or playing inside defense, we can definitely bring somebody in to do it,” starter Deon Thompson said. “It’s going to make you better. You don’t want to sit on the bench and have somebody playing over you.”
That depth was key in the South Regional championship against Oklahoma. Hansbrough picked up two early fouls against national player of the year Blake Griffin, but the Tar Heels were able to rotate in Thompson, Davis and Zeller. Each picked up at least two fouls and Griffin had a big performance, but the Tar Heels cruised to a 72-60 victory and the matchup with Villanova in the national semifinals.
Making it all even more impressive is that the Tar Heels aren’t even as deep as everyone expected in the preseason. Starter Marcus Ginyard barely played this season before redshirting after foot surgery, an injury that forced Green ó last season’s top-scoring reserve ó into the starting five. Sophomore guard Will Graves was suspended by Williams at midseason.
Still, it’s a clear advantage against the undersized Wildcats.
Davis’ transition to college was eased by the presence of Hansbrough and Thompson, and he averages 6.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in about 19 minutes.
He had 10 points and 14 rebounds in his first college game with Hansbrough sidelined with a preseason shin injury. He had six blocks in a late-season win at Virginia Tech and had nine points and seven rebounds against LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Villanova coach Jay Wright compared Davis to Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut’s 7-3 center.
“I think he’s their best defender around the basket,” Wright said. “He gives you a different dimension when he gets in the game. It also allows them to get out on the perimeter and deny because they’ve got him behind there blocking shots.”
Frasor started all 31 games as a freshman, but battled nagging foot problems as a sophomore and a season-ending torn knee ligament as a junior. This season he hit three 3-pointers in the first half at Duke, managed a key tie-up for a steal late in the second win against the Blue Devils and knocked down two 3s in the second half against Gonzaga in the round of 16.
Zeller returned in February after being hurt on a hard foul late in the second game against Kentucky, which came three days after he scored 18 points while starting the opener for Hansbrough. He’s averaging 3.5 points in spot minutes since his return.
“Whatever’s best for the team, you’ve got to do,” Zeller said. “If that means me playing five minutes, that’s fine. I’d be fine sitting on the bench as long as the team is winning.”