Tyler Hansbrough has overcome the adversity of an injury-riddled team in February to make a strong case for National Player of the Year honors (28.0 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game over the last seven games), and Wayne Ellington has also increased his production since Ty Lawson’s ankle sprain against Florida State on Feb. 3, averaging 17.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest.
Fellow starters Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson have battled pains ranging from turf toe to back aches, while sixth-man extraordinaire Danny Green has missed practice time due to influenza. Bobby Frasor was lost for the season after tearing his ACL against Nevada on Dec. 27.
“We’ve shortened our practices a little bit because we can’t go as long as I want to go or as intense as I want to go, because we don’t have the personnel to play against,” Williams said during his weekly press conference on Thursday afternoon. “Yesterday, we didn’t have enough bicycles. I put them on the end line and I’ve got half of my team going over [to them] thinking they’re Lance Armstrong, because the trainers say it’s easier for them to exercise on a bike.”
But Lawson’s injury, as well as the numerous bumps and bruises plaguing his teammates, has created a musical chairs-type reaction that has filtered down the Tar Heel bench. Quentin Thomas is the most notable reserve to see increased minutes at the point position, while Ginyard’s adjusted role as the senior’s backup has forced Green into more action on the wing, after serving as Williams’ third option in the post for much of the early part of the season.
As a result, sophomore post player Alex Stepheson, red-shirt freshman William Graves and even junior forward Michael Copeland have garnered more playing time, in addition to Thomas’ significant contributions.
‘Q’ is averaging 32.7 minutes over the past seven games – North Carolina (26-2, 11-2 ACC) is 6-1 over that stretch – after playing just 8.8 minutes per contest leading up to the Florida State victory in Tallahassee. During that same timeframe, Stepheson’s numbers are up from 13.1 mpg to 17.4 mpg and Graves' has increased from 3.7 mpg to 6.6 mpg. Even Copeland, who is better known for assisting Green in his pregame dance activities, has seen a marginal addition to his playing time (2.8 to 3.1).
But while the increased minutes may simply be out of necessity, there has been gradual improvement from those players. That quartet has scored 102 points during this seven-game stand – a number that took them 13 games to reach to start the season, even with numerous blowouts against inferior out of conference opponents.
Their recent contributions have been vital in keeping the Tar Heels in contention while the headliners work through their health concerns. Thomas is averaging 7.4 points and 6.6 assists since taking over for Lawson, and his 2:1 assist-error ratio is the best among all ACC point guards during that stretch.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever felt as good and had as warm, fuzzy feelings about something that’s going on with one of my players as I do with Quentin,” Williams said. “To deal with the injuries, the surgeries, the time that he missed that he didn’t have surgeries…
“To have those things happen to him and to turn around and be given the opportunity – even though it is by something that we don’t want with [Lawson’s] injury – to be able to step forward and be successful and do the things that he’s done is really a neat thing for a really nice young man.”
Stepheson tallied 11 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in the 92-53 blowout of Virginia Tech on Feb. 16, and contributed nine points, six rebounds and three blocks in Sunday’s 89-73 victory over Wake Forest. While his minutes have only recently jumped up, Williams indicated that the Los Angeles, Calif. native’s progression has been methodical dating back to the Ohio State game in late November.
“My confidence is definitely growing right now,” Stepheson said. “I’m definitely getting more playing time right now, and as the season goes along, I’m learning what Coach wants me to do a little bit more and what I’m capable of doing more, so I’m getting more confidence with that.”
Williams pointed toward the sophomore’s ability to defend farther from the basket as his biggest improvement defensively.
“He’s done a much better job out there,” Williams said. “He’s done a much better job of seeing the big picture and being aware of what’s going on. If they run a Hi-Lo post, and one of them sets the screen on the ball and then there’s a switch in those positions, he’s reading it much better, calling it out more…
“He’s still not where we want him to be, but he has the ability to block shots, and I think he’s started going for more of them now than he has in the past.”
Graves’ improvement has come in small increments, with solid performances (10 points vs. Virginia Tech on 4-of-5 shooting) right beside tough outings (no points with two turnovers and four fouls against Florida State).
“Will has had some up-and-down games,” Williams said. “At Virginia, he was horrible. He [came] back here and against Virginia Tech did some good things. I know he made two threes against Wake Forest, but defensively against Virginia Tech and running the floor – he’s had some really good moments…
“[The injuries] have given him a little more playing time, and he’s done some nice things with it. You look at his stats and they don’t look real good, because he really is a good shooter and the percentages don’t look real good, but I think he’s come a good bit the last three or four weeks.”
Even Copeland, in far fewer minutes, has had some solid outings, including posting a solid stat line against the Hokies – two points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
But while Thomas may be the only reserve to earn a mention on an ESPN telecast or even on the local sports talk radio shows, the bench’s production as a whole has been essential in keeping the Tar Heels’ collective head above water as they work through the various injuries that have settled on this squad. Regardless of where North Carolina will potentially play its Regional matchups in the NCAA Tournament, a tip of the hat to the reserves will be deserved for helping this program grind through February to secure a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in March.