North Carolina’s starting five last season earned the moniker of the ‘Iron Five.’ It fit, not only because of the toughness the five starters showed through the end of the regular season and into NCAA Tournament, but it highlighted just how much first-year head coach leaned on the lineup of R.J. Davis, Caleb Love, Leaky Black, Brady Manekand Armando Baccot.
In 2021-22, Love averaged 34.1 minutes, Davis averaged 34.0 minutes, Bacot 31.7 minutes, Manek 30.4 minutes and Black 29.7 minutes. And those numbers were even higher in the postseason.
Davis’ trust in his five starters paid off. Come tournament time the team was peaking with a chemistry built over the closing months and an incredible level of endurance.
Still, despite the success of the ‘Iron Five,’ Davis would love to extend the rotation in future seasons. What happened in 2021-22 was out of necessity. Davis said it was hard to take guys like Davis, Love, and Bacot out of the game.
“I don’t like playing five,” Davis said during his summer press conference last Wednesday. “When we played Kansas, it was the first time all year that I thought they were tired. We were in the huddle in the second half, and RJ was using a thumper on both calves. I felt like they were tired. They gave this team everything that they had. I don’t want to play five; I want to have a bigger rotation.”
Davis only played one reserve more than two minutes in that national title game.
Entering 2022-23, there remain questions of how much Davis will truly expand his rotation, especially considering the experienced talented he has returned. While Brady Manek is gone, the play of key reserves Puff Johnson and Dontrez Styles during UNC’s Final Four run makes them likely candidates for more playing time. UNC also has added transfer big man pete nance from Northwestern and freshman point guard Seth Trimble.
As Davis has always made clear, Playing time will be decided by what happens in practice
“I’m not going into the season saying I want to play 10 or I want an eight-man rotation — they determine it,” Davis explained. “The five that I played a lot last year, especially towards the end of the year, determined it by their play in practice every day. It was confirmed by their play in the game.
“Right now, we have 12 (which became 13 with the addition of Nance) on the team. If all 12 practice really well and confirm the way that they played in practice in the games, I’ll play a rotation of 12. I don’t go pre-determined; the players determine what the rotation is and how much time they get.”
Iron sharpens iron. While four starting spots are established, the fifth spot and more importantly the depth behind the starters is still in question.
Johnson, Styles and Justin McKoy provided minutes for the Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament. With Manek and Love sidelined against Baylor, Styles and McKoy came in and helped UNC hold on, including a crucial three by Styles in overtime.
In the national championship game, Johnson scored 11 points in 18 minutes. He is a willing and active defender, rebounder and capable scorer. His toughness of him endeared himself to fans and teammates. Johnson’s play vs. Kansas on the final Monday of the season provided a glimpse into what he can bring to UNC next season, whether as a key role player or depth piece.
“I said all last year that they were really talented, and that I felt like the type of players that they are, they could really help out our team out there on the floor,” Davis said. “And throughout the season both Puff and Dontrez continued to get more playing time because they just continued to get better. That’s what I want for them — that they’ve got to take the next step. Dontrez is not a freshman anymore, Puff has been healthy. And I want them to build on the things that they did well last year, so it can put them in position to have a bigger role next year.
There’s also the incoming freshmen and unproven talents of Trimble, will shaver, Jalen Washingtonand Tyler Nickel.
Entering 2022-23, Davis has more experience on his roster and the players now know what to expect. The pieces are there for an expanded rotation and more depth, but as he has made clear, that will only be the case if the players allow it.
“I’m going to give everyone an opportunity 100 percent,” Davis added. “Every day of practice, you have an opportunity to play, plain and simple, period, the end. But the players will determine the rotation. When we get into practice, whatever the rotation is, that’s what has been determined by the guys out there on the floor.”