UNC's Tar Heels have a history of deep benches and using all their players in their drive to win NCAA men's basketball championships. This is the team that invented the second five. The team that can substitute players as interchangeable commodities rather than key ingredients to a championship run. The team that had removed its starting five for several minutes during a debacle at Georgia Tech, only to right itself and beat Duke and win the ACC regular season.
On the other hand, the Marquette teams coached by Al McGuire used the star system. The Marquette team who beat UNC in the 1977 NCAA finals had seven losses, at the time the record number of losses for any team to win the tournament. And it played basically the starting five plus one or two off of the bench. The reason surely included the fact that he had a short bench. But it also included a belief that you win with your starters, and especially your one star.
Some teams in the Big East perpetuated the system for some time. Most still have the standout star who is promoted as the key player on the team.
Another ingredient of winning teams, including those coached by Al McGuire, was "senior leadership." Few players got to play many minutes before the last few years.
Of course, the NBA draft has changed everything, as talented freshmen play increasing roles on more teams than ever in getting their teams to the Final Four. Many emerge as stars on teams with little or no depth. Yet none have done so with as few players as the most recent UNC Tar Heels team, which starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. No seniors at all. And it suits only 8 scholarship players.
Given the rich history of depth enjoyed by so many Carolina teams, the minutes the starting five are playing in the tournament are even more compelling. Against the Washington Huskies, a very close game, freshmen Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes logged 37 and 36 minutes respectively. Sophomore John Henson logged 36 minutes and Tyler Zeller, whose job in the middle arguably required the most physical effort, logged 33 minutes. Dexter Strickland was in the game for 29 minutes. The Heels played only eight players.
By contrast, the Washington Huskies played nine players with only Isaiah Thomas logging over 30 minutes.
The Marquette Golden Eagles played 10 players in their win over Syracuse. They had three players in the 30s, with their star Jimmy Butler logging 39.
There will be plenty of time for both teams to rest before this Friday's game between these two teams. Both teams seem in great shape. Yet, when the offense of Marquette takes hold it is the typical Big East bump-and-grind game as much as the shape the players are in that could tell the difference. If the Tar Heels tire early, Marquette could win.
One of the critical components of Marquette's game against Syracuse was the loss of Syracuse guard Brandon Triche for most of the second half. You can make a lot of excuses for a loss. But the loss of a player logging almost 30 minutes a game and scoring in double figures for the season made this one particularly difficult.
The Washington Huskies matched up fairly well against the Tar Heels. The matchups up front for Marquette will not be as good. The Golden Eagles do have a near-seven-footer to deal with Zeller, but they have no one for Henson or for Barnes.
Thus, to win, Marquette will have to rely more on its three-point field goals than Washington. If its hit them, it will be a close game. And it has done this in the past. This is a team that can get hot.
In the end, however, this game goes to UNC, whatever the score. Perhaps in a rout if Marquette cannot contain Harrison Barnes. Look for a more comfortable game for UNC and more rest at the end for most of the starters.