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How deep does a team need to be?

The end of the bench has been generating a lot of talk recently, but is it really that important?

Villanova v Xavier
The 10th man on Xavier’s last tournament team
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

First off, credit where it is due. Dan Platt (@bubbacody) got me thinking about this subject with his tweet regarding playing time.

The question, simply put, is this: does Xavier need to make sure the rotation goes more than nine deep? The rotation so far is Paul Scruggs, Nate Johnson, Adam Kunkel, and Dwon Odom holding down the guard spots. Colby Jones and Jerome Hunter playing as swing forwards. Zach Freemantle, Dieonte Miles, and Jack Nunge manning the post. That leaves the guys that bubbacody mentioned, Kyky Tandy, Ben Stanley, and Cesare Edwards looking for time and a chance.

A nine man rotation is deep. Xavier’s last tournament team was nine deep and was likely the best team the program has ever had. The Elite 8 run that featured a gleeful Malcolm Bernard also featured a team that was nine deep. The two seed team? Nine deep with just a splash of Sean O’Mara for flavoring. So Chris Mack clearly preferred to go eight or nine and no deeper with his main rotation.

Farther back in Xavier history Sean Miller’s Elite 8 had a seven man rotation that Dante Jackson occasionally flirted with making. The next year Miller went with a solid nine man rotation that saw almost no one else even step on the floor. Thad Matta’s Elight 8 team was also eight deep with Will Caudle appearing in about two thirds of the games for a brief cameo. In short, Xavier’s best teams, and most programs best teams, only have eight or nine man rotations. Even Travis Steele’s best team, the one that had the season end abruptly because of Covid, went eight deep with Dah Bishop and Dontarius James appearing in fits and spurts.

But what about those moments that seem to call for another guy? It turns out those don’t come around very often, and when they do it’s rarely for a star turn. The reason teams tighten the rotation later in the season is that the talent at the end of the bench is either not a good fit or simply isn’t quite up to the level required.

The 10th guy for Sean Miller’s final team was Brian Walsh. He played in nine of 35 games and averaged 3.8 minutes in those appearances. Go back a year and it was Charles Bronson. Bronson appeared in 16 games for 4.3 minutes and played exactly one minute in a game where the score difference wasn’t 16 or more. For a more recent example of a tenth man there is Elias Harden. Harden appeared in 18 of Xavier’s #1 seed team’s 35 games and averaged 5.6 minutes in those appearances. He racked up 53 of the 101 minutes he played in Xavier’s first four games, where he appeared three times in games in which the team scored over 95 and won by more than 30. Harden is ultimately one of the most used 10th men Xavier has had on a good team.

So what does all of that tell us? Basically that the usage of the end of the bench this season is right about on par for a good team. Good teams don’t generally get too deep because keeping rotations tight and the main players active. Teams in which the bench gets long are not generally the most successful ones. Good teams play their good players (alot) and let the rest of the scattered minutes fall where they may. If Xavier ends up needing the guys at the end of the bench this season, something has gone very wrong.