Commentary

Life off the bench is a pride-swallowing pill that is not for everyone

Originally Published: January 23, 2008
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

Before this season began, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski privately explained to Jon Scheyer that losing his starting job had nothing to do with "not being good enough."

A few weeks into the schedule, the sophomore guard had to be reminded of that.

"I think coach could see it was maybe affecting the way I was playing a little bit, because I was just a little caught off guard and it was a different position for me," said Scheyer, who started 32 games as a freshman but has started none this season. "I was in a little bit of a slump in the preseason a bit. He pulled me aside and said, 'You're going to do this; you're a great player,' and he explained to me how he saw me helping our team.

[+] EnlargeJon Scheyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJon Scheyer has gone from freshman starter to sophomore sub, and his numbers haven't suffered.

"I took it from when coach talked to me. I really tried to build off that and take a new attitude toward it."

The pride-swallowing transformation from starter to sixth man is not only common in college basketball but necessary, especially on elite teams on which half the bench probably could start at other programs. But there are a select few who relish the role -- and play it better -- than others. They become the John Havliceks of their teams and give starter-like contributions coming off the bench. They provide the depth that has allowed teams like Kansas, Duke and North Carolina to stay so comfy at the top of the national rankings.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams described the best sixth man as "a guy who can come in the game and give you something positive -- immediately."

Said Williams: "There's got to be a niche they can have that when they come in the game, where you know some part of your game is going to get better."

Scheyer currently is averaging 28.2 minutes and 11.4 points -- roughly five minutes less than and a smidge under his scoring average from last season, when he started all but one game. And he still is helping the Blue Devils win.

Scheyer took his "new attitude" into Tallahassee on Jan. 16, when he popped off the bench, scored 21 points in 32 minutes and was 9-of-13 from the field against Florida State.

"It was hard to get adjusted to in the beginning," he said, "but I took it as a new challenge, and it's been a good thing for our team and for myself."

Scheyer isn't the only former starter who has taken some time adapting to bench life.

Some reserves -- like UCLA standout Russell Westbrook -- actually wind up playing more minutes than when they were in the starting lineup. Westbook was relegated to the bench to help out with depth after reserve Mike Roll was injured.

"I'm always in the game," said Westbrook, who is averaging 32.1 minutes and 11.6 points. "It works for me, especially if we're still winning."

Sherron Collins (4)
AP Photo/Jack DempseyKansas' Sherron Collins would be a starter on most teams.

Kansas is one of the deepest teams in the country -- eight players are averaging at least 15 minutes each -- which is why the Jayhawks also have been one of the most successful.

"We've got so much depth and so many players that can be starters," said Sherron Collins, who is playing 22.6 minutes off the bench. "We have eight starters, that's what coach Self says. … Everyone has a key role, and as long as those roles are filled, it really doesn't matter to me."

So how do these coaches get players, who have known nothing but starting roles their whole lives, to buy into being bench players? Well, winning certainly helps.

"We try to sell the idea of our team," Williams said. "We try to sell the idea of having a chance to win a national championship, of being the best team, and we try to recruit kids that enjoy winning. And when we get them, we try to show them how they can be extremely important, and it may not be by starting. Just because a guy doesn't start doesn't mean he's not extremely important to your team. We do try to show him, tell him, make sure he understands it and still give him the time to be important in the games."

North Carolina junior Danny Green, a small forward who contributes 12.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, apparently has gotten the message.

"It's a big-time school, a big-time team," Green said. "Not everybody is going to be the man here. They were in high school, but they have to just swallow some of that pride and sit back and take their roles."

Here's a look at some of the nation's top sixth men:

Johnnie Bryant, Utah, Sr., G -- After starting the past two seasons, Bryant has moved into a sixth-man role this season in first-year head coach Jim Boylen's offense. He is the only non-starter ranked among the Mountain West's top 15 scorers, averaging 12.6 points while playing 23.6 minutes each contest.

LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor, Fr., G -- Despite still wearing a knee brace from an injury in the loss to Washington State, Dunn is an exceptional shooter who ranks ninth nationally in 3-point percentage (48.2 percent). He provides instant offense and can easily go on a hot streak. Dunn is second on the team in scoring with 12.3 points per game and averages 20.4 minutes. He hasn't started one game.

Patrick Ewing, Georgetown, Sr., F -- This guy is Mr. Do-Whatever-You-Need, and John Thompson III loves it. Ewing started just long enough for Austin Freeman to adjust to the next level and earn the spot. While Freeman might provide more of an offensive spark, Ewing contributes offense, has the athleticism to defend both guards and centers, and brings leadership and energy off the bench. He's averaging 6.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in 21.1 minutes, but his intangible qualities are equally as important.

Robert Jarvis, Oral Roberts, Jr., G -- The coaching staff wanted to send Jarvis a message, and benching him couldn't have worked out better -- for everyone. Oral Roberts is 11-3 since Jarvis, the highest-scoring sixth man in the country, moved out of the starting lineup. He still is playing an average of 29.8 minutes and shooting 44.8 percent from 3-point range. He leads the team with 16.2 points per game. He has incredible range (25-30 feet), and he has taken more shots than anybody on the team. While Jarvis does have some point guard tendencies, he has done what the team has asked of him -- score.

Willie Kemp, Memphis, So., G -- Kemp, who started last season, has been a steady performer off the bench and grown into a more consistent 3-point shooter. He also has had 34 assists and just seven turnovers -- an incredible 4.9 assists-to-turnovers ratio with an average of 0.02 turnovers per minute. He is averaging 6.5 points in 16.6 minutes.

Kalin Lucas, Michigan State, Fr., G -- A speedy point guard who can score from long range or work his way inside, Lucas is averaging 9.6 points and 4.1 assists in 24 minutes. His career-high 18 points were critical in leading the Spartans to a 78-72 win over previously undefeated Texas.

Terrence Oglesby, Clemson, Fr., G -- This freshman has made an immediate impact. He is third on the team in scoring with 11.7 points per game in 18.3 minutes. Oglesby also has three 20-point games, the most by an ACC reserve this season. Oglesby would be averaging 25.3 points per game if he were playing 40 minutes. He also is hitting 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers.

Ramar Smith, Tennessee, So., G -- Smith, a strong point guard who can penetrate or get to the rim and finish, is just starting to hit his stride; he had 15 assists in the past two games. He is playing 19.9 minutes per game and averaging nine points. Smith is second on the team with 56 assists -- just one shy of starter and team-leader Tyler Smith.

Darian Townes, Arkansas, Sr., F -- Townes has brought a boost to the Razorbacks' frontline, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He also is making 58.3 percent of his field goals and plays an average of 21.9 minutes.

Heather Dinich is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.