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An In-Depth Look at the Importance of Basketball Depth

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Depth. Everyone likes to talk about depth. Some teams have it, and everyone else wishes they did. But is having depth really worth all the attention it's given, and if so, do the Cyclones have it?

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Much to the relief of Cyclone fans everywhere, basketball season is finally (almost) upon us.

This means over the next three weeks, you'll likely be reading anything and everything regarding the men's basketball team. So far, the consensus on the 2015-16 Cyclones is that while the team returns a boatload of talent and carries a top 10 preseason ranking into the season, a few problems still remain: namely a new coach in Steve Prohm and an apparent lack of depth.

Ahhhhhh, everyone's favorite basketball buzzword.

What is depth, exactly? Webster's Dictionary defines depth as "the distance from the top or surface of something to its bottom." When you translate that to athletics, it should refer to the strength of a roster from top to bottom. However, in a sport in which only five people get a chance to start, depth takes on an entirely different meaning.

Everyone has a different definition of depth. To some, having a deep roster means when the subs come in, the talent level doesn't drop a significant amount. To others, depth means having a guy or two who can come off the bench and provide instant offense. And yet another interpretation of depth is having enough bodies to spell tired players or bail out a player in foul trouble.

Regardless of the definition you believe in, depth is universally believed to be important, hell, even critical for success. Whether it's an ESPN analyst rattling on about how many guys Kentucky can play or a Hawkeye fan boasting about being able to go 11 deep,  a premium has been placed on the ability to swap out starters for substitutes.

Now, before we crown having solid bench players as a golden ticket to the Final Four, I have a few questions that need to be answered.

What is the most important contribution from a "deep bench?"

How often do you hear coaches talking about bringing a great rebounder or hustle guy off the bench? Not nearly as often as them praising a sixth man or bench player who provides instant offense. Do they show bench steals and assists during a game broadcast, or do they show bench scoring? And when you sub out a struggling starter, would you rather have his replacement "not hurt the team," or chip in points the starter couldn't?

Scoring is the key to having real, meaningful depth. Every team's bench should have enough players to change things up a little or keep a starter out of foul trouble. But a team that has a few guys in the "could-be starter" category who provide points off the bench? That's the kind of bench that keeps your team in games all year long. Want an example of that kind of player?

Try Tyrus McGee.

Aside from production, fans and analysts often place value in how many deep a team can go. Playing five or six guys off the bench is always a good thing, right? Not so fast. Is it beneficial to use 11 players when only five can start? Using more players means dividing up minutes that, more than likely, come from the starters. Many teams have tried this strategy in the past, only to be burnt by players not staying on the court long enough to get into a rhythm.

To sum it all up: less is more.

Does having depth directly translate to winning games or postseason success?

This is where our discussion of depth gets interesting. While it may seem that the ability to plug in guys off the bench should lead to more wins, that isn't always the case. To illustrate this, I looked back at every team of the Fred Hoiberg era, the 2000-01 and 2004-05 Cyclones (both of which made the NCAA Tournament) as well as the past four national champions.

Here's a few teams that stood out to me:

2012-13 Cyclones

This team, one of my personal favorites, ended the season a botched BLARGE call and an Aaron Craft (f*** Aaron Craft) three-pointer from a chance at the Final Four. This team got one of the best sixth man performance I can remember from Tyrus McGee. Apart from him, the 'Clones had a few serviceable forwards in Booker and Gibson (despite Percy playing with only one arm).

2014-15 Cyclones

Last year's team was a joy to watch and had a tremendous season, despite the bitter ending in March. This team only used three bench players throughout the season, yet got over 20 points per game from them,  along with some clutch performances when the team really needed it.

2000-01 Cyclones

Once again we find another successful Cyclone team, which won the Big 12 and was a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament that played without much depth in terms of numbers. The 'Clones went eight deep* that season and got 15 ppg from their bench. Two guys in particular, Tyray Pearson and Shane Power, provided major production in terms of scoring.

*Disregard Brandon Hawkins, who only played in 7 games

2013-2014 UConn Huskies

This team, which went on to win the National Championship, played five different bench players on their run to the 'ship. Yet those five only managed to contribute 15 ppg.

In summary, these stats show a few different things. Hoiberg's 2012-13 squad didn't have much depth but had a dynamic sixth man who could fill it up in Tyrus McGee. Last year's team used only three bench players but got major production from the combination of BDJ, Nader, and Thomas (not unlike the 2000-01 Cyclones). Finally, there was a UConn team that used great depth in terms of numbers, despite little scoring, en route to a National Championship.

From all of this (and more data I don't have the space to use), we can answer my final question...

Is having depth as significant as it's been made out to be?

Looking at Cyclone teams from years gone by, and many others others, it's pretty clear to see that playing 4-5 guys off the bench isn't required to have a successful season, nor does it necessarily translate to wins. In fact, it appears that teams benefited the most from utilizing one or two dynamic scorers off the bench. The points these players provide can help lift a team struggling to score or help pick up a starter who's in a funk.

The most important takeaway is that depth only tells half of the story. Teams who won despite little depth (like the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats, for example), had so much talent that their bench wasn't really a factor. While having depth can be important, it's only needed if the starting unit isn't getting the job done.This concept is what will define the Cyclones' "depth" for the upcoming season.

With tremendously talented starters like Georges Niang, Jameel McKay and Monte Morris and veteran role players like Naz Long and Abdel Nader, just how deep do the Cyclones need to go? Georges and Monte have also shown the ability to play a massive amount of minutes, so depth behind them may not be all that important. But that doesn't mean the Cyclones don't have options.

If the combination of Deonte Burton, Hallice Cooke and Matt Thomas contribute more than 16 ppg, which seems very possible, they will provide more bench scoring than all but one of Fred Hoiberg's teams. Throw in guys like Jordan Ashton, Simeon Carter and Brady Ernst stepping up to spell a starter in case of foul trouble? This team might have some depth after all...