GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — John Henson says he’s improving from a wrist injury and sounds eager to return to for North Carolina’s NCAA tournament opener.
Coach Roy Williams isn’t quite so sure whether the two-time Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year is ready to snatch rebounds in traffic or swat shots to start the fast break.
“He has to feel comfortable that he can play and then I have to decide whether his play will be effective,” Williams said Thursday. “And I am being extremely honest, I do not know.”
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Even if Henson plays, the top-seeded Tar Heels (29-5) head into Friday’s game against 16th-seeded Vermont in the Midwest Regional knowing they must keep asking for more from a bench already stretched thin by injury.
Two regular-rotation players from last year are out for the season with knee injuries. Now Henson is recovering from a sprained left wrist suffered in a fall during last week’s ACC tournament.
The 6-foot-10 forward missed the last two games, but went through about 70 percent of the team’s practice Thursday morning in Chapel Hill. Henson participated in a light workout with his teammates at the Greensboro Coliseum in the afternoon, though not before trainer Chris Hirth wrapped the wrist and included a protective pad.
Henson said he has lingering soreness but has improved range of motion.
“I think I can be pretty effective,” Henson said. “I do have my right hand. I don’t use it as much as my left, but I’m going to get some good rest tonight and get some good treatment.”
Henson averages about 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks to protect the rim, erase defensive mistakes by teammates and alter countless other shots.
He shot around and took part in the team’s dunk line to thrill the home-state fans wearing light blue in the stands. But several times, he caught passes only with his right hand and dunked with that hand instead of using both or his left.
“He felt like that, if the game were to be played today, he felt like he could play,” Williams said. “I’m not convinced.”
North Carolina’s depth behind five returning starters should have been a strength with the return of top outside shooter Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock back from a knee injury. That meant freshmen James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston were set for smaller roles down the depth chart.
But McDonald tore his right anterior cruciate ligament during a summer-league game, then Strickland tore his right ACL in January. That forced Bullock into the starting lineup and upping the pressure on their already-struggling freshmen as the first players off the bench.
Still, both McAdoo and Hairston have shown progress recently.
McAdoo, a 6-9 forward, played a season-high 29 minutes in the quarterfinal win against Maryland after Henson’s injury, matching his season-high with 14 points to go with eight rebounds. It was his first double-digit scoring performance since December.
The next day, he had nine points in 27 minutes in the semifinals and had eight rebounds in 28 minutes in the championship loss to Florida State.
While McAdoo’s minutes are up due to Henson’s injury, Hairston finally broke out of a prolonged slump with 13 points and three 3-pointers against FSU for his first double-figure scoring game since New Year’s Day.
The 6-5 guard had shot just 22 percent (15 for 69) from the field and 16 percent (8 for 50) from 3-point range in ACC regular-season games, shocking for someone who entered college known for outside shooting. Meanwhile, reserve guard Justin Watts is playing everything from point guard to power forward these days.
“When John got hurt … we just knew he didn’t want to injure it any more than it already was,” Hairston said. “So in the ACC tournament, coach told us he needed us to become big-time players and do things to help off the bench.”
Vermont’s expected starting front line measures 6-8, 6-7 and 6-6, a significant disadvantage against Zeller and Henson if he plays. The Catamounts have a little more size on the bench, but none of those players average more than five points or 14 minutes per game.
The Catamounts (24-11) earned their trip to Greensboro with a 71-59 win against Lamar in Wednesday’s First Four games. They have held their last nine opponents to about 54 points per outing and have just one opponent to reach 80 all year. North Carolina will test that defense as one of the nation’s top-scoring teams averaging 82 per game.