ATLANTA — As if North Carolina hadn’t already been through enough injuries and adversity this season, the Tar Heels got hit with yet another dose Friday afternoon, and this could affect the team’s worthiness as a national championship contender.
UNC lost forward John Henson to a wrist injury early in its 85-69 victory over Maryland in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. The long-armed, 6-foot-11 junior and ACC Defensive Player of the Year crashed to the floor after a play at the rim and quickly left for UNC’s locker room. He made a brief appearance in the game several minutes later, but missed the rest of the game.
Losing Henson, who averages 14.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and three blocks per game, didn’t cost the Heels against the Terrapins. It helped that freshman forward James Michael McAdoo stepped up and finished with 14 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes of action.
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But the injury to Henson had the media tweeting about his situation more than the game on the floor because Henson is such a vital part of UNC’s national title hopes. It also had a healthy contingent of the media essentially saying, “This is why Roy (Williams) doesn’t like the tournament.”
The Hall of Fame coach has referred to the ACC Tournament as a “cocktail party” on a few occasions. The general belief is he would rather not play games he feels are meaningless, even though the ACC officially crowns its champion in the tournament.
But Williams saw nothing wrong with the play in which Henson was injured, and wasn’t going to get into his feelings about the tournament.
“I don’t think it was a bad play what happened to John. I think those kinds of things can happen in practice,” the coach said. “My opinions about the tournament I think have been overblown. The bottom line is we’re in a tournament we’re going to try our best to win.”
If UNC (28-4) is without Henson for an extended period of time, point guard Kendall Marshall doesn’t think the drop-off to the 6-foot-9 McAdoo is all that significant on offense.
“There’s a difference because they are different types of players,” Marshall said. “John is extremely long; he has something you just can’t teach. McAdoo, he’s able to face up and slash to the basket… I wouldn’t say there’s a big difference in we’re losing something, they’re just different players.”
Williams is confident in McAdoo, who has grown tremendously over the last month. Most notable has been an elevation in confidence, which has translated into greater production.
“We’ve had discussions about what you’re going through, which is what a lot of people go through about the differences between high school basketball and the ACC is a big difference,” Williams said. “Even when he was struggling, I kept putting him in the game until one day I told him, ‘I must think you’re pretty good because you’re not playing well but I keep putting you in. So why don’t you go ahead and play well.”
X-rays taken at halftime were negative, but Henson will be examined later and further evaluated. Henson said in the locker room the wrist “feels fine,” though it was swollen.
UNC is still good enough without Henson to win the ACC Tournament. The Tar Heels are excellent at the point with the record-setting Marshall, at center with ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller, and have a lottery pick in Harrison Barnes at the three spot.
Of course, losing Henson further shortens a UNC bench that already includes Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald in street clothes.
Strickland started the first 19 games at shooting guard before tearing his ACL in a win at Virginia Tech on Jan. 19. McDonald, the team’s best perimeter shooter a year ago, blew out his knee last summer and is redshirting.
Moving forward, however, UNC will have a much more difficult time navigating the depths of the NCAA Tournament without Henson. The Tar Heels likely would make it out of Greensboro, N.C., their probable destination for the first weekend. But after that it will be more a matter of matchups than it would with a healthy Henson.
With him, UNC might be the best team in the nation. Without him, the Heels are still very good, but likely won’t cut down the nets in New Orleans.