Not six minutes into the tournament Roy Williams hates, Ol’ Roy nearly was given a reason to consider forfeiting all future ACC tournament games from here to eternity. Not six minutes into Friday’s quarterfinal, North Carolina saw its best defender go the hoop, get bumped to the floor and rise holding his left wrist.
“It’s his dominant hand,” Williams would say later, “even though he’s right-handed.”
While puzzling over that one, you might also consider the plight, if that’s the word, of college basketball’s Big Boys this particular week. North Carolina, Kentucky, Syracuse and Kansas have separated themselves from the rabble. One of those teams almost certainly will win the NCAA title, and there wouldn’t seem a dime’s worth of difference among the four. Take John Henson out of the Tar Heels’ equation and there’d be a half-dollar’s worth of difference.
Henson is Carolina’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. He made first-team all-ACC and was the league’s defensive player of the year. For all the things Carolina does well — running, passing, scooting, scoring — it’s less good at defending. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: No Henson, no NCAA championship ring.
Initial impressions were scary for the pale-blue set. It looked as if Henson might have broken his dominant wrist. (Although Kendall Marshall, the Carolina point guard, was less worried. Said Marshall: “John can be a little dramatic at times.”)
Henson was taken to the locker room. He returned to the bench. He tried to grip a ball. He was re-inserted into the lineup. He played 40 seconds. He went back to the locker room and stayed there after halftime. Then he appeared, his wrist unwrapped. Then an ice pack was applied. What in the name of Yogi Poteet was going on?
Not much, as it happened. Afterward Williams would say: “They don’t think it’s a break.” Then, a bit later: “He could not grip the ball or catch it.” Then, asked by Bill Cole of the Winston-Salem Journal if he had a plan for deploying Henson in the days ahead, Williams said: “I’m just trying to figure out how to get this cough drop out [of a package], Billy.”
Henson would say he hoped to play in Saturday’s semi, but here we ask: Why? A team like Carolina, which is all but guaranteed a No. 1 seed, can’t do much of anything to enhance its NCAA profile at this late date, but it can surely hurt its chances by getting someone hurt.
It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen: A team of championship caliber is denied its championship not because of a missed free throw but a misstep. To wit:
• Iowa might have been the 1980 NCAA titlist had Ronnie Lester not hurt his knee after being bumped by Louisville’s Roger Burkman in a national semifinal. Something similar had befallen Providence’s Marvin Barnes in the Final Four in 1973.
• Either St. Bonaventure or South Carolina might have won it in 1970 but for injuries. The Bonnies’ Bob Lanier tore a knee ligament when he tripped over Villanova’s Chris Ford in the East Regional final; the Gamecocks’ John Roche sprained his ankle in the ACC semis and limped through an overtime loss to North Carolina State in the final — and back then only the conference champ got to dance.
• The greatest non-UCLA team ever — Indiana of 1974-75 — lost leading scorer Scott May to a broken wrist in late February. Those Hoosiers would suffer their only defeat in an epic Mideast final against Kentucky. May tried to play wearing a cast on his wrist and failed to score.
At least those worthies were lost in games that weren’t for show. Far worse would be to suffer the fate of Cincinnati in 2000. Those Bearcats would have won the NCAA title had Kenyon Martin, the nation’s best player, not broken his leg three minutes into their first game of the Conference USA tournament. A game against Saint Louis three days before Selection Sunday should have mattered little to Cincinnati, but it wound up meaning everything.
Turning serious, Marshall said of Henson’s wrist: “We’re hoping for the best, and we’re praying it’s not the worst.”
Happily for the Heels, it didn’t appear to be serious. But it might have been. And one can only imagine Ol’ Roy’s mood had he lost Henson in what the coach already considers a glorified exhibition. “I’ve said some things about the tournament, but that’s been overblown,” Williams said.
It wouldn’t have been overblown had X-rays turned out differently. All the cough drops in the world wouldn’t have soothed the seething Heel.
By Mark Bradley