A Tar Heel scare: Henson hurt in a game that doesn’t matter

North Carolina's John Henson, picture here pre-collision. (AJC photo by Johnny Crawford)

North Carolina's John Henson, picture here pre-collision. (AJC photo by Johnny Crawford)

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

21 comments Add your comment

ClemsonBrad

March 9th, 2012
6:53 pm

FIRST FOR CLEMSON!….CBI BOUND!

Sonny Clusters

March 9th, 2012
7:14 pm

It could have been a thigh. At least it was not a thigh.

Mark Bradley

March 9th, 2012
7:58 pm

Kudos, ClemsonBrad.

kreedham

March 9th, 2012
8:57 pm

Watch NC State-VA and they both looked pretty awful. He can skip Saturday and they’ll still beat NC State by 15-20. So they play Duke Sunday…sit em out. It’s next week that counts!

phil

March 9th, 2012
9:30 pm

Cut Henson…

Whiner

Robards

March 9th, 2012
10:26 pm

Mark, I don’t think you can assume Cincinnati would have won the title in 2000. Huggie Bear is well- known for his early exits, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Like most Cincy teams, the 2000 edition was not a great offensive team. Also, UNC is hardly guaranteed a #1 seed. If the Heels exit tomorrow or lose to Duke on Sunday, the Devils would have the better overall profile (even though we agree UNC is the better team). Good points though, and sometimes it’s better to be a 2-seed in the right region anyway.

Paul in NH

March 9th, 2012
11:17 pm

Ole Roy has as many NC’s as ACC Tourney titles – he’ll rest Henson for the rest of the week to get ready for the Big Dance. K on the other hand wants to win every game and he is likely itching for revenge for last week’s embarrassment in Cameron. Duke wins the ACC – and UNC gets a #1 seed from the NCAA “for their body of work with a full strength team”.
No matter the seeding, both UNC and Duke will be playing in Greensboro, NC next Friday – with CBS scheduling Duke for the 9PM game.

ghost of montrose

March 10th, 2012
1:31 am

We look good..but dont quite have enough to win the Big one!

Dean

March 10th, 2012
7:11 am

C’mon NC State! Otherwise anybody but the tarheels!

Kevin

March 10th, 2012
9:04 am

Go Bonnies! Andrew Nicholson All American!

Old School

March 10th, 2012
9:37 am

Good news for Heels’ fans, Charlotte Observer is reporting Henson’s wrist is not broken.

ormewood

March 10th, 2012
9:50 am

Mark, Henson is right-handed, but he prefers to finish offensive moves with his left hand, and blocks most of his shots with his left. I guess to paraphrase NC State’s Charles Shackleford years ago, ‘he’s amphibious.’

Moultrieboy

March 10th, 2012
9:57 am

And yet the freshman-freshman!- to replace Henson did better than Henson. Not to worry Carolina will still win it all

GT

March 10th, 2012
10:22 am

There is something about losing while Duke people are sitting around watching that can’t be underestimated. This tournament to Atlanta and even Tech is a sideshow, but to the teams that have been there from the beginning back in 1952 it is a religion. Many of these people work and play in the same sandbox but go to different schools. You may never get a chance at the National Championship in the future but you got a clean shot at taking something away from Duke. For Kentucky the big dance is all there is, there can barely fill the joint up for the SEC tournament you can buy tickets game day at the door. When they play this thing in Greensboro and UNC and Duke are in the hunt there is a crowd that rivals the NCAA finals. Not saying the logic of saving the best for the big show is wrong, but I never feel cheated watching an ACC tournament, a rarity in this town of mail it in sports.

George P Burdell

March 10th, 2012
10:40 am

“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.”
Silly statement, Mr. Bradley.
A team of championship caliber is only found by playing games.
It is not found by the “brilliant” analysis of newspaper sports opinion writers.
By Mr. Bradley’s logic, there should be no need to play any regular season or conference championship games.
Just have analysts decide which teams have “championship caliber” and put them into a tournament.
Why waste time with non-tournament games since Mr. Bradley obviously knows who is championship caliber and who isn’t.

GT

March 10th, 2012
10:45 am

George P Burdell you write better than me but we both agree on the points you made.

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution [...]

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution [...]

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution [...]

Delbert D.

March 10th, 2012
4:01 pm

College basketball is hard for me to get interested in. It used to be a great sport, but one-and-done has ruined it for me. The next guy will be Nerlens Noel from the Boston area. He will be eligible for the 2013 NBA draft, and of course he will make a brief stop at some university, UNC, UConn, Kentucky, Syracuse, et al. Here is a salient quote from an article at NYTimes.com:

“I feel like the kid is a piece of meat right now, and he’s going to be used,” said George Wright-Easy, one of the numerous adults who have mentored Noel over the years. “Grown men are fighting over a kid.”

Old School

March 10th, 2012
4:06 pm

Why the heck did Gottfried leave Leslie in the game with 4 fouls and over 8 minutes remaining?