Tyler Hansbrough ruined Halloween for me in 2008.
Yeah, you read that right. The ACC’s all-time leading scorer, not to mention my favorite Tar Heel off all time, and I were on the outs that day. The issue? The day before Halloween, North Carolina reported that Hansbrough would be out indefinitely with a shin injury. Tyler Hansbrough, the reigning National Player of the Year, was going to miss part of his senior year. UNC was ranked preseason number one and could not afford to have their leader miss much time. I was terrified that this injury would derail a potentially historic season. Thankfully, Hansbrough ended up missing only four games and the Tar Heels went on to have a dominant national championship season.
Here we find ourselves again, on the opening day of the 2017-18 college basketball season, with an injured Tar Heel starter at the beginning of the season. This is the third year in a row the North Carolina Tar Heels will take the court without one of their projected starters. And this is not just any run-of-the-mill starter. This is reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player and ESPN Preseason First Team All-American Joel Berry.
On Oct. 23, UNC announced that Berry had broken his hand and would be out around four weeks.
Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand https://t.co/uf4VkSlkCR #GoHeels pic.twitter.com/tIHqpj2iWG
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) October 23, 2017
The news of Berry’s broken hand was a tough pill to swallow, particularly given the events leading to said broken hand . But while the news was devastating, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and other demoralizing feelings, this writer has chosen to see the silver lining (just like Bradley Cooper).
“Wait, what?! Silver lining? The Tar Heels best player is hurt and will potentially miss a good chunk of the non-conference schedule. There is no silver lining in that reality.”
Easy there, tiger. Hang on. Stay with me here.
Let’s go back to the 2015-16 season.
Just a few days after Halloween in 2015, preseason number one UNC announced that Marcus Paige had broken a bone in his non-shooting hand and would be out three to four weeks.
Paige ended up missing the first six games of the season before returning to score 20 points against number two Maryland in the Big 10 / ACC Challenge. A big difference in the aforementioned 2008-09 season and the 2015-16 season was the exclamation point on the end of the season. The 2015-16 Tar Heels fell just short of college basketball’s ultimate prize.
But finishing second place out of 351 teams is no small feat. Second place is a big deal.
Let’s move ahead one season, to 2016-17. Continuing the trend of injured Tar Heel starters into a second year, Theo Pinson started the 2016-17 season with a foot injury, which caused him to miss the first 16 games.
Although not as destructive as losing a starting point guard, Pinson was arguably the team’s best facilitator as well as the Danny-Green-like stat stuffer. Once again, everything turned out well in the end. Pinson returned and the Heels went on to win the 2017 National Championship.
2008-09 – Start the season without Tyler Hansbrough. Finish the season as National Champions.
2015-16 – Start the season without Marcus Paige. Finish the season as the National Runners-Up.
2016-17 – Start the season without Theo Pinson. Finish the season as National Champions.
How exactly did the Tar Heels get to the point of having these deep March runs in years where a starter began the year on the bench?
Great question. Glad you asked. Let me take you back to Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.
I vividly remember sitting in Kansas City’s Sprint Center during the championship game of the Hall of Fame Classic; the final game before Paige returned to action. I sat just a couple rows behind the North Carolina bench. As the Tar Heels labored without the leadership of Paige, fans began to chant, “We want Marcus! We want Marcus! We want Marcus!” full well knowing that he was not going to play. These fans did not understand a significant team dynamic:
UNC had relied too heavily on “Second-half-Marcus” to bail them out throughout his career. The Tar Heels needed someone other than their injured star to step up. And that is exactly what happened that night in Kansas City.
Down 67-59 to Kansas State with 4:13 to play, UNC finished the game on a 21-3 run to win the championship 80-70. Starters from the next years’ 2017 National Championship team scored 17 of those final 21 points.
Paige’s early season injury forced a new crop of Tar Heels to step into the spotlight and take ownership of the team.
So maybe, just maybe, Joel Berry’s injury is not that devastating after all. So who will be next to step up?
Perhaps this is an opportunity for Seventh Woods to find a steady hand running the offense. Perhaps Luke Maye becomes an even more vocal leader and consistent contributor. Perhaps Theo Pinson finds the space to put all his athleticism together, stays healthy, and delivers one of the most stat-stuffing seasons in Tar Heel history. Perhaps one of the freshman big men will rise to the top, like a certain freshman big man from Poplar Bluff, Missouri did the year after the 2005 Championship.
Will there be some rough moments? Absolutely.
Will the team look lost sometimes without Berry’s on-court leadership? You better believe it.
Will you wail and moan when the Heels go small and give up some offensive rebounds? Coach Williams will beat you to it.
There will undoubtedly be maddening moments while we wait for “the return”.
But in the meantime, the rest of the Tar Heels will get some valuable opportunities learning to play without the heart and soul of the team. How will this pay dividends come March? How will this pay off in the 2018-19 season?
We will just have to wait and see.