GREENSBORO, N.C.—North Carolina should not need John Henson for Friday’s NCAA tournament game against Vermont, an undersized No. 16 seed that lost to Yale by 16 points.
But the 29-5 Tar Heels, top-seeded in the Midwest Regional, almost certainly will need the two-time ACC defensive player of the year if they’re to win another national championship.
“I was worried yesterday,” Henson said. “Today it improved gradually.”
He estimated the strength as 60 percent, well shy of the 80 percent he’d like to have before returning to the court.
“I got X-rays again,” Henson said. “I went to the specialist again. He checked it out as well. He said it’s just a sprain.”
After listening to Henson and coach Roy Williams, and watching Henson in the shootaround, I’d guess he misses his third consecutive game. Not to dismiss the 24-11 Catamounts, champions of the America East and winners of a Wednesday opening-round game over Lamar. But why risk Henson if there’s a decent chance the game is going to be lopsided?
Better to save him for a potential Sunday contest against the Creighton-Alabama survivor.
“We practiced this morning,” Williams said. “John did a little more than he did yesterday. We let him in some live situations. He did not shoot the ball left-handed a single time. He did not block any shots left-handed. So I'm extremely concerned about that part of it, because you guys that have seen his play, that's his dominant hand in a big, big way.
“He did block one shot, it was right-handed, and he took one jump hook right-handed and it fell about three miles short. But he felt like that if the game were to be played today, he felt like he could play. I'm not convinced. …
“He has to feel comfortable that he can play, and then I have to decide whether his play will be effective. And I am being extremely honest, I do not know. I talked to my staff after practice trying to see if I could get some input from them as to which way to be leaning and I am not leaning in any direction. So I really don't know.”
Freshman James Michael McAdoo from Norfolk replaced Henson in the starting lineup at the ACC tournament and likely would again Friday. McAdoo is capable offensively but doesn’t spproach Henson defensively.
Few do. The 6-foot-11 Henson leads the ACC in rebounding and blocked shots and alters far more shots than he blocks.
His absence was especially evident when Florida State defeated Carolina in the ACC tournament final, becoming the first team this season to shoot 50 percent or better (58.9) against the Tar Heels this season.
“We kind of took that personally. I know Coach did,” McAdoo said.
“We don’t ever want to say a whole loss is blamed on not having one person,” forward Harrison Barnes said, “but he is a big presence. Not just blocked shots, but shots altered, decisions by guys not to drive to the basket. You can’t replace that.”
As dubbed on Twitter, the Henson “wristwatch” is similar to the 2009 NCAA tournament, when point guard and ACC player of the year Ty Lawson’s toe injury was a plotline throughout Carolina’s run to the national championship. Lawson missed the Tar Heels’ opening NCAA game but returned in the second round against LSU, scoring 21 of his 23 points in a brilliant second half.
“Ty's was a little different,” Williams said. “Ty hurt it and then came back and played and was very successful, and then it ballooned up on him again. So it was almost like a recurrence, but he didn't get it hit again. It's just the swelling went up there.
“There is the difference of that and there's also the difference of that with Bobby (Frasor) particularly I knew that we would be very solid at the point guard spot. Bobby is not Ty, but Bobby had played that position before, and I had tremendous amount of confidence in him. We had so many weapons with Danny (Green) and Wayne (Ellington) and Tyler (Hansbrough). ..
“But I also know that Ty Lawson came in in the second game against LSU and if he had not played that game, I don't think we would have won that game. His second-half performance was about as good as any half I've ever seen a point guard play in any stage. So, yeah, there are some similarities, but it certainly had made me more comfortable in what I'm trying to decide right here.”
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