It won’t be possible for North Carolina to exhale until Joel Berry starts running up and down with his teammates at Thursday’s open practice, or maybe even when he takes the court Friday night against Butler.
Berry should be fine. He played in Sunday’s win over Arkansas on a balky right ankle, even if his shot was consistently short, suggesting a lack of explosiveness in the appendage, and said he felt worse as the game went on. And while he’s in a precautionary walking boot away from practice and not fully participating when he’s there, it’s safe to assume he’ll be somewhere near, if not at, full strength Friday.
Still, it’s hard to blame North Carolina for feeling a little shell-shocked to see its point guard limping around. This isn’t the first time that’s happened in March in recent years.
In 2009 it was Ty Lawson, who missed the end of the regular season and ACC tournament with an injured toe after taking some bad advice to soak it in an Epsom salt bath. It swelled up to the size of a tangerine. Lawson would return for the second game of the NCAA tournament, leave after hearing the toe pop – “I thought he was done,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said – then return to that game and proceed to lead North Carolina to a national championship in Detroit. Disaster averted.
In 2012 it was Kendall Marshall. Already missing Dexter Strickland, who was out for the season with a knee injury, Marshall was injured in North Carolina’s second-round win over Creighton after a hard foul by the Blue Jays’ Ethan Wragge. Marshall suffered a broken wrist, leaving point-guard duties by default to freshman reserve Stilman White, forever thereafter referred to as “poor Stilman” by Williams and still a member of this North Carolina team after taking a two-year Mormon mission.
White was able to hold things together in a Sweet 16 win over Ohio but was overmatched against Kansas, playing what was essentially a home game in St. Louis. Marshall tried to get cleared to play against Kansas, but was in too much pain; it wasn’t until later that doctors discovered another break, near his elbow.
His absence was disastrous, combined with Strickland’s injury. John Henson was banged up too, the big man at less than full effectiveness. That team, with six future first-round picks – Marshall, Henson, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston – was a legitimate national-title contender until it ran out of point guards.
And now Berry is sitting out of practice alongside Kennedy Meeks, who has some sort of undisclosed chronic knee injury. In Brooklyn, Meeks’ right leg bore the telltale circles of cupping, the tightness-relief method practiced most notably by Olympic swimmers. Berry too has tried that remedy.
Williams swore after 2012 he’d never run out of point guards again, and this team has four: Berry, Nate Britt, Seventh Woods and, improbably, White. Whether the latter three can make up for a potential Berry absence against Butler or, more worryingly, Kentucky or UCLA, is a great unknown – North Carolina struggled to beat Davidson and Tennessee in December when Berry was out with another ankle injury – but it’s not one North Carolina is likely to face.
If Berry could play last Sunday, odds are he’ll be able to play this Friday, and odds are even better he’ll be more effective with the time off. Expect North Carolina to be cautious, though. The Tar Heels have seen this before, too many times.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
UNC vs. Butler
NCAA tournament Sweet 16
When: 7:10 p.m., Friday
Where: FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tenn.