Joel Berry’s status remains uncertain for Kentucky

UNC junior point guard Joel Berry has missed the Tar Heels’ past two games while recovering from a sprained ankle.
UNC junior point guard Joel Berry has missed the Tar Heels’ past two games while recovering from a sprained ankle. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach, didn't have an answer on Thursday to the most popular question surrounding his team entering its game on Saturday against Kentucky in Las Vegas.

The question is this: Will Joel Berry, the junior point guard who has missed the Tar Heels' past two games while recovering from a sprained left ankle, play on Saturday? Williams said he felt neither optimistic or pessimistic.

“I haven't seen him,” Williams said of Berry. “I have no opinion.”

Williams on Thursday was getting ready to lead UNC's first practice of the week – a practice that was set to begin at 3 p.m. The No. 6 Tar Heels haven't practiced this week amid final exams at the end of the fall semester.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, though, players came in for 45-minute shooting and running sessions. Berry went through those, Williams said, and Berry was expected to practice on Thursday. Still, Williams said Berry would likely be limited during practice.

Berry endured his injury early in the second half of UNC's 95-50 victory against Radford on Dec. 4, and he hasn't played since. Without him, the Tar Heels survived sloppy performances during a nine-point victory against Davidson, and then a 73-71 victory against Tennessee on Sunday.

“Joel was averaging whatever, 17, 16 (points) or something like that,” Williams said, “shooting 50 percent and 45 percent – we haven't done that. So that's what we miss, plus defensively, even though I will say this, Nate (Britt) was big in the Tennessee game with those steals.”

Britt, a senior, has started UNC's past two games in Berry's absence. He has made only four of his 22 attempts from the field during that span, but his defense helped spark the Tar Heels' comeback victory against Tennessee. Seventh Woods, a freshman, has also played an expanded role.

Williams hopes that Britt and Woods – and Woods, in particular – gained confidence and valuable experience the past two games. Now the hope is that Berry is back for seventh-ranked Kentucky, which features one of the best back courts in the country, if not the best.

Justin Jackson, the junior forward, said he expects Berry to play on Saturday “just because of the type of competitor he is.” Berry wore a boot while he sat on the bench and watched his team's victory against Davidson on Dec. 7. By Sunday, the boot was off – a sign of progress, perhaps.

“I guess we'll see how he's doing,” Jackson said. “He seems like he's pretty upbeat about playing.”