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More on the Kenny Smith Return in 1984

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I missed this on Tuesday but Adam Lucas addresses it in his mailbag column at Tar Heel Blue.


Responding to key injuries is kind of an open-ended question, but I thought this might be a good chance to look into the 1984 Kenny Smith injury, because it seems to have the most relevance to the current Ty Lawson situation.

Some background for those of you who don't remember: the 1984 Tar Heels were a juggernaut. They won their first 17 games by an average of 17.4 points per game. But in the 17th game, something happened--LSU's John Tudor committed a vicious breakaway foul on starting point guard Kenny Smith. Smith, a freshman, was the perfect pilot for a team that also included Brad Daugherty, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and Matt Doherty. Smith suffered a broken wrist because of the foul and missed the next eight games (counting the FSU game, Lawson has currently missed seven games).

The Tar Heels didn't exactly struggle without Smith; they still won seven of the eight games he missed, with the only blemish a one-point loss at Arkansas. Sophomore Steve Hale stepped into the starting point guard role and handed out 50 assists in Smith's absence (6.25 per game; Thomas has 46 over seven games, or 6.57 per game).

But when Kenny Smith returned in the penultimate regular season game against Georgia Tech--and Dean Smith has gone on record as saying he probably brought his point guard back too early--the Carolina offense slowed down. A team that had been averaging 80.8 points per game through the first 25 contests averaged just 77.2 points over the final six games, and that included a double-overtime contest against Duke (in regulation, Carolina averaged 73.3 points per game after Smith's return). That's a drop of almost 10 percent.

In those six games after Smith's return, the Tar Heels shot 50.4 percent from the field. Pretty good, right? Yes, except that this was a team that shot 54.3% from the field for the entire season. Meanwhile, opponents made 47.7% of their field goals after making just 45 percent for the entire season. Hale was less efficient after returning to a reserve role, and his 3.33 A:TO ratio in Smith's absence dipped to 1.72 after Smith's return.

What does it all mean? That it's not always easy to plug a player back into a team playing well. The Tar Heels got just two regular season games and two ACC Tournament games with Smith back in the rotation before jumping into NCAA play--and the field was smaller in those days, so the team didn't get a potentially easy first-round warmup opportunity. It's also worth noting that from Smith's return to the end of the 1984 season against Indiana was just 22 days. That's almost exactly the same amount of time between now and the end of the ACC Tournament, which means this year's squad will have much more time to blend Lawson.

Roy Williams mentioned something similar on his radio show Monday night, as he first pointed out that Smith was playing with a cast that was slowly being removed. The head coach then compared Lawson's absence to the Rashad McCants illness of 2005. As Tar Heel fans remember, McCants missed four games and then tried to return in the ACC Tournament, where Carolina did not play very well. But after they were able to practice with him for a full week before the NCAA Tournament, the old chemistry returned and the quality of play improved dramatically.

The disturbing aspect of this situation with Smith was how badly Steve Hale played when he returned to a reserve role which is something alluded to last week by J.P. Giglio at ACC Now as it relates to QT's play. The upside is Roy was there in 1984 and obviously there in 2005 with McCants so he is not inexperienced when it comes to working through the adjustment period to a injured player coming back.

And speaking of Kenny Smith, Inside Carolina as a nice sit down interview with the The Jet and check out this video of highlights from his UNC days:

I had forgotten what incredible speed and leaping ability Smith had and it also reminded me that I met Smith once at a basketball camp, at the time he was one of my favorite UNC players and still is.