It really hasn't happened as much as we think though in writing this post, I have five different seasons in mind where there was an injury that needed to be addressed. The first two came prior to the internet and social media creating a 24 hour news cycle and turning everyone into de facto reporters. When a player was injured before Twitter, information was more tightly controlled. Now? We have tweets about seeing a player on campus. Did he have a brace? Crutches? Holy crap, his ENTIRE RIGHT LEG WAS MISSING!!!!!!
Anyway, there is a brief run down of the five significant injuries heading into or during the NCAA Tournament.
1993 - Derrick Phelps' tailbone contusion
This actually impacted the ACC Tournament more than the NCAA Tournament. UNC point guard Derrick Phelps took a hard fall in an ACC Semifinal win over Virginia in the 1993 ACC Tournament in Charlotte. Phelps was deemed to have suffered a bruise on his posterior region which was more painful than anything else. Phelps sat out the ACC title game against Georgia Tech which the Tar Heels lost. Obviously Phelps was an important player and going into the NCAA Tournament without him would be a very bad idea.
Phelps ended up not missing another game. He played in the First Round as UNC beat East Carolina 85-65 and never showed any signs of the injury being an issue. By the time UNC reached the East Regional Final Phelps had no problem locking Cincinnati's Nick Van Exel down in the second half on the way to a Tar Heel win in overtime.
The only disappointment regarding Phelps' injury is it didn't happen in the age of social media when we would have most certainly have dubbed it "Butt Watch"
1995 - Rasheed Wallace's sprained ankle
This was another ACC Tournament injury that raised questions going into the Big Dance. UNC center Rasheed Wallace sprained his ankle late in the second half of the ACC Championship loss to Wake Forest. The Tar Heels ended up playing the final eight minutes of regulation and the full overtime period without its star sophomore. In a nip and tuck game where Randolph Childress was setting fire to the ACC Tournament record book, Wallace's absence was an issue.
Wallace did not miss any NCAA Tournament games but it also could be argued he was never completely healthy either though the Tar Heels did manage to reach the Final Four before losing to Arkansas.
2009 - Ty Lawson's toe
By way of background, during UNC's Super Bowl Sunday overtime win over Florida State in 2008, Lawson suffered a high ankle sprain when he was taken to the ground by a Seminole player and his leg twisted awkwardly in the process. Lawson would miss the next six games creating an ongoing drama of Roy Williams being asked incessantly about it. There was also conjecture that Lawson was being "soft" and could have returned sooner but didn't deal with the discomfort very well. Lawson returned versus Boston College on March 1st and played the rest of the season but not quite at 100% as UNC lost to Kansas in the Final Four.
Fast forward a year and Lawson jams his toe against the basket support during the Friday practice prior to the regular season finale versus Duke which was also Senior Day for Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green and Bobby Frasor. Lawson's status was questionable for the game which would determine the ACC Regular Season Champion. The junior point guard and eventual ACC Player of the Year ended up playing but after receiving a pain killing injection in the toe and using a specially fitted shoe. Lawson had 13 points and nine assists as the Tar Heels beat Duke 79-71.
The problem for Lawson was playing in the game with the painkiller exacerbated the toe injury and the advice Lawson got from his father to soak it in hot water and Epsom salt didn't help either. Thus began Toe Watch which became an almost hour by hour wait for something new on Lawson's toe. Roy Williams opted to keep Lawson out of the ACC Tournament with UNC losing in the semifinals to Florida State. Lawson also didn't play in the NCAA First Round game against Radford.
During this period, the drumbeat for information on Lawson's toe was constant since UNC wasn't winning an NCAA title without him somewhere close to peak form. The attention on his toe reached full absurdity when Jeff Goodman of then Fox Sports wrote an article based on "sources" that characterized Lawson as lacking toughness. This despite Lawson playing on the toe using painkillers so UNC could beat Duke and win the ACC regular season. The problem was the slow return from the 2008 ankle injury got Lawson labeled as being a bit soft and that carried over when addressing this injury.
Lawson returned versus LSU in the Second Round and with the Tar Heels struggling, Lawson went down in pain after landing awkwardly on the foot. After a short trip to the bench, Lawson returned to the game, ended up with 25 points and pushed the Tar Heels to the Sweet Sixteen and eventually the national title.
2012 - John Henson and Kendall Marshall's wrists
As much as Toe Watch seemingly consumed every ounce of our attention, John Henson then Kendall Marshall's wrist injuries was like Galactus snacking the entire local college basketball planet. Why? The 2012 season had something he 2009 didn't: Twitter. It was via Twitter the stories were essentially broken thanks to the work of Jonathan Jones(@jjones9) who now works as a Charlotte Panthers beat writer for the Charlotte Observer was the sports editor at the Daily Tar Heel and first noticed something was wrong with Kendall Marshall.
The Henson injury occurred in Atlanta(natch) during the ACC Quarterfinals. Henson took an awkward fall and landed on his wrist in UNC's win over Maryland. Henson wouldn't play the rest of the weekend as the Tar Heels fell to FSU in the ACC Championship. Henson would also miss UNC's opening game of the NCAA Tournament against Vermont, one the #1 seeded Heels won with ease. Despite concerns over the wrist, Henson played versus Creighton in the next round(full game here.)
In a sign of things to come, Creighton's Grant Gibbs fouled Henson across his injured wrist early in the first half and the game tied at 11. Henson took exception to this and for his troubles got a technical. If Gibbs intention was to get under UNC's skin it worked but not the way he envisioned. UNC went on a 9-1 run to effectively seize control of the game. Creighton managed to hang around but never closer than two possessions. Early in the second half, Henson scored with his injured wrist and was fouled. He turned to the crowd on the baseline(full of UNC fans) and pumped his fist.
Crisis averted! Henson was healthy! UNC was rolling! Final Four here we come!
That lasted about five minutes of game time. With a little over 11 minutes left, Marshall drove to the basket and was knocked to the ground by Ethan Wragge.
Marshall popped right back up and showed no signs of an injury. However as he played the remainder of the game, he refused to use his right hand. He dribbled and passed solely using his left hand which Jonathan Jones astutely noted on Twitter. During the postgame handshake line, Marshall did not use his right hand at all. Within minutes of the game ending, UNC's national title hopes came crashing to earth. Marshall was diagnosed with a broken wrist and his status considered doubtful for the remainder of the tournament.
Media members working at the game say the atmosphere went from festive to funeral-like in an instant. Marshall was seen emerging from the locker room with tears in his eyes. It was devastating news. It also wasn't definitive. Because Marshall was left handed there was hope that he could perhaps play in the next round with a modified cast since it was his non-shooting hand. Marshall had immediate surgery on the wrist and then the wait began to see if he would play. It turns out Marshall couldn't go versus Ohio in the Sweet Sixteen, a game UNC escaped in overtime thanks to a huge game from Reggie Bullock. Serious consideration was given to Marshall playing against Kansas but apparently couldn't be effective with with right wrist in a cast. UNC lost to Kansas and a team everyone wanted to see play Kentucky in a rematch for the title, was out of the NCAA Tournament. It was later revealed Marshall had also fractured his elbow on the same fall that broke his wrist.
The few days leading up to the Sweet Sixteen were full of endless speculation on Twitter and message boards. As far as the stages of grief go, UNC fans got past the denial pretty quickly, put anger on hold and went right to bargaining. Hope and pessimism were found in equal parts across the internet and ultimately it was all just one big coping session. Marshall never played basketball in a Tar Heel uniform again and all the anger that was put on hold that week has been directed in the direction of Creighton ever since.
2015 - Kennedy Meeks' knee
If you've been under a rock since Saturday, you know Meeks had an Arkansas player roll up on his knee. Meeks crumpled to the ground in agony clutching the joint and everyone watching feared the worst. Meeks actually got up quickly and UNC has called it a sprain. Once again, UNC fans are in wait and see mode regarding a player's injury and whether he can play in the next round of the NCAA Tournament.
The latest episode of Tar Heel Postseason Injury Watch seems to be far more muted than when Lawson and Marshall were injured. I can only surmise that the level of anxiety crescendos in relation to the level of expectation. While UNC fans hope the Tar Heels can make a Final Four run and have a measure of confidence UNC can figure out something versus Wisconsin, reality is reality. The heart and even the head at some level give UNC a shot at winning but deep down inside, we know it might not be likely.
So while there is some trepidation regarding Meeks' knee injury, it isn't quite at the level it was for 2012 and 2009. In those cases, losing Marshall and Lawson conceivably took an NCAA title off the table. Losing Meeks may do that but let's be honest, UNC might not win one even if Meeks were completely healthy especially with Kentucky out there. The difference in expectations also leads to differences in how much anxiety is induced.
As was the case in years past, there will be waiting, speculation, attempting to interpret public sightings and parse statements from players and coaches alike. This is a product of an instant media age where everyone has a publicly voice opinion. The vacuum created by the absence of something definitive is now filled with what everyone thinks might happen or not happen. It's the new way fans cope whether it be hoping for the best or preparing for the worst, the latest Watch is really one big fan support group.