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Could Theo Pinson's injury be a blessing in disguise for UNC basketball?

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Theo is sidelined for 8-12 weeks. What does this mean for UNC? The answers may be more intriguing than you think.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Syracuse vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be completely honest. Last season, Theo Pinson is not the player who made the play you need. He wasn’t the player you looked to when a big shot was necessary. He wasn’t the guy you expected to play lock down defense on the opposition's best perimeter player (even though he can). Opposing teams weren’t scared of his athleticism or his ability to hit the boards. There was nothing spectacular about his game. Heck, he wasn’t even on the floor at the end of the National Championship against Villanova (which is likely a bigger debate to be had, rather than should have UNC guarded the inbounder)

No, Theo is much more than that. Theo Pinson is the player that made the play you never knew you needed. The play you never expected. The quick steal to initiate the fast break. A surprising tip-in or tip-out on the offensive glass to extend a possession. His ability to give UNC the flexibility to play a smaller, quicker, perimeter-oriented lineup. The pinpoint assist that made an opposing team roll their eyes in frustration as if there was nothing that could slowdown the buzz saw that was the UNC offense last year. If he made you laugh along the way, even better.

Last season, when Theo found any possible way to contribute, UNC fans would sit-up in their seats. They would high-five strangers at the bar and relax (just a little). If Theo was producing any single, positive, measurable stat then UNC was headed to a W. So, when news broke that he’ll miss approximately 8-12 weeks with a broken bone in his right foot, Tar Heel Nation let out a collective gasp and mini panic attacks began to set in.

Depending on which publication or message board poster with "inside knowledge" you chose to read during your, um, "break" at work, Pinson was poised to start the season at the starting shooting guard ("2" spot) or small forward ("3" spot). There have been plenty of previews about what UNC lineups would look like, and most of them had Pinson involved in some form or another. Even Coach Williams has stated that Pinson was a guy who needed to make a leap in his production if UNC was going to replicate most of last year’s results.

Simply put, this is not a minor development. However, after a few days to gather some thoughts, I’ve decided it’s also not a doomsday, worst case scenario that some may have thought. There will be some hiccups, but UNC has every single opportunity to come out a stronger, deeper, and better team. Maybe even better than they would have been if Theo had stayed healthy.

As it stands right now, with Theo returning early in the ACC season, there is no reason that this team is not firing on all cylinders when March rolls around. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few ideas. I make zero apologies for the rabbit hole we’re about to go down.

We’ll use the roster below as the basis for the following thoughts and observations. This includes all players that could reasonably contribute in Theo’s absence. (Apologies to walk-on Kanler Coker for not making this list.)

Player

Class

HT

WT

Position

Joel Berry

JR

6-0

195

PG

Nate Britt

SR

6-1

175

PG

Stillman White

SR

6-1

178

PG

Seventh Woods

FR

6-2

180

PG/SG

Kenny Williams

SO

6-4

180

SG

Brandon Robinson

FR

6-5

162

SG

Justin Jackson

JR

6-8

210

SG/SF

Theo Pinson

JR

6-6

211

SG/SF

Perimeter Depth

​There is plenty of depth and versatility at the position, even if some of it is young and unproven. It is that youth in Williams, Robinson, and even Woods that have most people wringing their hands over a loss of talent at shooting guard. While Pinson may not have consistently displayed the outside shooting that is badly needed by UNC, he provided everything else, including toughness and length to guard opposing shooting guards. It will take the cumulative efforts of different players to replace what Pinson could do by himself.

​Now, those guards have a chance to step in and gain some valuable experience before the ACC season begins. This may mean a couple of stumbles against UK or out in Maui- patience is going to be vital for many UNC fan’s hearts. It also may mean that one, two, or even three players surprise everyone with their talent or how they handle an opportunity for increased minutes. It’s a safe bet Coach Williams is going to tinker with some different lineups and look for some player combinations to help ease the burden.

​This is one of two major blessings in disguise. While it is never comforting to see a player get hurt, sports fans love to see an underdog seize an opportunity. UNC’s guards have that chance. Every guard on the roster provides a unique trait that can benefit the team in Theo's absence. Williams' defense, Woods' explosiveness, and Robinson's length can *potentially* blossom if given the repetitions.

Aggressive estimates place Pinson’s return just prior to the ACC slate tipping off. That is enough time, not just for the youth to help UNC survive, but, for them to grow and mature into consistent contributors. That is even more critical when you consider that Theo will need the first half of the conference schedule just to get comfortable again. The ACC is no picnic, and the back end of UNC’s conference schedule is pretty rough. UNC is going to need every capable body to make it through that gauntlet.

​Now, regardless of what YouTube clips suggest, I’m well aware that Robinson and Woods may be one or two years away from providing quality minutes. However, they definitely weren’t going to see as much playing time with Pinson on the floor. If any of the depth doesn’t fully develop into a viable option, then Pinson is still back in time to get in a groove by mid-February, and help the team make a deep run. Think of it as…the reverse Rasheed Sulaimon. ​

However, if an additional threat at the wing does develop.....well. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and become too greedy.

Lineup Versatility

​Where the loss of Pinson will be felt the most is at the 3 spot. No other guard, other than Justin Jackson, has shown the ability to play both the 2 and 3. Freshman Brandon Robinson is the only one who has the possible height to get some playing time at the 3. But, weighing almost 50 lbs less than Jackson and Pinson, he doesn’t likely have the bulk to be truly effective this early in his career. Not having a third option at small forward is ultimately what will be the source for most of the frustration about to ensue.

​Which is why I’m surprised so few websites have given more attention to who replaces Pinson instead of the true effects on the versatility he brings to the lineup. Pinson’s length and quickness allowed UNC to play some true small ball last year. The four guard lineup of Paige/Berry/Jackson/Pinson was the equivalent of a change of pace running back. Quick, fast, all over the place, and a little unpredictable. Without him available, and without another option at the 3 (and 4), UNC will likely have to hold off on any plans to unleash this year’s small-ball lineup.

So, who wins out of this equation? Surprisingly, Tony Bradley may turn into the big winner out of this debacle. This is the second blessing in disguise. UNC fans, you may rejoice.

​Even if one of the 428 guards on the roster becomes a consistent, viable option on the wing, the likelihood of seeing a four guard lineup is slim.  Pinson's ability to guard four positions helped make the smaller rotations succeed. No other guard on the team has shown the capability to do that (yet).

Plus, Roy isn’t averse to tweaking his system to his talent, he also loves big men, big rotations, and depth in the post. That should mean more opportunities for Bradley to gain valuable experience early in the season. Those tilts against Indiana, UK, and in Maui will serve him well when ACC foes decide to attack his weaknesses later in the season.

​Additionally, while many rival schools love to spread the rumor that Roy doesn’t like to play freshmen and gives preference to the seniors, numbers don’t completely back up those claims.

-Two years ago Justin Jackson averaged 26.2 mpg.

-Three years ago Kennedy Meeks averaged 16.3 mpg

-Four years ago Brice Johnson averaged 10.6 mpg and Marcus Paige averaged 29.2 mpg

-Five years ago James Michael McAdoo averaged 13 mpg P.J. Hairston averaged 15.6 mpg

​It’s actually almost comical that this has become an urban legend used against Roy’s recruits. Aside from last year’s squad, you actually have to go back to 2007-2008 when UNC did not have at least one freshman who did not averaged double digit minutes. This year that trend should reappear with Tony Bradley, hopefully, leading the way.

​Look, I hate showering recruits with praise, hype, and hope. As the old saying goes, recruits always look good on paper. I have no idea what to expect from Bradley in the post. Truthfully, nobody outside of the coaching staff does. But, if he as good as has been advertised according to reports from summer and pre-season workouts, and he gets some extra early season minutes to work out the kinks, then UNC may not be as thin in the post in March as some originally imagined.

What about Nate?

​By this point, you may be wondering why Nate Britt hasn’t been mentioned as a potential replacement for Theo. It’s a solid question. I just don't think it's the best option. However, I accept that a Berry/Britt backcourt is likely to be a regular sight. Any arguments by those who support this perimeter marriage is understood and acknowledged.

​I love Nate. He’s savvy, he can shoot, and he’s deceptively quick and tough. He has been completely underrated his entire time while at UNC, while also having his development stunted by Marcus and Joel. He can probably start at point guard for about 342 out of the 351 D-1 programs. I wish Nate had received more playing time as a sophomore, and don’t have a single bad thing to say about his game.

It’s just…it’s really hard to have two point guards on the court together for an extended period of time. We saw what happened last year when Marcus and Joel struggled early in the season to co-exist. This blog delved into that situation earlier this summer. The bottom line is the old adage about quarterbacks applies to point guards. When you have two, you don’t have one. By putting them both in the backcourt, you have two similar (though not identical) skill sets that makes offensive stagnation a scary possibility.

​They would be effective in short bursts, and definitely need to get some playing time together. I’d just prefer to see the plethora of other guards get more opportunities at their natural position of shooting guard instead of playing a point guard out of position. And yes, this includes Seventh Woods, simply because I’ll be surprised if his future at UNC is as a true point guard. Might as well get him accustomed to running the wing now. Anyone who disagrees has plenty of ammunition to shoot my way.

​After all, Joel is returning for his senior year, and then Jalek Felton takes the reigns his sophomore year. That’s going to happen….right? RIGHT!?!?

Losing Theo hurts. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Remember what he brings when you’re screaming for somebody, ANYBODY, to make a play. Any play. A play you couldn’t imagine. A play you didn’t think you needed. That’s what Theo brings to this team. He is the 2016 version of David Noel or Marcus Ginyard.

Leadership, experience, versatility, and intangibles are a tall order to fill. However, Meeks, Hicks, Berry, and Jackson aren’t exactly lacking for those skills either. UNC will survive this hiccup until Theo returns. Pinson can’t be replaced with just one player, but UNC has the pieces to cobble together enough production while he’s out.

Fortunately, UNC has enough talent to pick up the slack. Whether it’s Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods, or Tony Bradley, someone(s) will prove to be capable of filling the void. As everyone said after last season, the cupboard at UNC wasn’t left empty. There is plenty of food to feed the family, and you can guarantee some of the young bucks are ready to prove they belong at the adult’s table.

Don't worry. They'll save a seat for Theo. He may even be there as early as Christmas.