First, before we begin, take a minute to compose yourself over the temporary loss of Joel Berry after he broke a bone in his shooting hand. When you’re ready to continue, breathe deeply and remind yourself that North Carolina has seen this movie before. Marcus Paige’s hand in 2015-16 almost caused Chapel Hill to melt down. Last season, Theo Pinson’s foot, Kenny Williams’ knee, Tony Bradley’s concussion, Isaiah Hicks’ hamstring, and the ankles of Luke Maye and Berry meant Roy Williams had his entire roster available to play for only 2 full games. The Heels recovered both times for memorable Final Four runs.
Usually, I’m an optimistic, glass half-full kind of guy. This situation is not going to change that outlook, but admittedly the injury is slightly more significant than previous years. This year’s squad, while extremely talented at the top of the roster, lacks the overall depth of the two previous seasons. Missing a key component like Berry is going to be even more noticeable than it was last year against Tennessee and Davidson. Nonetheless, there are three things to consider.
Conducting a quick search of the internet, I discovered numerous other websites already noted that Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton will be expected to carry the torch. I won’t rehash the obvious. Brant Wilkerson at the Greensboro News & Record has a quick and easy read. Brandon Griffin at “rival” blog (hey, we’re all Heels!) at Keeping it Heel gave his input as well. If you want another solid insider Tar Heel perspective, Turner Walston at the Argyle Report touched on some angles regarding these two point guards
Keep a stiff upper lip fellow Tar Heels. While those two can’t replicate Berry’s ability, a little early season action will be beneficial later in the season. Considering Williams’ recent comments at UNC Media Day regarding Felton’s adjustment to the college game, expect Seventh Woods to see the majority of those available minutes. The fine folks at Tar Heel Illustrated provided those comments, which you can find in the second video at the 2:20 mark.
Youth and inexperience at point guard not withstanding, the bigger question is who will provide the scoring and leadership? The 17 assists on 23 field goals against Memphis should alleviate most concerns about short term facilitating amongst the team. However, there will be times during the season when Joel Berry has an off night or needs some offensive help putting the ball in the basket. The next month is the perfect audition to be his scoring sidekick. Cam Johnson will be the popular fan vote, but until there is evidence that he has acclimated himself to UNC’s system (and can give Coach Williams the defensive effort required), expectations should be managed accordingly. I’ll be ecstatic if proven wrong.
Of course, there were questions last season when Pinson went down. This time Pinson will be expected to return the favor, as will Luke Maye. If those seem too obvious, I recommend keeping an eye on Kenny Williams. As a solid perimeter defender, he will always have a place in Roy’s rotation. Arguably the fifth option when on the court last season, he hit 33.8% from three and averaged 6.2 ppg. Though streaky and not the most explosive athlete, he now has an opportunity to announce his presence with authority.
Ultimately, as a third silver lining in this minor fiasco, there is one subtle difference from previous injuries. Paige missed six games and Pinson missed 19. If the diagnosis is accurate, Berry will only miss two home games against Northern Iowa and Bucknell, and maybe/possibly the November 20th contest at Stanford. That current timetable allows him to return for the Phil Knight Invitational. If that timeline stays true, then there is minimal impact for North Carolina.
Instead of groaning at the thought of another meltdown to Northern Iowa, understand that both home games are winnable without Berry. For those that enjoy advanced numbers, Northern Iowa enters the season as the 129th best team according to Ken Pomeroy (KenPom.com). Bucknell comes in a little higher at 75th, Stanford is 61st, and UNC clocks in at 13th. Plenty of talent still litters UNC’s locker room to gain at least two victories. It should also be noted that in 2015-2016, UNC had already played four other official games, so there was enough game tape to study by the time they visited NIU. That won’t be the case until the Heels visit the Pacific Coast.
Certainly, this is a frustrating development. However, there is no need to make mountains out of molehills. As Gary Parish of CBS Sports annotates, North Carolina is hardly the only top-15 team with injury problems. Joel will recover and by December we’ll all be laughing with our relatives at Christmas about the shivers that went down our spines on October 23rd, 2017. Unless your relatives are N.C. State fans. In that case, just show them a picture of all the banners that are still hanging in the Dean Dome.