The injury bug just won't leave Carolina alone. Joel Berry made his return from a hand injury Wednesday night against Bucknell, giving the Tar Heels back their captain and leader, but his return was dampened by the news that Cam Johnson would be out with a torn meniscus. And this right after Johnson had recovered from a minor neck injury. Sheeeesh.
First and foremost, this is a horrible turn of events for Johnson. He had fought for months for the right to transfer from Pitt to UNC and had done so in an impressive and commendable fashion, arguing for his rights as a student-athlete. He had deservedly won his battle and was poised to begin a new season as a major contributor on a top team. He doesn't deserve this.
However, he has already undergone successful surgery and is expected back right around New Year's and the start of ACC play. The initial reports had the Carolina family fearing a much longer absence. He'll be back in time to help the Heels make a run at a third consecutive regular season title.
Losing him for the rest of the non-conference schedule is still a blow, though. Johnson was hoping to at least partially fill the void left by Justin Jackson in the offseason. As a tall, floor-stretching shooter, Johnson could open up the lane for Berry, Felton, and the trio of freshman big men. Without him, the Heels will lack some of their outside firepower and will be more limited in how they exploit match-ups—at 6'8 Johnson potentially could have played as a stretch 4 in a small ball lineup.
How Roy Williams and Co. go forward without him will be interesting. Williams will likely try a couple of different starting lineups over that time before settling on one. His starting five against Bucknell were Berry, Kenny Williams, Pinson, Luke Maye, and Garrison Brooks. This is the kind of traditional, two-big lineup that Roy has favored in the past. Down the road, he may insert Jalek Felton into the lineup and move Berry to the 2-guard in order to provide more of a perimeter shooting threat.
Clearly, without a projected starter there will be more minutes available. The most obvious candidate to grab them is Kenny Williams, now back from his own torn meniscus. Williams has often been referred to as the best perimeter defender on the team and has always provided tremendous hustle, but now he'll be called on to keep defenses honest with his outside shooting.
Another player who'll likely see more minutes is Brandon Robinson, who missed last night's game with a shoulder injury, but will be a key backup on the wing. Robinson looked like he might have been the odd man out this year, with Johnson, Pinson, and Williams all expected to see more playing time. Now he'll have the chance to establish himself in the rotation.
On the whole, this is a lousy turn of events for Johnson and for UNC, but it could have been a whole lot worse. And now, as the young season starts to heat up and the PK80 approaches, other players will be called on to raise their game and build the Tar Heels into a deeper unit by the time the big games roll around. What else is the non-conference schedule for anyway?