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March 16, 2012
What Carolina Needs Now
John Henson

by John Gasaway

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If you've ever speculated that timing is everything -- and I do mean everything -- when it comes to the impact that a news story does or does not make, the events of the last seven days certainly lent credence to your theory.

One week ago today, North Carolina star John Henson injured his left wrist in the Tar Heels' 85-69 victory over Maryland in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. It was big news, of course. Henson was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year this season, and UNC was vying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Still, there was a lot going on in college basketball that day. Conference tournaments were in full swing, Illinois fired Bruce Weber that morning, and, of course, bubble talk was everywhere. (Drexel! Iona! Mississippi State!) One wrist injury to one star player wasn't going to cut through all that noise. No way.

Then this past Tuesday, Syracuse announced that Fab Melo would be ineligible for the postseason. There was absolutely nothing happening on Tuesday. The first of the First Four games were scheduled to tip off that night, and President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were en route to Dayton to take in the action, but it was absolutely dead quiet in our college basketball world that afternoon. So word that the No. 1 seed Orange would be without their intimidating 7-0 shot-blocker comprised the news equivalent of dropping a boulder in a wading pool. Twitter went nuts, fans everywhere changed their brackets, Vegas changed the odds on Syracuse winning it all, and even normally responsible and indisputably sagacious writers sounded a little freaked out. When it came to the relative impacts that the Henson and Melo stories made, timing really was everything.

I'm not saying that Syracuse losing Melo isn't a big deal. What I am saying, though, is that No. 1 seed Carolina losing Henson is an even bigger deal.

Melo's absence hurts the defense for an exceptionally deep team that plays a 2-3 zone. Conversely losing the seven-footer would figure to have far less of an impact on an offense that scored points at a rate that no other Big East competitor came anywhere near equaling in conference play. I realize the Orange hardly looked like a well-oiled machine in their 72-65 victory over No. 16 seed UNC Asheville yesterday, but the Bulldogs' 39 percent shooting on their threes (and 87 percent shooting at the line) arguably had more to do with that than anything that could be tied directly to Fab Melo's absence.

Now look at Carolina. Henson is being listed as a game-time decision for today's round of 64 matchup with No. 16 seed Vermont. For the sake of discussion, assume the 6-11 junior is "out indefinitely," as they say. If that's the case Henson's absence hurts the defense for an exceptionally thin team that plays man-to-man. But note additionally that not having Henson in the lineup takes a big chunk of the offense away for Roy Williams as well.

The lanky Tampa product may have started his career in Chapel Hill as a defensive specialist, but he's long since graduated to a much larger and more important role in Carolina's offense. In fact this season Henson was slightly more likely to launch a shot from the field during a given possession than his teammate and ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller. Among the starters, only featured star Harrison Barnes accounted for a larger share of the team's field goal attempts during his minutes. It's not too difficult to speculate that this team could well take a hit, possibly on both sides of the ball, without Henson in the lineup.

Then again why speculate? We already have a pretty healthy sample size for "Carolina without Henson," and the results aren't particularly comforting for UNC fans. In ACC tournament the Heels played two entire games without Henson: a close (and controversial) 69-67 win over NC State in the semifinals, and a close 85-82 loss to Florida State in the title game. In those 144 no-Henson possessions, North Carolina scored 1.05 points per trip and allowed opponents to score more or less the same number of points. That level of performance was attained against two teams that are much better than "average" by ACC standards but, at the same time, are certainly no tougher than what the Tar Heels will run into if they're still playing next weekend.

I've said losing Henson might hurt his team on both sides of the ball, but the really disturbing numbers from the ACC tournament happened on defense. NC State and Florida State combined to make an incredible 56 percent of their twos against the Heels. Only the fact that UNC was able to force turnovers on 22 percent of their opponents' possessions in those two games kept these from being much more high-scoring affairs for the Wolfpack and Seminoles. That's not the kind of defensive performance that hints at good things to come in the NCAA tournament.

This season began with North Carolina playing Michigan State on an aircraft carrier in San Diego Harbor as the No. 1 ranked team in the nation. The Tar Heels saw some peaks and valleys during the season, but on Selection Sunday they heard their name called out as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, more or less what was expected from them all along. I think they can live up to those high expectations with Henson. But without him, Carolina is shorter, thinner, and easier for opponents to match up against.

To me the really big news from the past seven days is that John Henson suffered a wrist injury, and his team needs him to get healthy. Fast.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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