North Carolina has finally escaped the looming cloud of an academic scandal that threatened to eliminate future postseason opportunities, four and five-star recruits and their 2005 and 2009 National Championship banners. But that doesn’t mean the Tar Heels are exempt from bad news.
On Monday afternoon, North Carolina announced that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.
This is not devastating news for the Tar Heels (he’s not done for the year or anything), but it certainly is a problem that Roy Williams and Co. did not expect to be dealing with as they begin to defend their championship crown.
Here are three reasons why Berry’s injury looms large — even if the 2017-18 campaign hasn’t begun yet:
1. The leader. The go-to guy. The heart-and-soul.
Berry was absolutely sensational in the 2016 NCAA Tournament (scoring in double figures in five of their six games), but his true breakthrough came during last season.
Berry averaged a career-high in points (14.7) and took over as the leader and heart-and-soul of the Tar Heels after Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson graduated. He got the team in-and-out of their sets, ran the offense within the confines of the system and had terrific balance in terms of “getting his own” and setting up his teammates.
In fact, you could argue that Berry is the most important player to his respective team in the entire country.
He is the point guard on the defending National Champions and is considered a favorite to be a First Team All-American and the ACC Player of the Year.
That above statement holds even more truth when you factor in the losses of Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Tony Bradley and Nate Britt. The Tar Heels need Berry to not only manage the game and play good on-ball defense against opposing point guards, but they need him to take more shots and score the ball more often than he did in 2016-17.
Sure, the timetable only calls for Berry to miss four weeks, but will the 6’0″ Apopka, FL native be 100 percent when he returns? Will he be able to take-and-make big shots in the biggest of situations? How long will it take him to get into basketball shape and get the rhythm of his shot back?
These are all legitimate questions that will need to be answered because the Tar Heels need Berry to be himself if they’re going to build an elite non-conference resume and compete atop the ACC.
2. Their non-conference schedule is brutal
The school’s statement says Berry is expected to miss four weeks, which sets the point guard up to return sometime around Thanksgiving.
If Berry returns on November 23 (exactly a month from today), he will miss the following games:
vs. Northern Iowa
Those are all winnable matchups, but again, the timetable mentions the word “approximately.”
If Berry suffers a setback, takes longer than expected to rehab and recover or isn’t 100 percent, the Tar Heels will have major issues heading into a brutal stretch that includes the PX80 tournament in Oregon (with teams like Portland, Arkansas, Oklahoma, UConn, DePaul, Michigan State and Oregon) and an ACC/Big Ten showdown against Michigan.
While the entire ACC schedule will still remain, November and December is when teams build their resume for March. If the Tar Heels want a high-seed in the NCAA Tournament, they’re going need to record quality victories in their non-conference events.
Without Berry, that is going to be a struggle.
3. Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton need adjustment time
When Berry sits out, sophomore Seventh Woods and five-star freshman Jalek Felton are likely to split the ball-handling duos.
While this could be a positive in the long run, it could also affect their confidence and could be a detriment to UNC impressing against UNI, Bucknell and Stanford. It could also get ugly during the PX80 tournament, when Woods and Felton are playing their first major minutes against elite programs.
Woods is a former four-star recruit, was ranked in ESPN’s top 60 for the class of 2016 and is known for his slick ball handling in his hoops mixtapes, but he averaged just 1.5 points and 1.4 rebounds in 7.7 minutes last season. Also, after the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, Woods played just 15 minutes, scoring a total of zero points.
Felton, the cousin of Oklahoma City Thunder PG Raymond, is ranked 28th in ESPN’s top 100 and is expected to play a prominent role for UNC in year one. But that doesn’t mean Felton is ready to immediately split the ball-handling duties. Felton prides himself on his athleticism in transition, his attacking mentality and his open court passing.
UNC won’t ask Woods or Felton to be Berry in the meantime, but they will need them to produce at a high level given the losses from last season. The loss of Berry only puts more pressure on the two youngsters, Theo Pinson (who could also get some ball handling responsibilities), Kenny Williams and Brandon Robinson.