Greensboro, NC - Roy Williams had a look of pain on his face when he saw John Henson, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland in street clothes instead of their playing uniforms during North Carolina's 85-82 loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament Championship Sunday, March 11.
"If we were sitting here last July, if you would have picked North Carolina's top six players, those three guys would have been in the top six," Williams said.
This season has had its share of lows with heartbreaking losses to Kentucky and Duke and an embarrassing 33-point drubbing at the hands of the Seminoles in Tallahassee. McDonald (July 17) and Strickland's (Jan. 19) season-ending ACL injuries were equally demoralizing.
A two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Henson, whose sprained left wrist in UNC's 85-69 win over Maryland in the second round of the ACC Tournament is the most recent obstacle the Heels have faced this season, and it forced him to sit out the last two games.
Henson, McDonald and Strickland have missed 51 games collectively. However, that has created opportunities for sophomore Reggie Bullock and freshmen James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston to step up.
Since replacing Strickland in the starting lineup the 6-foot-7 Bullock has scored in double figures nine times and provides length on defense. Hairston's hot-shooting ignited UNC's comeback against FSU, as he finished with 13 points off the bench in the losing effort.
McAdoo's progression has been steady the latter half of the season, especially in Henson's absence as he averaged nine points and six rebounds in the ACC Tournament.
"We would love to have John play," Tyler Zeller said. "He's a great rebounder, shot-blocker; he can score. So all around he's a fantastic player, but we also have confidence in our substitutes. James Michael, especially I think we have a lot of confidence in him to be able to step up and be able to fit in that role."
As commonplace the Tar Heels (29-5, 14-2 ACC) as the Midwest's (St. Louis) top-seed have the target on their backs again after winning nine of their last 10 games and claiming the ACC regular season title with an 88-70 victory at Duke Saturday, March 3. Carolina has persevered through much adversity to reach this pinnacle, but have more to overcome in its goal to reach the very top. Friday's 4:10 PM tip-off against Vermont (24-11, 13-3 America East) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament is the first step in the journey to the Promise Land.
The certainty of not having the team's top on-the-ball defender and second primary ball-handler in Strickland, best outside shooter in McDonald (38.1-percent from three-point in 2010-11) and the uncertainty of Henson's (13.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and three blocks per game) status, which is a game-time decision makes the treacherous road ahead appear more daunting to navigate through.
McDonald, who rehabbed quickly has returned to practice, but agreed with Williams it was best to redshirt. He joins Strickland and possibly Henson on the bench as the Heels begin NCAA Tournament play.
"It's been tough just for the fact I'm not there experiencing everything that's happening, the wins," Strickland said. "I felt like I could have helped my team during games such as Florida State. It's been tough, but I'm getting through it."
Henson can identify with what McDonald and Strickland are enduring, and said his dream is to dunk left-handed again.
"They're with us all the time, so they're still part of the team," Henson said. "They're just as a vital part as I am."
Though forced to enjoy their teammates' success from afar McDonald and Strickland insist they feel as much of a part of the team as they were before tearing their ACLs.
McDonald said whether eating together or kicking it at each another's houses bonding with them off the court has helped the most.
Williams said the other players take care of Henson, McDonald and Strickland, and that is what good teammates are supposed to do.
It is about working together, which is one of the many principles Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge and now Williams have worked to instill into players.
"Those kids have been part of the team since the first day," Williams said. "If I have an opportunity to eat steak, they get an opportunity to eat steak. If I have an opportunity to eat grits then they have an opportunity to eat grits as well. We treat them like everybody else."
Whether Henson suits up and plays or flanks his coat-and-tie counterparts, McDonald and Strickland for the third straight game they still matter to the Tar Heels, and when it is on the line do not be surprised if the 6-foot-10 junior hits the hardwood ready to lead the way to another Carolina Victory.