UNC Basketball: John Henson Injury Proves Entire Big 4 is Indispensable


Kendall Marshall has been the player touted all season long as the “one player” who is irreplaceable for the North Carolina Tar Heels.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mocking those who said that, I am one of those who said that.  When John Henson went down in the ACC Tournament however, that opinion was proved to be a wrong one.

I don’t feel bad or stupid for being wrong in this case whatsoever.  The logic behind the widespread theory was solid.  UNC has depth at every single position group except point guard.  Injuries to both Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, the two who were supposed to compete for the starting spot at shooting guard according to Roy Williams, gave this theory some credibility.  Carolina simply moved on when the two, very talented players, who would have played major minutes this season, were ruled out for the year.  The next guy up Reggie Bullock was just as talented and ready.  And the guy behind him freshman PJ Hairston?  Only a five star freshman that most (including me again) dubbed as the next Wayne Ellington.

The thinking was that the team could get by in a similar fashion if any player other than Marshall went down.  Similar to the wing positions, Carolina had a top five recruit with a great reputation expected to contribute right away in James Michael McAdoo.  So it was natural that this theory spread to the big men.  If Henson or Tyler Zeller were to go down or find themselves in major foul trouble real early in a game, they had McAdoo.  Then they had senior Justin Watts who can play pretty much any position and three star freshman Desmond Hubert just in case.  Everything would be fine just as long as it wasn’t the PG Kendall Marshall that goes out.

WRONG!  The only part of the fact that I missed this fact before the Henson injury that frustrates me is this.  Basketball is a game of chemistry, you can’t just plug in Albert Pujols at 1B and bat him in the middle of your lineup and score runs instantly like baseball.  It’s not just put in the next guy and he will play the position of the last man.  Nope, it’s not video games, there is an adjustment period when anybody is lost for the long term.  There would be one if it were Stillman White that was injured today and Justin Watts was the new backup point.  Any change in rotation is a change that the personnel around that change must adapt to.

Sure the team played with McAdoo all year long.  But the other four starters probably played with him an average of maybe three or four minutes a game.  Rarely does Roy sub in just one player and leave the other four starters in the game and rarely can I recall a lineup of McAdoo with Bullock, Barnes, Marshall and either Zeller/Henson.  Those minutes would reduce even further when you account for the times he was in with Henson instead of Zeller.

The other part of the adjustment is the replacement player himself.  In this case McAdoo, the freshman hasn’t played big minutes all season long.  At no point in the regular season in any single game was McAdoo counted on for a long stretch.  Sure Henson and Zeller got into a little bit of foul trouble here and there.  But not once was it early enough in the game to force Roy to give the freshman who seemed lost for much of the year significant playing time.

The Tar Heels were a different team on both ends of the floor and off the glass without John Henson in their lineup.  Even when McAdoo had a good game, it wasn’t a Henson like game.  If Tyler Zeller were to go down, the same exact result would occur.  The Heels would have McAdoo again as the replacement.  Only this time, it would be the offensive end where the most pressure would be felt as opposed to the defensive end where the freshman would be relied on to step it up the most.  But I can guarantee you, the same type of result would occur as the Tar Heels would not look the same without Zeller.  That one’s easy to picture since we’ve all seen UNC without one of their bigs with the Henson injury.

Now imagine Harrison Barnes going out of the Heels lineup.  Williams would be forced to go with freshman PJ Hairston as his starter.  Hairston has struggled worse than any pure shooter I can ever recall witnessing.  PJ got it going the last two games in the conference tournament but has been a non-factor for most of the season.  Even if Hairston did find his shot and knock down 50% or better from the field and played good basketball.  He would not play Harrison Barnes basketball.  No way would he instantly become a safety valve in the half court if the team struggles to create.  No chance he ever puts the team on his back and carries them to victory like Harrison has done so many times.  In the half court offense the Heels engine wouldn’t run as smoothly without teams paying so much attention to Barnes.  Defenses would be able to sit back in the passing lanes more and have the ability to trap the post more often without the worry of Barnes lurking.  Hairston could score 20 points, hit five three point shots and contribute in transition, even showing off some of that athleticism I’ve been dying to see.  But he would not play the type of complete game the Heels are used to Barnes playing, taking them out of their usual routines and rhythm.

The injury to John Henson proved a couple of things to me.  One being that I cannot control freaking out when something like that happens to a key player on UNCs roster.  And the important one, Kendall Marshall is in fact indispensable, irreplaceable as we’ve all thought all season long.  But so are the rest of the big four that make the Carolina team so great.

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