UNC Basketball: How will Joel Berry’s injury impact the Tar Heels early on?

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 03: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally converted to black and white.) Joel Berry II
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 03: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally converted to black and white.) Joel Berry II /

With news that Joel Berry is out for at least four weeks, where do the Tar Heels turn from there?

What do you do when your most valuable player goes down?

It is a question every team faces and one that most teams hope they never have to deal with.

However, that is exactly where the Tar Heels are with the word that Berry is out for at least four weeks with a broken hand.

Berry was last season’s Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four on a team that won it all by beating Gonzaga.

So what do the Tar Heels do until he returns?

What is lost?

Berry is the court leader and the team’s returning leading scorer. He makes the machine run.

Last season Berry was second on the team in minutes mainly because the options behind him were only so-so and that includes having two experienced seniors.

Berry also is the team’s most dangerous three point threat.

The senior point guard hit 88-of-230 three points last season. When push came to shove, Joel Berry II could be counted on to get the basket when the team needed it.

Who steps up?

Last season Berry missed two games and the Tar Heels struggled to beat Davidson and Tennessee at home. With both senior backups now no longer on the team, who can Roy Williams count on to carry the load?

Much like I felt last year with the loss of Theo Pinson, I don’t believe there is one player who can provide what Berry brings to the team. I feel there are three players who will all have to help to navigate the Tar Heels through the start of the season.

Jalek Felton

Felton is my top pick to start in place of Berry.

Despite being a freshman, he comes with a pedigree and game that mimic the injured guard’s game. Felton can hit from three and create his own shot and is a creative passer who averaged 5.4 assists last year as a senior.

Felton is an explosive player and one that could keep the Tar Heel offense running smoothly in the short term.

This could lead to a strong development that allows Williams to play him with Berry when he returns.

Seventh Woods

Felton may be who I want to start, but Woods is probably who is going to start.

Williams prefers experience over raw talent.

Need proof. Last season, Nate Britt, a senior, got first dibs at Pinson’s minutes. Kenny Williams eventually took over but Coach Williams just prefers experience to start out with.

Even so, Woods is not a bad option. Last year he would show his explosive play with a steal and a dunk.

He would also show his inexperience with a turnover, though more often than not he would chase it down for a block.

Despite struggling at times last season, Woods does have the experience over Felton.

GLENDALE, AZ – APRIL 03: Theo Pinson
GLENDALE, AZ – APRIL 03: Theo Pinson /

Theo Pinson

Pinson’s ability to handle the ball can provide Williams with a stop gap if either Felton or Woods don’t prove capable early on.

Despite missing a huge chunk last season, he finished with 3.7 assists per game, best on the team.

Pinson is not a natural point guard, however, he could show enough handle that it might help his draft stock next season.

As a small forward Pinson is a bit small, however as a combo guard who can handle the ball and defend, he would be quite valuable to NBA teams.

This would also allow Roy to run some bigger lineups when Berry returns, with Pinson at the two in a similar two ball handler set as mentioned with Felton above.

What does the schedule look like?

The good news is that this is October. Championships in basketball, unlike in college football, aren’t won and lost in the first month of the season.

However, the four week time period will still cause Berry to miss some games.

Assuming the four weeks start this week, that would put Berry on pace to be back the week of November 20th. Before that date, UNC has two home games, against Northern Iowa on November 10th and against Bucknell on November 15th.

Of the two games, Northern Iowa will be the most difficult to win without Berry, though both still are games UNC should win regardless.

Following those two matchups, UNC travels to Stanford, against former UNC assistant Jerod Haase, on November 20th and then heads to the PK80 tournament in Oregon, where they will face Portland on November 23rd.

If the Tar Heels beat Portland they would then take on either Arkansas or Oklahoma the following day. My feeling is unless something complicates things, Berry returns for the Portland game, though Roy may hold him out to the following day.

All in all, this should help create experienced guard depth, something UNC has lacked in the past. It should also allow the Tar Heels to improve as a team, while down the road giving Roy Williams more chances to rest his star point guard.

Next: Jalek Felton season preview

One final positive thought. Berry won the MOP last season on two bad ankles. Imagine what a fresh and healthy Berry could do this postseason. It might even be enough for a third straight Final Four for the Tar Heels.