Originally posted on Fox Sports Carolinas  |  Last updated 3/13/12
North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes says the Tar Heels are a better team heading into the NCAA Tournament than they were this time a year ago with just one caveat: That's, of course, if they have a healthy John Henson. The ACC's Defensive Player of the Year, Henson sprained his left wrist three minutes into last Friday's quarterfinals game versus Maryland in the ACC Tournament. The 6-foot-11 junior with a 7-4 wingspan tried to give it a go but couldn't. The pain and discomfort were too great. If the Tar Heels opened tournament play Tuesday, head coach Roy Williams said Henson would not have been on the court. So what's the deal? "My guess, and do want to emphasize that, is we won't know anything until Thursday at the earliest," Williams said. So once again, a UNC team with all of the parts of a national champion heads into a big dance a little uncertain because a key player isn't 100 percent healthy. In 2005, Carolina got back wing forward Rashad McCants during the ACC Tournament after a mysterious stomach ailment shelved him for several games, but he certainly wasn't at full strength when the NCAAs started. And in 2009, point guard Ty Lawson's injured ankle forced him to miss the entire ACC Tournament and NCAA first-round victory over Radford. In both cases, UNC lost in the ACC Tournament but went on to win the national championship. So maybe there's something to those incidents bringing UNC just a bit closer together, tightening its fiber for a title run. A difference, though, is that UNC needed the boost it got from its reserves coming together and raising their games this past weekend, which nearly resulted in an ACC title. Freshman James Michael McAdoo filled in and gained valuable experience, but it also meant more time for Justin Watts, P.J. Hairston and Desmond Hubert off the bench. "I was pleased with what James Michael did," Williams said. "We want him to rebound it a little bit more. Of course, we don't want him to go 2-for-10 (shooting), so you can add that in there, too. If he rebounds a little more and we get our break going I think that helps us. And his defensive grade was pretty good for all three games." Hairston came to Chapel Hill with a reputation as a shooter. He started the season well, and even hit 3 of 4 in a one-point loss at Kentucky in early December. But before draining three in the ACC title game loss to Florida State, Hairston had gone 17 games without sinking more than one two in a game he did that just once - and overall in that stretch was just 7-for-50. But the freshman found his stroke Sunday, and it affected the rest of his performance. "The funny thing about it, all of a sudden he starts springing back harder on defense, all of a sudden he starts getting around screens a little bit," Williams said. "So I think that gave him some confidence." Even though the Tar Heels blocked just four shots in the 117 minutes Henson was not available this weekend, Williams is pleased with his players' fight. That strengthening of Carolina's bench is a reason Barnes is optimistic, especially for when Henson returns to form. "It's obviously going to be a tough road, but I feel like this team is more capable now than it was this time last year, and we feel pretty good about that," Barnes said Tuesday. That trek begins Friday in Greensboro, N.C., versus the winner of Wednesday night's Lamar-Vermont game. Williams' streak of not losing an opening game in the NCAA Tournament likely won't end, so the Tar Heels should play Sunday versus either Alabama or Creighton, a mid-major power that is led by Doug McDermott, a former high school teammates of UNC's Barnes. Carolina may not need Henson (13.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3 blocks per game) in the opening round, but the Tar Heels will versus either the Crimson Tide or Bluejays. UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said there's simply no way to replace Henson when facing quality opponents. "John, he affects the game more ways than one," Marshall said. "The double doubles he puts up on a consistent basis, but more so the shots that he alters on a consistent basis on the defensive. That may not show up in the stats but you could tell teams weren't so worried about attacking us on the inside when the defensive player of the year is not sitting there." Sunday would make it nine days since Henson suffered the injury, which may be enough time to so he can play and impact the game. And if Carolina can move on to St. Louis, the top seed in the Midwest Region should have its lanky Florida native close to full form.
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