For North Carolina basketball, Wednesday night brought good news and bad news.
On the positive side, Isaiah Hicks returned to the Tar Heel lineup after missing the team’s 86-78 loss at Duke last Thursday. UNC also bounced back from that loss in Durham, handing N.C. State a 97-73 beating.
However, Roy Williams’ squad is now down another man. Sophomore Kenny Williams will undergo knee surgery and is expected to miss the remainder of the season. The shooting guard had broken out this season, becoming a permanent fixture within the starting five.
The loss of Williams is a significant blow for a group with national championship aspirations, but don’t expect No. 10 UNC to fall out of the fold.
Despite battling injuries all season, the Tar Heels sit atop the ACC standings at 22-5 (10-3). Junior wing Theo Pinson has missed all but eight contests with foot and ankle issues. A sprained ankle sidelined star point guard Joel Berry for a pair of December matchups, while promising freshman center Tony Bradley sat out two games with a concussion.
Through all of the setbacks, Carolina has weathered the storm.
Wednesday’s pummeling of the Wolfpack was a testament to UNC’s depth. With Williams on the bench in a suit, Theo Pinson was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time this season. Known primarily for his passing and defense, Pinson also got involved as a scorer versus NC State, converting on six of eight attempts — many of them difficult shots — for 12 points. The Tar Heels’ bench, led by Luke Maye (13 points, seven rebounds), outscored the Pack 29-12.
That bench will keep the ship moving in the right direction in Williams’ absence. The sophomore has been a key component for UNC, known as much for diving for loose balls and drawing charges as he is for knocking down threes, but the Heels have others who can fill the void. Pinson, who was slated to start at the 2 going into the season before breaking his foot, should make a seamless transition into the spot left behind by Williams. What North Carolina loses in long-range shooting, Pinson should make up for with passing and perimeter defense.
Perhaps affected more than anything else will be UNC’s lineup flexibility. At full strength, the team has the pieces to play small with either Pinson or junior Justin Jackson sliding over to power forward. The Heels could still turn to small ball even without Williams, but the options will be more limited.
Another likely result of Williams’ injury is that North Carolina’s starting five will remain the same for the rest of the campaign: Berry, Pinson, Jackson, Hicks and center Kennedy Meeks. With three juniors and two seniors, it will be a veteran lineup made up entirely of former top-60 prospects.
There’s no question that UNC is better with Williams than without him, but even as the Tar Heels approach a deadly stretch — games against Virginia (twice), Louisville and Duke remain — their title hopes won’t be eroded by this latest hurdle.