Around noon last Wednesday, someone on the UNC campus noticed that freshman Sean May was sporting a wrap around his knee and limping a bit on his way to or from a class. The response that followed was staggering in its speed and level of concern. If you think a Colorado wildfire in the heat of summer moves fast, you've never witnessed the spread of hysteria about an injury of a key basketball player in Chapel Hill.
Within minutes of the news appearing on an internet bulletin board, the speculation started. While many heads retained their cool, it didn't take long for some to raise the specter of the worst. Torn cartilage. Torn ligaments. Torn something. Out a month. Out a year. Never mind that there hadn't been a hint of word from the UNC Sports Information staff. The mere rumor of a scheduled doctor's appointment that afternoon set off a frenzy.
Fortunately, some quick Inside Carolina reporting managed to put a lid on the panic before it got completely out of control: Sean had banged knees with a teammate during Tuesday night's practice, and he'd given the joint a good, hard twist. But the result was a sprain, nothing more. Sure, from the sounds of things it gave Sean, his teammates, and the coaches a bit of a scare. But no crisis.
In the end, the panic proved to be 99% misguided, reflecting a good deal on the psychology of the internet, but not much about the physiology of the human knee. May will be limited in practice for a week or two, but it shouldn't keep him from all basketball activity. Heck, he's probably getting ready to challenge Melvin Scott to a three-point shootout before practice this afternoon. (I'd put my money on Melvin, by the way, but the odds are tight.)
But there's still that nagging one percent that was dead on. The fact is, Carolina is one key injury from having its hopes go up in flames this season. While that's true on many college basketball teams, it's difficult to remember a time when the Tar Heels had so little room for error.
A college coach never wants to count on a group of freshmen to carry a team to victory, but it's well documented that Matt Doherty could not put five scholarship players on the court this season without a rookie in the mix. So that makes every freshman from Raymond Felton to Damion Grant crucial. Each day one of those players--or any of the five upperclassmen for that matter--is unavailable for practice or a game is a day Doherty and his men go into battle with a hand tied behind their backs.
Under circumstances like these, every Carolina fan in the country will cringe in fear any time someone slips on a wet spot or steps on someone else's ankle while coming down with a rebound. The Heels can't afford injuries anywhere this year. But that goes double, maybe even triple for Sean May.
Name the Tar Heels' starting five if the season began today. You can come up with a lot of permutations. But I defy you to name one that doesn't include May, Carolina's greatest hope in the post, and the kind of multidimensional player who can force an opponent into the matchup problems Doherty longs to create. Where do you go if May can't? Will Johnson, while driven to squeeze every last ounce of result from his talent, cannot play 30 minutes or more defending the likes of Virginia's Travis Watson. And someone has to spell Jawad Williams for a few minutes a game.
Byron Sanders and Damion Grant? At "Midnight with the Heels," both showed flashes of why they may surprise skeptics during their careers and grow into all-ACC caliber players two or three years down the road. Sanders is thin but quick. His hands are not great, but he already has some touch near the rim. Grant is not thin. He is enormous. And he can get up and down the court to boot. But he is still learning to dunk a basketball. Yes, I said dunk.
Sure, Sanders and Grant have a world of potential, but they would be hard pressed to handle matchups even against the league's more polished freshmen post players, Duke's Shelden Williams and Michael Thompson and Wake Forest's Eric Williams.
With Sean May, Carolina will be undermanned on the blocks all season. Without him?
Take good care of that knee, Sean.
You can email Mark at email@example.com.