Hobbled Heels

Hobbled Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Less than two months ago, Roy Williams could peer down his bench and marvel at the various options he had to insert into No. 5 North Carolina's lineup. But when Virginia Tech arrives in Chapel Hill on Saturday, the UNC head coach will be simply hoping that he has enough healthy bodies to pull out a victory.

If you have ever dreamed of walking on to the UNC men's basketball team, now may be your best chance at piquing the coaching staff's interest for a try-out. Amidst a downward spiral of injuries that has become borderline comical, Williams spent most of his time at Friday's press conference updating the media on the health status of his squad.

"I've never seen anything like it, and I've never been involved in anything like it," a befuddled Williams said.

Sophomore point guard Ty Lawson will not play on Saturday for the fourth straight game since spraining his left ankle in the early minutes of the Feb. 3 game at Florida State, and is not expected to play against N.C. State next Wednesday. Deon Thompson fought through the pain of a hyper-extended left knee in Tuesday's win at Virginia, but did not practice on Thursday and Williams indicated that if the game was on Friday, the sophomore forward would not play.

Those two losses would cripple most programs, but the injury list is not finished quite yet – we still have the other three starters and one of the country's top sixth-men to fill you in on.

Junior forward Tyler Hansbrough (infected toe), junior guard Marcus Ginyard (sprained right ankle, turf toe on left foot) and senior point guard Quentin Thomas (back spasms) are expected to play against Virginia Tech, but top reserve Danny Green is not expected to practice on Friday due to flu complications. And while you're taking notes, don't forget to include that Bobby Frasor (ACL surgery) is already out for the season.

If that's too long of a list to remember, let's look at it another way. Here are the scholarship players that are completely healthy and ready to take the court this weekend – sophomore guard Wayne Ellington (16.5 points per game), sophomore forward Alex Stepheson (3.7 ppg in 14.6 mpg), red-shirt freshman William Graves (1.7 ppg in 4.5 mpg) and junior forward Michael Copeland (1.3 ppg in 3.9 mpg).

But the UNC coaching staff is not quite ready to throw in the towel and change the up-tempo style of play that has become synonymous with Tar Heel basketball, especially on the defensive end of the court. With so many kids playing injured, adjusting from Williams' patented man-to-man to a zone would seem to be a logical move, protecting the players from defensive breakdowns related to their health issues.

But while that idea is good in theory, it does not mean that it will translate well onto the floor.

"At one point [against Virginia], I stood up to call a zone, and didn't because we had a guy in the game that hadn't ever played in that position," Williams said. "If you believe the way that you play is the best for long-term success, and you teach and practice that every day, then that's what we do."

But other adjustments, specifically when dealing with the roster, will have to be made in short order.

"One thing that will change is that Will Graves and Michael Copeland better get their butt in gear," Williams said. "And the way I phrased it right there is almost the way I'm going to phrase it to them."

There has been plenty of debate over the past several weeks about how detrimental these injuries have been to the 2007-08 edition of the Tar Heels. Yes, they have gutted out back-to-back victories with seemingly everybody suffering from some type of health concern. Legends are developing with each passing game, whether it be Hansbrough taking time out of practice before the Clemson game last Sunday to go throw up or Ginyard playing on two bad wheels in leading his teammates to victory over Virginia.

But at what point does the toll become too much on these young men? Thompson summed up the injury situation as well as anyone could after the Virginia game saying, "Everybody just keeps getting hurt, so I just tried to push through it, because we'd have been really slim if I had stayed out the whole game."

That attitude is one of pure toughness and determination, but it can also prove to be a dangerous approach – a player opening himself up for greater risk can never be seen as a good thing.

Williams is undoubtedly proud of his battered team's effort the last two contests, but even he is ready for a return to normalcy.

"They have impressed me with their toughness, [and] they've impressed me with their willpower in making plays at crunch time and finding a way to win…," Williams said. "[But] what I would like to do is get healthy."

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