Early-season injuries limit Heels, Wolfpack

Brandon Robinson’s injury in a preseason exhibition was another hit to the North Carolina lineup. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Roy Williams is the kind of coach that can find a dark lining in any silver cloud, especially early in the season when he’s looking to kickstart his North Carolina team toward its full potential.

But Saturday night as he addressed the media following the Tar Heels’ 86-72 win at UNC Wilmington, it was evident that the Hall of Fame coach wasn’t in the mood for playing head games.

He was genuinely concerned about the health of his team and how an already dire injury situation could impact it as the season goes on.

“I think it is going to have to be something we deal with all season and it concerns us a great deal,” Williams said. “But they don’t let you go out and draft, and there’s no list that we can take anybody off the waiver list.”

The manpower shortage is the result of an epidemic that began before two of UNC’s current players ever arrived on campus.

Freshman guard Jeremiah Francis is still recovering from a series of knee injuries that cost him both his junior and senior seasons of high school. Fellow incoming recruit Anthony Harris, who originally committed to Virginia Tech before coach Buzz Williams left for Texas A&M, also suffered an ACL injury during his final prep season and has yet to be cleared to return.

Junior big man Sterling Manley is also dealing with a knee ailment, a mysterious pain that limited him to just 18 games last year and won’t seem to go away.

The injured list continued to grow when senior wing Brandon Robinson suffered a badly sprained ankle in the Tar Heels’ exhibition game against Winston-Salem State and again Saturday when freshman big man Armando Bacot suffered a concussion less than three minutes into the game against UNCW and didn’t return.

“Needless to say, we’d like him to play more than two minutes and 41 seconds,” Williams said. “We’re pretty thin as it is anyway.”

How thin?

UNC was left with only seven available scholarship players for the rest of the evening once Bacot departed. And one of them, junior big man Brandon Huffman, is still very much a project who was limited to eight minutes of court time.

“That’s what we have, seven and eight,” Williams said. “I’ve always liked to play nine or 10. We’d like to get some of those other guys back.”

Presumably, Bacot will be the first to return, depending on the severity of his concussion. Williams said that Harris is getting close to being cleared and that Robinson is no longer using a “cute little scooter” to get around and is out of a walking boot.

But Williams added that there’s still no timetable for Harris’ debut and that Robinson probably won’t be ready to play until the Tar Heels’ trip to the Bahamas in two weeks.

UNC’s rival NC State is already starting to get some of its walking wounded back. But like Williams, Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts is also dealing with a short bench at a time of the season when teams are usually at their healthiest.

State was without star point guard Markell Johnson for its season opener against ACC rival Georgia Tech because of an ankle injury suffered in practice a few days earlier. His presence would likely have made a difference in a game the Wolfpack lost in overtime.

While sophomore wing Jericole Hellems and graduate transfer big man Danny Dixon have also been dealing with minor ailments — without missing any game time — State’s depth has also been challenged by an indefinite suspension to junior forward D.J. Funderburk, the departure of reserve guard Blake Harris just before the start of the season and an NCAA ruling that will force freshman wing Dereon Seabron to take an academic redshirt.

Instead of having a nine- or 10-man rotation that would allow Keatts to use his pressing, up-tempo style to full advantage, the third-year coach must now be more judicious in how he deploys his troops.

It’s a reality that hit him during one second half sequence against Georgia Tech.

“I looked out there a couple of times and I told the assistant coaches that we had five guys on the floor we’d only had maybe once or twice at practice together,” Keatts said. “So we were in a different situation than we normally would be.

“But you’ll never hear me complain or cry about injuries because I consider injuries as part of the game. We just had a short bench tonight.”