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July 23, 2011

Wiederer: Dealing with McDonald injury

The move was routine. They so often are when the severe injury bug comes to bite.

During a game last week at the Greater N.C. Pro-Am in Durham, North Carolina guard Leslie McDonald darted off the dribble and tried to stop quickly.

Instead, his right knee buckled and down he went.

Torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Massive frustration.

McDonald's 2011-12 season is now likely over long before it even began.

Halted by a routine move. In July. In a pro-am game.

Just like that, North Carolina's chances of winning the 2012 national title took a small hit, another reminder issued that the road from here to April is unpredictable and sometimes treacherous.

Remember last summer when Duke was considered a heavy favorite to win the 2011 national title? Then on the first weekend of December point guard Kyrie Irving messed up his right big toe against Butler. On a fairly routine move as well.

Irving's toe just jammed, damaging ligaments and bone.
Just like that, the star guard spent the next 102 days on the shelf, out of game action.

Just like that, Duke morphed from the obvious choice to win it all into a very good team that had much less margin for error.

Let's get something straight. Leslie McDonald's injury is nowhere near as significant as Irving's.

The Duke guard may have been the best player on his team, the floor general, the guy coach Mike Krzyzewski had redesigned the entire offense around.

McDonald? He was likely to be UNC's seventh or eighth man next season, a valuable spare part mostly.

Yet his absence will certainly alter the dynamics of the team and cause Tar Heels coach Roy Williams to make some tweaks to his plans.

McDonald's injury will also create opportunity for other Tar Heels, most notably sophomore Reggie Bullock and freshman P.J. Hairston. And that, in the big picture, may not be such a bad thing.

When fully healthy, Bullock can be a major difference maker offensively. Think back to last season, to those moments when he really got into a groove. In the first half of a mid-January game against Clemson, Bullock scored 16 points.

Two weeks later, again in the first half, but this time at Boston College, the sharpshooting wing erupted again, hitting four 3-pointers in a 3-minute span.

But also notice that fine print: "When fully healthy …"

That's the worry for Bullock going forward, the anxiety exacerbated some by McDonald's injury.

Bullock, after all, was put on the shelf for good last season on March 1, hampered by a meniscus tear in his left knee. Bullock had surgery on that same knee during his senior year at Kinston High School.

So just what will happen if the injury bug comes to bite him again too?

That's why it's so valuable that the Tar Heels have Hairston, a freshman gunner who might emerge faster than most college newcomers. First, he'll have to prove to Williams that he can be a consistently reliable defender in the college game.

But his confidence and offensive assertiveness should pay off early, especially with the 6-foot-5-inch wing operating in an offense with so many other major weapons for defenses to focus on.

This is where quality depth buoys championship runs.

This is why Williams has so little problem stockpiling McDonald's All-Americans on his roster - this year's squad will have eight of them.

And this is why, when the subsequent questions come flying about whether the Hall of Fame coach ever worries about having too many superb players to please, he always just laughs.

Too many superb players? No such problem.

Because somewhere along the line a few of those superb players are likely to get hurt.

McDonald's injury is rough. But at least it comes in the one area of the depth chart that the Tar Heels are loaded, on the wing where Bullock and Hairston will back up Dexter Strickland and Harrison Barnes.

Now if that cruel injury bug came after Kendall Marshall?

Then Carolina would truly have issues.

But the Heels also have Williams, who was masterful during the 2008-09 season in guiding a team with extraordinary expectations and massive pressure around so many injury potholes.

Let's not forget, before Carolina cut down the nets at Ford Field, they had to keep their boat afloat in some pretty choppy waters.

In the opening weeks of practice, a leg stress fracture sidelined reigning National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough, keeping him out of action for four games. The Tar Heels pressed on.

In the second game of the season, Tyler Zeller fell awkwardly after being fouled on a dunk attempt against Kentucky and broke his left wrist. He wouldn't return to action for 13 weeks.

The Tar Heels pressed on.

Defensive stopper and glue guy Marcus Ginyard had surgery to repair a nagging stress fracture in his left foot but never quite bounced back. Ginyard played all of 37 minutes during the 2008-09 season, his last action of the season coming on Jan. 4.

The Tar Heels pressed on.

And then, in the final days of the regular season, Ty Lawson, that season's ACC Player of the Year, jammed his right big toe in practice and wound up missing UNC's first three postseason games.

The Tar Heels rallied and pressed on and wound up charging to the national title.

McDonald will have surgery Aug. 3 and immediately begin the rehabilitation process. The Tar Heels have already begun tailoring their plans to move forward without him in the lineup.

One routine move can provide quite the plot twist. But ultimately, the Heels can control how they respond.







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