North Carolina coasted by Kentucky 77-58 on Tuesday night in the main event of ESPN's 24-hour hoops marathon, but the game's outcome didn't mollify the anxieties felt throughout the UNC community in the aftermath.
To wit, near the end of the contest, big man Tyler Zeller was fouled on a breakaway and landed awkwardly on his wrist. Reports surfaced on Wednesday that Zeller had fractured his wrist and will miss the rest of the season.
Along with Tyler Hansbrough's lingering shin injury and a foot injury to Marcus Ginyard that may keep him out until January, UNC's mountain of depth has been whittled to a foothill.
But while Hansbrough — who has begun to resume practicing — and Ginyard are expected to return to full strength in plenty of time to make a national title run, Zeller's presumed absence is the first wound that time may not be able to heal in time for the 2008-09 Tar Heels.
That said, there's a much happier face to be applied for UNC faithful. Essentially, this year's team is the same as last year's Final Four group but one year older and better, with freshman big man Ed Davis replacing Alex Stepheson — and to this point Davis appears to be ahead of Stepheson already — and freshman guard Larry Drew replacing former backup and present hip-hop impresario Quentin Thomas.
As an added bonus, senior guard Bobby Frasor is back in the lineup after suffering a season-ending injury of his own last season. In other words, there isn't another team in the nation that boasts the Heels' talent, experience and depth.
In terms of Tuesday's game itself, the explanation for what happened is pretty simple: Good team meets bad team. UNC needed only the first 10 minutes to establish a healthy working margin, suffocating the Wildcats defensively and puncturing UK's defense in transition.
An alley-oop from Ty Lawson to Wayne Ellington highlighted an explosive run that put distance between the two clubs, but which also set the stage for sloppy play by both teams for the remainder of the game. UNC's offense bogged down in the face of Kentucky's pressure in the second half, and Hansbrough's absence in particular limits what the team can accomplish in halfcourt situations.
The story of the season so far on the court has been junior forward Deon Thompson, who against UK continued to demonstrate vast improvement as a scorer and rebounder. He finished with 20 points and nine boards, shooting a highly efficient 10-16 in the process. Davis, meanwhile, enjoyed his second outstanding game, finishing just short of a double-double with nine points and 10 rebounds of his own.
If there's a concern in addition to the injuries, it's the poor shooting thus far from guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. Struggling to get as many open looks without Hansbrough to absorb attention in the post, the duo combined to shoot just 8-29 against the Wildcats. Clearly, they'll have to convert at a much higher percentage when the club encounters stiffer competition.
The Heels don't get much chance to rest. They'll travel to Cal-Santa Barbara on Friday night for their first road game, then play at the Maui Classic next week prior to Thanksgiving.