For the second time in three seasons, North Carolina will begin the season while its senior point guard, and unquestioned on-court leader, recovers from a broken bone in his hand.
The school announced on Monday that Joel Berry, who earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors while he helped lead to the Tar Heels to the national championship last April, had suffered a broken bone in his right hand. Berry is expected to miss approximately four weeks.
The details of how Berry endured the injury weren’t immediately clear. The announcement of it, though, comes 18 days before UNC begins the season on Nov. 10 against Northern Iowa. It seems certain that Berry will miss that game, and another one on Nov. 15 against Bucknell.
If he does only miss four weeks from Monday, though, he could conceivably return when UNC begins a trip west with a game at Stanford on Nov. 20. After playing there, the Tar Heels travel to Portland, Ore., for three games in the PK80, a 16-team Nike-sponsored tournament.
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Berry’s injury is reminiscent of the one Marcus Paige, UNC’s former All-ACC point guard, suffered before the start of the 2015-16 season. Paige also endured a broken bone in his right hand, but he shot with his left. Berry is right-handed, and so his injury affects the hand most responsible for his shot.
Like Berry is now, Paige was expected two years ago to miss approximately four weeks. He missed UNC’s first six games before returning for a game against Maryland on Dec. 1, 2015. In his first game back, Paige scored 20 points, made four 3-pointers and led UNC to an 89-81 victory.
Paige suffered his injury 10 days before the start of the 2015-16 season. The timing of Berry’s injury, meanwhile, gives him more time to recover before the season begins. If he follows a recovery timeline similar to Paige’s, Berry would likely return by late November, at the latest.
Berry averaged 14.7 points and 3.6 assists per game during his junior season. He played through most of the NCAA tournament on two injured ankles, and inspired his teammates with his toughness and his ability to overcome pain.
In Berry’s absence, UNC will now be reliant on Seventh Woods, a sophomore, and Jalek Felton, a freshman, at point guard. Woods went through an uneven freshman season, one that tested his confidence. Felton is the most highly-regarded prospect in UNC’s freshmen class.
Two years ago, when Paige missed the first few weeks of the season, his absence allowed other players opportunities they might not have otherwise had. One of those players who took advantage was Berry, who went on to become the ACC tournament MVP in his sophomore season.
Now Berry’s injury will afford some of his teammates the kind of opportunity that he once embraced.