GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — North Carolina’s Joel Berry II jogged around the court in the middle of a cavernous stadium Friday, casually lofting shots and playfully jousting in the post with teammate Theo Pinson.
There were no obvious signs of distress — neither awkward gait nor grimace of pain after landing on a jumper — from the ankle injuries plaguing him as the Tar Heels prepare to face Oregon in the Final Four.
Sure, Berry looks set for Saturday’s national semifinals. But it’s unclear how much those injuries will affect his play, and that has the Tar Heels in the awfully familiar position of dealing with injury drama surrounding their floor leader at the season’s most critical time.
“I don’t think there was ever a thought in our mind that he wasn’t going to play, just the type of guy he is,” Associated Press All-American Justin Jackson said. “But it does give us more confidence knowing that he’ll be out there with us.”
This is the third time in nine seasons that North Carolina (31-7) has prepared to play NCAA Tournament games with questions about the status of a top-flight point guard on a No. 1-seeded team.
In 2009, speedy junior Ty Lawson — that year’s Cousy Award winner as the nation’s top point guard — was dealing with a jammed toe from a practice before a game against rival Duke. That sidelined him for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and the NCAA opener, but he returned through pain in a tough second-round win against LSU that helped propel UNC to Roy Williams’ second national championship.
The results weren’t so positive in 2012. The Tar Heels had already lost ballhandler Dexter Strickland in January when Kendall Marshall — a Cousy winner, too — suffered a broken wrist when he took a hard foul during a second-round win against Creighton.
Marshall had surgery and tried a last-gasp effort to practice through pain during the regionals, but couldn’t go. And UNC lost in a regional final to Kansas.
Now Berry — himself a Cousy finalist — is dealing with drama, too, though coach Roy Williams dismissed any notion of deja vu.
“No,” Williams said this week. “Can’t worry about all that junk.”
Berry, meanwhile, could only chuckle and shrug when asked in the locker room here about the parallels between Lawson, Marshall and his injuries. But he also pointed to a lesson from it all.
“Sometimes you can be selfish and just think about yourself and your well-being,” Berry said. “That’s the one great thing about this program: you’re such a family to where sometimes you put yourself aside to where you start thinking about other guys.
“And I think that’s just why people were motivated to play through the injuries. I’m the same way. Even though I’m hurting I just want to do whatever it takes to be able to help my team out.”
It’s clear the Tar Heels need him. When he missed two games in December with a sprained left ankle, they had a bumpy time in wins against Davidson and Tennessee. And Duke’s second-half comeback against UNC from a double-digit deficit in the ACC Tournament started when Berry went to the bench early with four fouls.
“He brings toughness, leadership and then he’s an attack guard,” said Jay Bilas, a former Duke player and ESPN college basketball analyst. “He attacks off the dribble and he’s a great finisher, even at his size. And he provides them another 3-point shooter. … That takes a weapon away if he’s not 100 percent.”
Berry rolled his right ankle when he landed awkwardly on a 3-point shot in the first-round win against Texas Southern, then struggled to a 2-for-13 shooting day in the comeback win against Arkansas two days later.
Then, in Sunday’s Elite Eight win against Kentucky on a last-second shot, Berry rolled his left ankle on a first-half drive but battled through against the Wildcats’ star freshman backcourt of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk.
For the record, Berry pronounced himself “85 percent” after a workout Friday before coming to the open practices at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“That’s one of our leaders, one of our best players — any aspect you want to throw out there, he’s at the top of it,” Jackson said. “Not having that type of guy out there, it can hurt a little bit.
“But Coach always says the Tar Heels are playing, not Joel Berry or Justin Jackson or whoever. So whoever’s out there has got to be able to play.”