North Carolina is reliving a 28-year-old nightmare.
In 1984, the Tar Heels began the year favored to win the national basketball championship — but their point guard broke his wrist.
Fast forward to 2012, and point guard Kendall Marshall could be out with a broken wrist when North Carolina meets Ohio Friday in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 in St. Louis.
The Tar Heels were unable to get it done in 1984 with the team that included future NBA stars Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins even though Smith returned to the lineup.
North Carolina will see if can get it done this year with a roster than includes Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller with Marshall’s return uncertain.
Bill Guthridge, an assistant to retired Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith from 1967-97, said he immediately thought of Kenny Smith after Marshall’s injury.
“It’s just tough to lose someone so instrumental in the way you play, and that’s what Kendall does,” said Guthridge, who retired in 2000 after three years as head coach.
Kenny Smith was a freshman starter and missed a month after breaking his left wrist. The ‘84 team never rediscovered its dominant form after his return.
Guthridge is hoping it doesn’t end the same way this time.
“That happens and hopefully we can overcome it,” Guthridge said of Marshall’s injury. “Coach (Roy) Williams is a great coach and he’ll come up with something and hopefully we’ll work it out and we can get a win or two — maybe a national championship, who knows?”
Marshall, a lefty, had surgery to insert a screw into his right wrist Monday. Williams said the top-seeded Tar Heels (31-5) are preparing to play without Marshall in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
Marshall is the Tar Heels’ most irreplaceable player, from the way he drives Williams’ fast-paced offense to the loss of No. 2 ballhandler Dexter Strickland to a knee injury in January.
Smith knows his injury prevented the ‘84 team from being considered among the game’s greats.
“Obviously with Michael Jordan, you know who he’s become and who he is, arguably we could’ve probably been one of the best teams ever, I think,” said Smith, now an NBA analyst for TNT and a college basketball analyst for Turner/CBS Sports. “I think we would’ve been thought of like the (1991) UNLV team that no one was coming close to ... I really believe that.”
This was also expected to be one of UNC’s best squads.
There were similarities between the 1984 and 2012 teams even before Marshall’s injury. Barnes plays the role of Jordan and Henson provides the scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking from the long-armed Perkins. Zeller anchors the post the way eventual No. 1 overall draft pick Brad Daugherty did in 1984. Both teams were preseason No. 1s.
But it all started unraveling with a thud in ‘84.
UNC was ranked No. 1 in every Associated Press poll that season except for a week at No. 2. But as the team improved to 17-0, Smith jumped a pass and raced in for a dunk before being fouled by LSU’s John Tudor and knocked to his home floor.
Smith missed eight games before returning with a rubber cast to play the final two regular-season games. He returned to the starting lineup during the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
But after juggling from Smith to reserve Steve Hale and back to Smith again, UNC’s chemistry was off. The Tar Heels went 26-1 in the regular season — a one-point loss to Arkansas was the only blemish — and 14-0 in league play, but lost to Duke in the ACC semifinals then fell to Bobby Knight and Indiana in the NCAA round of 16 in Atlanta.
Like Smith, Marshall was hurt when he was fouled and knocked to the court on a second-half drive.
The fractures for both players were to their non-shooting hands. Smith — who had a similar surgery to Marshall after that season — said Marshall’s pass-first style could make it easier to contribute if he’s healthy enough to return.
“I think he is such a great facilitator, a superior facilitator to anyone in college basketball today,” Smith said. “He’s a guy who could play a game with the injury I had and still be super effective. I don’t think I could’ve been super effective. ... I think he’d be OK because part of his repertoire is being able to score, but Kendall can go games and get six points and be the most dominant player on the court.”
In a text message to the AP on Wednesday, Marshall’s father Dennis said his son was “doing well” and “in good spirits.” He said it was still too early to say whether Marshall could play in St. Louis, noting he “hasn’t been ruled out, but not cleared to play either.”
Kendall Marshall said on Twitter that his cast has been removed, and his father said he’s now wearing a removable splint. However, if he’s out, freshman Stilman White and versatile senior Justin Watts would play the point.
“Everybody goes out there and we play, and we just depend on each other,” Barnes said. “I have confidence in John that he’ll be able to step up. He has confidence in Stilman that Stilman will be able to step up. We have confidence in Justin Watts.
“We feel like we can still get it done.”
Smith said Marshall’s injury isn’t crippling, that the team’s frontcourt trio could be enough to keep the Tar Heels advancing in a season that has at most four games left.
If they can’t, it will be another bad break for a UNC team that had the chance to be special.
“You just have to be good and you have to be lucky,” Guthridge said. “We could just never get the chemistry right (after Smith’s return). If we would’ve played another game and got everybody’s role good, I think we could’ve won the national championship. But we didn’t.”