By Turner Walston
When Carolina takes the floor tonight against Gonzaga with the national championship on the line, they will do so without a player who started 22 of the season's first 26 games. Kenny Williams flourished to begin his sophomore season, averaging better than 6 points as an outside threat and becoming perhaps the team's best perimeter defender. But before practice on Valentine's Day, he suffered an injury to his right knee. A week later, he had surgery and was ruled out for the season.
Not many teams could endure the loss of a starter in mid-February and still play in the national championship game, but the Tar Heels did. Carolina began the year with Theo Pinson sidelined for 16 games due to a fractured right foot. That opened up a spot in the starting lineup, and Williams capably filled it. As a freshman, he'd played fewer than five minutes per game. Through the season's first 16 games, Williams was nearly playing 24 minutes. In the Tar Heels' win at Clemson –the last before Pinson's return– Williams scored six of his 11 points in overtime, including the go-ahead jumper and a pair of free throws to seal the win. He was also perhaps an underrated passer, dishing out at least two assists on 13 occasions and as many as five four times.
When Pinson returned, Williams remained in the starting lineup, allowing the junior to help direct a full second unit. But the two guards were both healthy for just seven games. Pinson would go down again for three games with a lower right leg injury, and then Williams suffered his injury a game after Pinson's second return.
"He hurt his knee," Roy Williams said after the Tar Heels dispatched NC State in Raleigh, their first game without Kenny. "It's a crazy thing, but it's not an ACL or anything like that. It's four to six weeks, but when you look at four to six weeks at this point in the year, it's basically the end of the season."
Tonight is, in fact, the end of the season, the last college basketball game of the year, and Kenny Williams is not playing. He's been in a t-shirt and track pants to shoot pregame warm-ups, his knee in a heavy brace, and he's been in a suit on the sideline during games. It's not the role Kenny Williams wants to play, but it's one he has accepted.
That role is one of an emotional guide of sorts, a coach just off the floor with the best seat in the arena, the experience to speak with knowledge to his teammates and the rapport to do it effectively. He watches his teammates closely –lately, it's been Isaiah Hicks– and talks to them when they come off the floor. "I've just been picking him up as much as he needed, and letting him know what I see, just to provide a different perspective from the coaches on the bench, because I know they see things differently, I see things differently, and I'm just trying to provide as much as I could," Williams said.
And he's become a cheerleader, particularly for his fellow sophomore, Luke Maye, as Maye has emerged as a key contributor down the stretch. Maye was surrounded by reporters following the win over Kentucky, and Williams hovered nearby, shouting Maye's name and "Sophomore!"
"We're the only two sophomores on the team," Williams said with a smile. "One of us is out, so he's definitely carrying the load for the sophomore class."
When Williams went down, Pinson slid into the starting role that perhaps he would have inhabited had he himself been healthy to begin the season. They are similar players, but not identical. Williams is a better outside shooter; Pinson brings a unique energy. Both are good defenders and capable playmakers. Carolina doesn't have both, however. Williams has another six weeks to go before he can run, so he certainly won't see the floor tonight.
"I've had to become at peace with that, just for the simple fact that I knew I wouldn't be playing even if we made it this far," he said. "I knew that six weeks ago, so it's been easier to deal with. It would be a little different if we were at the point where I'm just getting back and it was bothering me and I wouldn't be able to play, but the fact that I knew my season was over six weeks ago, it's been easier. I had to process that a long time ago."
Like the 2008 Tar Heels, who lost Bobby Frasor in December, and the 2009 Tar Heels, who played without Marcus Ginyard after early January, the 2017 Tar Heels have endured the loss of a key guard in the rotation and yet made the Final Four. With Frasor in a suit, Carolina fell to Kansas in the national semifinal. A year later with Ginyard sidelined, they captured the national title. Tonight, it will be Kenny Williams in a suit tonight rather than a uniform, but he is OK with it. And he'll be playing whatever part he can in attempting to help the Tar Heels capture the title.
"It was tough at first, but I've been able to adjust," he said. "It's definitely tough being in the Final Four and not being able to play, but I know that I'm still part of the team and I have to play an important role, so I've just embraced that as much as I could."