It was supposed to be a quick weekend of work at the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival, a triumphant return to New York for the North Carolina men's basketball team.
There, on the same court where they grabbed the Preseason NIT title and made UNC fans forget about last year's 8-20 debacle, the Tar Heels were set to grab two wins and move to 9-2.
By eclipsing the eight-win mark and continuing its winning ways heading into the new year, North Carolina could finally put to rest many of the comparisons to last season.
But it's never that easy, is it? Not around here, not when it comes to UNC hoops these days.
Instead of taking home two more nonconference victories before hitting the ACC schedule, the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill for New Year's with a devastating season-altering injury to freshman center Sean May and a confidence-shaking loss to tiny Iona.
Add in another heartbreaking defeat, a 64-61 overtime loss at Miami on Saturday, and UNC is now 8-4. The Tar Heels are once again an unranked and unknown commodity, much like they were before this up-and-down season began.
May, who broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot at the start of the first half against Iona and will be out for seven to nine more weeks, had been an integral part of Coach Matt Doherty's offensive and defensive plans.
"It's going to be something we're going to have to work through," said forward Rashad McCants. "He's a big part of our team, a bigger part than you guys even know."
Because of the Tar Heels' lack of depth inside, May was called upon to score, rebound and stop opponents' big men.
And throughout the first part of the season, May had great success. He was averaging 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game before sustaining what UNC staff called a "stress reaction" in his left foot days after the Tar Heels lost a 98-81 decision to Kentucky at the Smith Center.
In that game, the Wildcats exposed UNC's lack of height -- even with a healthy May -- by pounding the ball inside to center Marquis Estill once May got into foul trouble.
Perhaps it was a sign of things to come. After hurting his foot in practice, May had several options, said Dr. Tim Taft, UNC director of sports medicine.
Taft said May immediately could have had surgery or treated the injury non-operatively by putting the foot in a boot.
"If you adopt the latter course, if you rest him out for six to eight weeks, you've got a 60 percent chance of healing, at which point in time a certain number of these kids then fracture," Taft said.
So May, with the OK of team doctors, decided to test out the foot and try to play. The 6-foot-8, 272-pounder struggled offensively against Vermont and Florida State, combining for 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting in the two games.
But May rebounded and defended well, even as the foot continued to hurt.
"After (the Dec. 22 FSU) game, it was unbelievable," May said after the Iona loss. "I couldn't walk. I came out at walk-through and practice this week ... and I felt all right, but it was painful."
Even if May hadn't broken his foot against Iona on Dec. 27, the Tar Heels still might have lost. With Melvin Scott (one-game suspension) and Jawad Williams (stomach virus) out, UNC played its worst game of the year from start to finish.
The next day, the Tar Heels bounced back to beat St. John's 63-59 in an ugly, brick-laden Holiday Festival consolation game. Although North Carolina shot 34 percent from the floor, it held the Red Storm to an anemic 28 percent.
"We've had some big wins this year: Kansas in this building, Stanford in this building and at Florida State," Doherty said. "This is as big a win for us because the circumstances were very unique."
After that victory, though, the Tar Heels couldn't keep up the momentum at Miami. In fact, UNC had trouble doing anything right down the stretch against the Hurricanes, going the last 12 minutes without a basket and shooting 31 percent overall in the OT loss.
Since May first injured his foot after the Kentucky game, the Tar Heels have shot 36 percent from the floor. Before that, UNC had made 48 percent of its shots.
The significance of May's loss, then, is twofold. Not only has it gotten the team out of its inside-out offense, but it opened up the middle for opposing offenses to have their way down low.
Instead of going with a smaller lineup with forward David Noel, Doherty opted to keep a big man in May's place.
Meanwhile, freshmen Byron Sanders and
Although the 6-11, 262-pound Grant has legitimate size, he has been bothered by a knee injury and is out-of-shape. So Doherty has turned to Sanders, a 6-9, 225-pounder from Gulfport, Miss.
"His offense will come," Doherty said of Sanders. "He just needs to find his way. He's like a colt right now. He needs to find his way, and I think he will."
Sanders is 1 for 12 in the two games he has started. He is shooting 25 percent overall from the floor and is averaging 1.6 points and 1.5 rebounds per game.
With the ACC season creeping up on them, the Tar Heels have to hope that Sanders can settle down and at least rebound and play solid defense.
And that the 6-8 1/2, 204-pound Williams can help Sanders in the post on both ends of the court.
If not? Perhaps McCants, UNC's leading scorer, put it best.
"We just have to go back to the drawing board."
The Sports Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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