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Featherston - The Parade Of Injuries

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The worst injury I ever saw on a basketball court occurred on Mar. 14, 1974.

N.C. State was battling Pittsburgh in the NCAA East Regional championship game in Reynolds Coliseum, when late in the first half, the great David Thompson got mad.

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Thompson was knocked to the floor as he attempted a shot. Angry that no foul was called, the 6-3 swingman got up and raced back down the court - apparently intent on venting his frustration on the defense end. As a Pitt player went up for a shot, Thompson launched himself into the stratosphere in an attempt to block it.

Later, when Thompson was in the pros, he was nicknamed Skywalker, in tribute to his incredible vertical leaps. On this occasion, he demonstrated just how much hop was in his legs. He attempted to jump over 6-foot-8 teammate Phil Spence to get at the Pitt shooter.

He almost made it. One heel caught Spence's shoulder, flipping Thompson in mid-air. He landed on his head - the sickening sound of the collision echoing through the old arena. The place went absolutely silent as Thompson lay on the court, not moving.

Teammate Monte Towe later said that he thought Thompson was dead. Wolfpack big man Tommy Burleson had the same thought.

"It was unbelievably frightening for me," Burleson said. "I was looking right at him when he fell. I've never seen a person take a fall like that in my life. It was the worst accident I've ever seen."

For four interminable minutes, Thompson laid motionless where he had fallen. Many spectators feared that he was seriously injured - even dead. When Wolfpack team doctor James Manley got to the scene, he saw a pool of blood beneath Thompson's head. At first, he thought the stricken player was bleeding from the ears, which would have indicated internal damage. But after a tentative examination, Manley saw the blood was streaming from a nasty cut just behind the ear.

The crowd of 12,400 had gone deathly silent when Thompson fell and it stayed that way until Thompson finally showed signs of life. The fans nervously applauded as he strapped into a stretcher (just in case of neck injuries) and was carried off the floor to a waiting ambulance.

CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, watching the game in New York, phoned Raleigh's Rex Hospital to get a report on Thompson's condition. He was told the same thing the Wolfpack players and the spectators at Reynolds were told at halftime: x-rays showed no broken bones and Thompson was not in any danger.

Towe found he could breath again.

"I thought David had broken his neck," he said.

Buoyed by the good news - along with 26 points from Burleson and strong play by Towe and guard Mo Rivers - State broke the game open early in the second half. The Pack was leading 79-59 with just under seven minutes left, when Thompson made his reappearance, walking slowly on his own and wearing a white bandage around his head to protect the 15 stitches used to close his bleeding head wound.

Reynolds went crazy.

Thompson's teammates would later needle him that he looked like one of the soldiers in the famous painting "The Spirit of '76" and writers would almost immediately begin to speculate about his chances of playing the next week in the Final Four. But in those first few moments after his return, the noise and emotion overflowed everything else.

"The response was overwhelming," Thompson said. "Just the show of affection from my teammates and fans - it was probably the greatest feeling I've ever had in my life. That moment made everything in my whole career seem worthwhile. I could see and feel that these people cared about me as a person and not just as basketball player. It was a moment when they seemed to be expressing pure love."

If Thompson's injury was the scariest moment of my career covering ACC basketball, his return was one of the greatest moments of transcendent joy that I ever witnessed.

But that incident illustrates the fragility of basketball history.

Thompson was able to come back and play his normal game a week later in Greensboro, where N.C. State ended UCLA's seven-year NCAA Tournament run with a double overtime victory in the semifinals. Barely 48 hours later, Thompson led the Pack past Marquette to win the 1974 national title. A week later, the Final Four MVP was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, pictured in flight again as he soared to block a shot by UCLA's Bill Walton.

Yet, none of that happens if Thompson's injury turned out to be just a little more serious. By all rights, he should have suffered a major concussion that would have kept him out of the UCLA game. And without their superstar, N.C. State has no chance of derailing the Bruin Express.

That much was demonstrated a year later, when Thompson suffered a lower leg injury in the 1975 ACC Tournament semifinals. He had scored 30 points in the first 30 minutes against ACC regular season champion Maryland, leading the Pack to a 20-point lead. Without Thompson on the floor, Maryland roared back and even took a one-point lead in the final seconds. State won on a lucky bounce - guard Craig Davis accidently dribbled the ball off his foot, directly into the hands of freshman Kenny Carr, who laid in the winning basket.

Thompson returned for the title game against UNC, but he was a mere shadow of his normal self (he finished with 16 points on 7-for-21 shooting). Thompson's game was played in the stratosphere and when he lost the ability to fly - as he did in the '75 ACC title game - he was a mere mortal. Without his heroics, UNC freshman point guard Phil Ford, running the Four Corners to perfection, was able to guide the Heels to a narrow victory.

The irony is that Ford, who benefited from Thompson's injury in 1975, would see his next three postseason chances ruined by a succession of UNC injuries between 1976-78.


Injuries are a part of the game. Yet, there's a difference between the normal bumps and bruises of a long season and the kind of catastrophic injury that can ruin seasons.

Duke has been extremely unlucky over the last three seasons. The 2011 Blue Devils were the best team in college basketball before freshman point guard Kyrie Irving was lost with a toe injury. The Blue Devils remained a good team (finishing No. 3 in the final AP poll) and even got Irving back for the NCAA Tournament. But even though the freshman played well, Duke was not able to re-establish the chemistry it had displayed in November and early December - and the Devils flamed out in the Sweet 16.

A year later, Duke finished the regular season 26-5 and ranked No. 5 in the nation before losing junior forward Ryan Kelly with a broken foot heading into postseason play. The crippled team promptly lost two of three games, including an embarrassing loss to Lehigh in the NCAA opener.

And the 2012-13 Blue Devils were 15-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation when Kelly was again sidelined with a foot injury. Once again, the team promptly lost two out of three and even though the Devils have recovered to win eight of the last nine, it's obvious that this is not the same team without Kelly.

That's certainly a three-year string of bad luck. But is it unusually bad luck or just an unfortunate roll of the dice of fate? Is something more sinister going on? After all, Duke has had a number of foot injuries in the past. Elton Brant suffered a broken foot in his freshman season. Carlos Boozer broke his foot twice - in the fall before his freshman season and in the last week of the 2001 regular season, when he was a sophomore. Redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee started the current season with a broken foot.

That's a lot of foot problems.

And that doesn't count Seth Curry's mysterious leg injury. Although Duke refuses to offer details of the problem, the best guess is that he's dealing with a stress reaction - those are tiny, microscopic bone fractures caused by the stress of physical activity. Treatment is reducing the physical activity - if not treated, the injury can turn into a full-fledged stress fracture.

Of course, the Duke training and medical staff know better than any of us exactly how serious the problem is. I'm confident that Curry is getting the best treatment possible. And as the son of a former NBA player (and the bother of a current NBA standout), I'm sure Curry and his family understand the risks involved and can make an informed decision as to how much he should play.

But that's a side issue.

The main question is the one we've started with - are Duke's recent problems unusual or something that many schools go through?

Let's face it. Duke is not the only ACC team going through injury problems.

Boston College has been hampered all season by the knee problems that have turned sophomore center from one of their best players (Steve Donahue has said he was THE best player during a summer tour to Europe) into a limited contributor. Clemson has been without Devin Coleman, probably the team's best-looking freshman a year ago, and Jaron Blossomgame, the team's top-rated recruit. Florida State has been crippled by the loss of Terrence Shannon, probably for the last half of the season, and by an ankle injury that first sidelined, then limited veteran guard Ian Miller (like Curry, he is unable to practice, although he plays in games). Georgia Tech, which desperately needs a point guard, has been without point guard recruit Corey Heyward (the son for former NFL star Craig "Iron Head" Heyward).

N.C. State dropped out of the ACC regular season race when the paper-thin Pack lost junior point guard Lorenzo Brown for almost three games (two full games and most of a third). State lost all three. Miami lost a pair of games in Hawaii soon after losing big man Reggie Johnson with a hand injury.

Virginia's third-place status is amazing in view of the Cavs' injury woes. It started when senior point guard Jontel Evans missed most of the first two months of the season recovering from a broken foot. That problem was compounded when backup point guard Malcolm Brogden was lost for the season. And just when the Cavs got rolling in late January, productive freshman center Mike Tobey was sidelined with mono. Starting forward Darian Atkins has been in and out of the lineup for the last month.

By the way, this is the third straight season that major injuries have crippled Tony Bennett's team. In 2011, he lost forward Mike Scott - the team's best player - in December. Last season, with Scott looking like an ACC POY candidate, Virginia was 15-2 and ranked No. 15 in the nation when center Assane Sene was sidelined for the rest of the year. The Cavs went 7-8 without the big man in the middle down the stretch.

So Duke does have some company in its three-year run of injury bad luck.


But, no disrespect to Boston College, Clemson or even Virginia, what's happened to Duke is more significant in the scheme of things.

Why? Because even totally healthy, none of those teams were going to contend for the national title as Duke certainly was before Irving's injury in 2011 and Kelly's injuries the last two years.

Not saying a healthy Duke definitely would have won the last two years (or would be the prohibitive favorite this year), but the Devils would have been in the mix. Personally, I think the 2011 Duke team would have had a great chance to win it all. I think that with a healthy Kelly (and no problems for Curry), this Duke team was going to make a real run -- and still might if Kelly returns and the team can regain its chemistry with him.

Only in 2012 do I think Duke was a longshot to win it all - but with Kelly, no way the Devils lose to Lehigh. It would have been a Sweet 16 team at least … and would have had a great chance to win the ACC title (as it was, they barely lost to eventual champ FSU in the semifinals).

So while I'm not prepared to trace every ACC team that has been crippled by injuries over the years, I think I can take a look at those ACC teams that were denied a chance to contend for the national title by untimely injuries and illnesses.

So going back to the beginning:

1956 - It was probably Everett Case's best team - a senior dominated star that featured All-American center Ron Shavlik in the middle and the best backcourt in the country in Vic Molodet and John Maggio, plus one of the best all-around forwards in the league in senior Phil DiNardo.

That team was a product of a courageous decision by Case. In 1952-53, when his best-ever recruiting class (assembled to a large degree by energetic young assistant Vic Bubas) arrived on campus, the Southern Conference still allowed freshmen to compete on the varsity. However, the NCAA banned freshman from playing in the NCAA Tournament - AND banned fourth-year seniors (seniors who had played as freshman). That ruling killed State's 1952 team in the NCAA Tournament, when his three top scorers were not allowed to play.

That same fall, Duke coach Hal Bradley elected to play talented freshman Joe Belmont and Rudy D'Emilio. But Case held his star freshman out of varsity competition - a decision that went a long way towards breaking his string of six straight conference championships (State - without its gifted kids - lost to Wake Forest by one in the finals).

But those seniors - Shavlik, Molodet, DiNardo and Lou Dickman - were there to anchor a Wolfpack team that emerged from the ACC Tournament with a 24-3 record and a No. 2 national ranking.

Unfortunately, the Pack faced disaster when in the final regular season game at Wake Forest, Shavlik broke his right wrist. The doctors at first said he was through for the season, but he did play in the ACC Tournament with an awkward leather cast on his wrist. The apparatus made it difficult for him to grab the ball and he was useless as a scorer in the tournament, but he did contribute on the defensive end, while Molodet and Maggio did their magic on the offensive end.

There was growing excitement about a possible NCAA title game matchup between the No. 2 ranked Pack and the defending national champs, San Francisco - which entered the NCAA Tournament on a 51-game winning streak, but without star guard K.C. Jones. The Dons did have Bill Russell and that made the potential matchup intriguing.

It never happened, thanks to a relatively unknown Canisius team, which took advantage of some favorable officiating and Shavlik's broken wrist to beat State in a triple-overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden.

Shavlik actually played well in the loss, but how dominant would he have been healthy?

1966 - Duke spent much of the 1965-66 season at No. 1 after routing two-time defending national champ UCLA twice in December. The team was loaded with senior All-American Jack Marin and senior guard Steve Vacendak sharing scoring honors with junior All-American Bob Verga. Sophomore Mike Lewis, from distant Missoula, Mt., anchored the middle.

Duke was 25-3 and No. 2 in the nation after beating Syracuse (and senior guard Jim Boeheim) in the East Regional title game. Everybody was looking forward to the Final Four matchup between the No. 2 Devils and No. 1 Kentucky.

But on the Sunday night before the trip to College Park, Verga was rushed to Duke hospital with a throat infection. He had just scored 22 and 21 points in Duke's two East Regional wins (shooting a sizzling 10 of 13 from the floor against Syracuse).

In the days leading up to the Final Four, Kentucky guard Larry Conley entered the infirmary with the flu. At least that's what was reported - two years later, when Duke visited Lexington for the Kentucky Invitational Tournament, a Wildcat assistant bragged to a party of Duke officials that Conley's illness was a fake - it was merely a clever ploy by Rupp to negate any psychological advantage Duke might get from Verga's illness.

Note: I've since had several Kentucky partisans insist that's not true. It's possible they are right. But I did hear the claim and it's a fact that Conley played his normal game in the finals, while Verga made just a token (and ineffective appearance). Without the star guard, Duke lost a four-point heartbreaker.

Bubas later warned reporters not to go write that Duke would have won with a healthy Verga, but in his heart, he knew it was true. And would the Devils have fared any better with No. 3 Texas Western in the finals than Kentucky did … or would Duke be forever remembered as the all-white team that lost to the all-black team in the title game?

I don't know the answer to that, but I suspect Duke would have had a much better chance in the finals. For one thing, Lewis gave Duke the bulk to match massive Dave Lattin (a player Rupp's Runts couldn't handle) and the Blue Devils were a superb ballhandling team and should have been able to withstand the pressure of Bobby Joe Hill and Orsten Artis.

One final point - While I think a Duke-Texas Western final would have been a tossup. I do believe that had it occurred, Don Haskins would not have been able to use an all-black lineup for 40 minutes as he did against Kentucky. With forward Willie Flournoy injured (he made just a token appearance in the title game), Hawkins would not have had a black player to match up with Marin. He had the same problem in the semifinals when Utah's Jerry Chambers almost knocked the Minors out. He was saved by 6-8 white forward Jerry Armstrong, who finally brought Chambers under control.

I don't know that Duke would have beaten Texas Western with a healthy Verga, but I'm almost certain that Texas Western couldn't have beaten Duke without using Armstrong extensively - and that would have put the '66 Miners in a class with '63 Loyola, which also used four blacks and one white.

1969 - North Carolina reached the Final Four in three straight seasons in the late '60s, losing in the semifinals in 1967 and in the championship game to Lew Alcindor and UCLA in '68. The Heels returned to the Final Four in 1969 with a 27-3 record and a No. 2 national ranking.

But the UNC was crippled in the national semifinals, playing without senior point guard Dick Grubar. The team's playmaker and best defensive guard wrecked his knee in the ACC Tournament finals against Duke. The great Charlie Scott rallied the Heels past the Devils, then to the East regional championship - capped by his game-winning buzzer-beater against Davidson.

However, Scott wasn't enough to carry UNC past Rick Mount and Purdue in the NCAA semifinals. Grubar, who might have slowed the sharpshooting guard, was on the bench in street clothes.

Now, to be fair, even if Grubar had been healthy and helped UNC past Purdue, it's unlikely that the Heels could have upset Alcindor and the Bruins. Still, it would have been a fascinating battle between two talented, experienced teams.

1970 - South Carolina dominated the ACC in 1970 in a manner that wasn't matched until Duke's '99 team crushed the league. The Gamecocks were undefeated in league play and just one of those wins was by less than 10 points.

But in those days, only the ACC Tournament champion got to participate in the NCAA Tournament. And South Carolina had to win three games in Charlotte, despite a 23-3 record and a No. 3 national ranking.

The Gamecocks survived a scare in the quarterfinals - edging eighth-seeded Clemson 34-33 in one of the ACC's great slowdown games. But Frank McGuire's juggernaut appeared to have regained its swagger, piling up a huge lead over Wake Forest in the semifinals.

However, with 10 minutes left, South Carolina All-American John Roche stepped on the ankle of Wake's John Lewkowicz and went down in a heap. The first reports were the Roche's ankle was broken, but the Gamecock star was in uniform for the finals the next night against N.C. State.

Roche didn't start, but he soon came off the bench and played 47 minutes of the ensuing double-overtime thriller, despite a noticeable limp. It clearly impacted his deadly jump shot too - Roche was a dismal 4-of-17 from the floor. With the great guard below par, N.C. State was able to prevail in double overtime.

The East Regionals were played on South Carolina's home court in Columbia the next weekend. A healthy Gamecock team would have been a shoe-in to reach the Final Four - and although UCLA was back for the fourth straight year, the Bruins no longer had Alcindor and the stars who had won the three previous titles. South Carolina would have had a real chance.

1975 - N.C. State was at best the second-best team in the ACC in '75 and just ranked No. 8 nationally entering the ACC Tournament. Still, the Pack returned four staters off the 1974 national title game, including the greatest college player in history. And Thompson was at the top of his game, scoring 38 points in the first round against Virginia and 30 points in the first 30 minutes against top-seeded Maryland in the semifinals.

But the mysterious leg ailment that sidelined Thompson down the stretch against the Terps and turned him into a mortal player in the championship game - a narrow loss to UNC - robbed the Wolfpack star of the chance to lead N.C. State to back-to-back national titles.

1976 - Phil Ford, who struggled much of his freshman season, came of age in 1976, teaming with Mitch Kupchak and Walter Davis to lead UNC to a 25-2 record and a No. 4 national ranking before the Heels were upset in the ACC Tournament finals by Virginia.

No matter - starting a year earlier, the NCAA allowed two teams per conference, so UNC got its NCAA bid.

But in the week between the loss to Virginia and the first-round matchup against No. 8 Alabama - the NCAA actually scheduled at least one killer first-round game for TV in that era - Dean Smith gave his players three days off. Ford used the break to go home to Rocky Mount, where he engaged in a pickup basketball game and suffered a twisted knee.

The crippled All-American had a horrible game - 1-of-5 shooting and five turnovers in 28 minutes against the Tide. UNC's chance to matchup up with No. 1 Indiana was lost when Ford got hurt during his homecoming trop.

1977 - North Carolina was even better in '77 with Ford and Davis leading a deep, talented team to 24 wins and a No. 4 national ranking, despite the midseason loss to Olympic center Tom LaGarde.

Smith used a trio of freshmen big men to replace LaGarde in the middle (with Rich "Air Ball" Yonaker getting the most time). But Smith's problems mounted when Davis, the team's top scorer, suffered a broken finger in the ACC semifinals. UNC kept winning, but in the East Regional semifinals against Notre Dame, Ford suffered a hyperextended elbow that made it difficult - if not impossible - for him to shoot.

UNC STILL kept winning, beating Kentucky in the East title game, then upsetting UNLV in the NCAA semifinals.

The run finally ended in the title game as Marquette edged UNC. Davis, playing with his fingers taped together, played well, but the crippled Ford was 3-of-10 from the floor and the trio of young centers combined for just eight points and seven rebounds.

Without the injuries, the '77 Heels almost certainly would have given Smith his first national title.

[Note: 1976 and 1977 was just the start of a tough run of back luck for UNC. In 1978, UNC was top 10 almost all season until sophomore forward Mike O'Koren suffered a senious ankle injury in a late game in Providence. He returned to the lineup, but UNC's second-best player was clearly below par as the Heels lost by four to San Francisco in their NCAA opener. Two years later, UNC was in the top 10 again, when freshman forward James Worthy slipped on some ice that one of the classy UNC fans had thrown on the Carmichael court and broke his ankle. He wasn't available when the Heels lost their NCAA opener to Texas A&M in double overtime. Actually, I doubt whether either of these two teams would have won the national title or even reached the Final Four … still - like 2012 Duke - both would have lasted a lot longer in NCAA play with good health].

1979 - It's ironic that the only season during this era when UNC was healthy for postseason came in 1979, when the No, 3 Tar Heels were upset in Raleigh by Penn.

That was the first half of what has come to be known as Black Sunday. The second half involved Duke - a Blue Devil team that was far below par.

Duke - with all five starters back from the 1979 NCAA runner-ups - was No. 7 in the nation when the Blue Devils took on St. John's in the second half of that Sunday NCAA doubleheader in Reynolds Coliseum.

But Duke was without starting point guard Bob Bender, who had missed the ACC title game with a case of appendicitis, and starting forward Kenny Dennard, who was out with an ankle he had sprained in a late-night pickup game with a bunch of football players. On top of that misfortune, All-American center Mike Gminski was battling a case of food poisoning - he played and scored 16 points, but he spent most timeouts heaving into a wastebasket behind the bench.

Penn ended up winning the regional in Greensboro, but I have no doubt that a healthy Duke team would have qualified for the Final Four - and a semifinal matchup with Magic Johnson and Michigan State.

1984 - Does history repeat itself? North Carolina's 1984 Tar Heels bear an amazing resemblance to Duke's 2011 Blue Devils.

Smith's Heels were an amazingly talented team built around NPOY Michael Jordan, three-time All-American Sam Perkins and future No. 1 NBA draft pick Brad Daugherty in the middle. But the real sparkplug was dynamic freshman point guard Kenny Smith.

Over the first half of that season, that team was not only the best team in the nation … it was one of the best in ACC history. It was destroying people. Then, in a February rout of LSU, Smith was tackled from behind on a breakaway. He broke his wrist and missed the next six weeks. UNC replaced Smith with sophomore Steve Hale and lost just one game (by one point on the road at Arkansas) during his absence.

Dean Smith elected to bring Kenny Smith back during the last week of the regular season. UNC never recovered its chemistry. The Heels survived a double-overtime game to Duke in Carmichael (the last home game for Michael Jordan), then lost to the Devils in the ACC Tournament semifinals, then lost again to unranked Indiana in the NCAA Sweet 16.

The trajectory of that team is amazingly similar to what happened to the '11 Devils - awesome early with freshman point guard Kyrie Irving running the show, very solid during the stretch where Irving was sidelined … and an awkward ending after the first-year star tried to return to action.

[Note: Not sure the 1985 UNC team would have won it all, but the Tar Heels were forced to play without starting guard Steve Hale, who suffered a shoulder injury in the NCAA opener against Middle Tennessee State, when he was - like Smith the year before - tackled from behind. The Heels made it to the Elite Eight anyway before losing a close game to eventual NCAA champ Villanova.]

1989 - Duke, playing the Final Four for the second straight year and the third time in four years under Coach K, got off to a fast start, building as double-digit lead against Seton Hall in the semifinals. But just 11 minutes into the game, senior forward Robert Brickey was sidelined with a sprained ankle.

Seton Hall roared back to take control of the game with Brickey on the sidelines. The Pirates would lose the title game to Michigan in overtime the next night.

1995 - Wake Forest doesn't get many changes to compete for the national title, but with Tim Duncan in the middle and Randolph Childress at guard, the '95 Deacs were a real threat to go all the way.

Childress, coming off the most brilliant ACC Tournament performance in history, led Wake to the Sweet 16, but just before the regional semifinal matchup with Oklahoma State, the senior guard came down with the flu. He toughed out 40 minutes against the Cowboys, but missed 10 of 16 shots and couldn't provide the firepower to get Wake over the hump in a four-point loss.

1996 - Tony Rutland was not nearly the player that Randolph Childress was in '95, but he was a vital player for the '96 Deacs and was playing the best basketball of his life when he went down with a torn ACL in the final minutes of the ACC Tournament title game (he was 5-of-7 on 3s in that game).

The junior point guard tried to gut it out, but playing one-legged, he was totally ineffective in NCAA play, costing the Deacs another chance to make a Final Four run.

1998 - There's no telling how much the broken foot that sidelined Duke freshman Elton Brand for two months hurt the '98 Blue Devils. Brand did return for the final week of the regular season and he made huge contributions to wins over UNC (in the regular season finale) and over Syracuse in the NCAA Sweet 16. But he was curiously ineffective in several other outings, including the ACC Tournament finals against UNC and in the Elite Eight loss to Kentucky. He managed just four points and two rebounds in 21 minutes of action as Duke blew a big lead to the 'Cats in St. Petersburg.

Was that a function of his youth or the inevitable difficulty for a player to regain his strength - and for a team to regain its chemistry - after a long absence?

2000 - Duke was rolling in 2000, when freshman Mike Dunleavy was lost for almost a month with mono. The Devils had won 20 of their previous 21 games before he went out … and the team promptly lost a one-point home game to St. John's without him (Duke's last non-conference home loss).

Dunleavy returned for the ACC Tournament and the freshman sixth man was great in his first two games back. But he struggled with his shot in the NCAA Tournament and seemed tired. In the heartbreaking loss to Florida in the Sweet 16, he played 21 minutes and hit just one of four shots and committed four turnovers.

Would a healthy Dunleavy have helped Duke get past Florida - a team that ended up losing to Michigan State in the NCAA title game?

2011 - We've talked about how the loss of Kyrie Irving disrupted the '11 Blue Devils.

2012 - When North Carolina dominated Duke in the '12 regular season finale, the Tar Heels looked like a legitimate national title contender. UNC was 27-4 and No. 4 in the nation.

But the Heels lost All-ACC forward John Henson - a great rebounder and the best defender in the ACC - in the ACC Tournament. Playing without him, the Heels lost by three to FSU in the ACC title game.

Henson returned for the NCAA Tournament with a bandaged wrist that was just a bit more useful than the injured wrist that limited Shavlik in '56. Unfortunately, in the second-round NCAA game against Creighton, Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist going for a layup (shades of Kenny Smith!). UNC managed to get past Ohio without him in the Sweet 16, but couldn't handle Kansas in the Elite Eight without the best playmaker in college basketball.

That's 15 potential national champions. Now, they all wouldn't have won without health issues, but several would have - maybe four? Maybe six? Maybe eight?

Duke has had six potential championship teams snuffed out by injuries. That might be generous, but I'm not counting 2011, when Kelly's presence might have fueled a deep run or 2008 when several key Blue Devils were reportedly ill during the second-round loss to West Virginia. I'm not counting 2004, when Chris Duhon had to play the entire NCAA Tournament with bruised ribs or 2005 when a late injury to Sean Dockery weakened the ACC champs. Maybe I should count 1993, when Duke was No. 3 in the nation before Grant Hill's serious ankle injury (compounded by the loss of Cherokee Parks in the narrow NCAA loss to Cal).

North Carolina lost five potential championship changes - more if you count 1978, 1980 and/or 1985.

It's interesting that UNC has a streak in the late 1970s that is similar to the strong of bad luck that Duke has endured in recent years. Between 1976 and 1980, five of six UNC teams - all ranked in the top 10 - had to enter NCAA play with a key player out or hobbled.

Just one man's opinion, but here's my ranking of the eight most likely national champs - if health issues could be eliminated:

  1. UNC 1977 - They were so close anyway.
  2. UNC 1984 - The best ACC team I ever saw before Smith's injury
  3. Duke 2011 - K recently said that team might have been good enough to run the table.
  4. Duke 1966 - I'm sure that with a healthy Verga, Duke beats Kentucky in the semifinals … but I think the title game with Texas Western would have been a tossup.
  5. Duke 1989 - Duke was the best team in Seattle that weekend, before Brickey was hurt.
  6. UNC 2012 - The Heels had lost to Kentucky by one early in the season at Rupp Arena. They certainly would have had a chance in the rematch on a neutral court.
  7. South Carolina 1970 - A shoe-in to reach the Final Four. Maybe an underdog against UCLA in the finals, but this was a transitional Bruin team - in the gap between Alcindor and Walton.
  8. N.C. State 1956 - This team should have faced San Francisco for the national title. I'd favor Bill Russell and the Dons in the title game, but, remember, the defending champs would have been without star guard K.C. Jones.

One further note: Although I've surveyed the ACC's "might-have-beens" we shouldn't forget that plenty of other schools have suffered similar losses. Off the top of my head, I can recall the 2000 Cincinnati Bearcats, which spent most of the season at No. 1, only to lose All-American Kenyon Martin with a broken leg just before tournament time. Indiana's '95 team probably wins it all if Scott May doesn't suffer a broken wrist.

Those are just a couple of examples. I'm sure there are dozens more. The ACC is not the only league with might-have beens.


Three ACC championships overcame major physical issues to win it all.

1983: N.C. State was a good team before senior guard Dereck Whittenburg was hurt at Virginia on Jan. 12. The Pack was 7-2 and ranked No. 19 nationally at the time. But they were leading Virginia when Whittenburg went down and a victory over the No. 2 Cavs would have really boosted State's ranking.

But not only did State lose the lead to Virginia that night, they lost three of the five games he missed with a broken foot and also his first game back. State did rout a good Wake Forest team in the home finale with Whittenburg scoring 25 points and passing out eight assists.

We all know what happened next - the Cardiac Pack won a number of dramatic games, claimed the ACC championship and made a memorable march to the national title in Albuquerque.

A myth has grown up that Whittenburg's absence actually helped the Pack by allowing the other players to expand their roles. I don't buy that - the other key players - forward Thurl Bailey and point guard Sidney Lowe - were seniors who already had well-established roles. Junior center Cozell McQueen and sophomore forward Lorenzo Charles were basically defenders/rebounders that season and that didn't change when Whitt went our or when he returned.

The only player who really expanded his role in Whittenburg's absence was freshman Ernie Myers, who suddenly became a huge factor. But Myers was an insignificant player when Whitt returned and during the title run.

So while the '83 Pack deserves credit for overcoming what could have been a disastrous injury, I don't think it had anything to do with the miraculous run that followed - other than to make it seem more miraculous than it was.

1992: For a team that spent every week of the season at No. 1, the '92 Blue Devils endured an amazing number of injuries.

The worst were the back-to-back injuries to point guard Bobby Hurley, who suffered a broken foot at UNC on Feb. 5, and to versatile swing man Grant Hill, who went down with a high ankle sprain as soon as Hurley returned to the lineup. People forget that Hill missed three games, but came off the bench after his return - all the way through the NCAA Tournament … until the title game, when a sprained ankle sidelined senior Brian Davis and Hill returned to the starting unit.

I don't think the injuries made the '92 Devils better - without Hurley's broken foot, that team might have finished unbeaten. Instead, winning the title was merely a testament to the strength and depth of that team.

2001: When Duke center Carlos Boozer broke his foot in the home finale against Maryland, everybody - including head coach Mike Krzyzewski - expected disaster. Critics were already suggesting that the Devils were too small and too thin to go all the way.

Instead, Coach K revamped his team in the four days between the Maryland loss and the regular season finale at UNC. He replaced Boozer with a trio of little-used centers and made them all screeners for his bevy of 3-point shooters. He installed freshman Chris Duhon in the starting lineup and turned senior Nate James into a potent sixth man.

The re-tooled Devils preceded to win 10 straight games to close the season, getting some significant help from a recovering Boozer in the Final Four.

I would argue that the 2001 Blue Devils are the only one of the ACC's championship teams that actually turned an injury to its advantage.


The question is no longer whether Kelly will return … but when?

The best guess (at least it's Kelly's guess) seems to be for the home finale Mar. 5 against Virginia Tech, but no one would he shocked if it happened Saturday against Miami or didn't happen until the ACC Tournament in Greensboro.

The timing is important because not only does Kelly need time to regain his stamina and his shooting touch, the rest of the team needs time to regain the chemistry that they had before he was sidelined.

That's especially important on defense, where Kelly was a key cog - the catalyst really - for what was a superb defense. Duke's D hasn't been nearly as good in his absence.

How long will it take to re-integrate Kelly?

My research indicates that it's easier for a veteran player to step back into the mix than for a youngster.

The two cases where the return of an injured star seemed to hurt their team -- UNC in 1984 and Duke in 2011 - were both instances where a freshman point guard tried to fit back in. Both Brand in 1998 and Dunleavy in 2000 were freshmen when they returned from health issues - and both had significant ups and downs upon their returns.

But in 1983, Whittenburg stepped right back into his role without the slightest disruption. To me, it's significant that Whitt was - like Kelly this year - a heady senior with a strong connection to his veteran teammates. When junior Bobby Hurley returned after missing five games in 1992, the team didn't miss a beat.

Could Kelly's absence have helped Duke get better?

That's something we won't know until we see the rotation when he returns. Certainly Amile Jefferson has gotten more burn and he's been extremely effective in some situations (and not so effective in others). Rasheed Sulaimon seems to be embracing a bigger role, but I think that might have happened without Kelly's absence.

Frankly, I don't know how Duke will handle Kelly's return.

But I will say this - the Duke team I saw in November and December was as good or better than anybody in the country. If the Devils don't recapture that level of excellence, I'll add 2013 Duke to my list of great might-have-beens.