North Carolina’s superior depth took a hit this week, as an injury and a suspension left coach Roy Williams’ team without two players for the rest of the season.
The Tar Heels, though, shouldn’t need much help against Virginia.
Coming off its highest-scoring conference performance in more than four years, third-ranked North Carolina will try to extend its winning streak to seven on Saturday when its hosts the struggling Cavaliers, who are hoping to avoid a seventh straight loss.
The Tar Heels (20-2, 6-2 ACC) were overwhelming favorites to win the national title coming into the season, largely because of their extraordinary depth. Williams’ team was designed to go at least 10 and sometimes 11 players deep, but suddenly, it’s become considerably thinner on the bench.
Freshman forward Tyler Zeller hasn’t played since mid-November because of a broken wrist, and on Tuesday it was announced that senior guard Marcus Ginyard, North Carolina’s best defender, would miss the rest of the season because of an injured left foot.
Ginyard, who started all 39 games for the Tar Heels last season, saw action in only three games in 2008-09 while recovering from preseason surgery.
In addition, Williams suspended sophomore Will Graves for the remainder of the season for unspecified disciplinary reasons.
“Will being out obviously adds to the loss of Marcus and is huge for our team,” Williams said. “Coming into this season we thought it would be the most depth I ever coached and that certainly has not been the case.”
Ginyard, who intends to seek a medical redshirt, says the absences are just something North Carolina will have to overcome if it hopes to make a repeat trip to the Final Four.
“There is no doubt that every national championship team has had to overcome some type obstacle,” Ginyard said. “There are a lot of things that happen throughout the year with injuries and everything is not going to go your way and every championship team has been able to find a way to get through those things and to persevere.”
The Tar Heels lost their first two conference games, including a stunning home loss to unranked Boston College, but they’ve looked like a national championship-caliber team since then.
North Carolina has won its last six games by an average of 16.7 points, the latest coming Tuesday in a 108-91 home rout of Maryland behind a season-high 34 points from Wayne Ellington.
The Tar Heels went 16-of-25 from 3-point range - Ellington was 7-of-9 - and finished one 3 shy of the school record. They hadn’t scored that many points in an ACC game since putting up 110 at Virginia on Jan. 29, 2005, on their way to winning the national championship.
“It was a heck of a show. I’ve said a lot of times this year that we can really shoot the ball,” Williams said. “We shot the Dickens out of it tonight.”
The Heels’ six-game winning streak began against the Cavaliers (7-11, 1-6) on Jan. 15 in Charlottesville, but that day it was Tyler Hansbrough who dominated. The reigning national player of the year had 28 points and 12 rebounds in North Carolina’s 83-61 win.
That game was also the worst of Sylven Landesberg’s career. Virginia’s freshman guard was 1-of-9 from the field and had just two points, but he’s picked up his game lately.
Landesberg averaged 25.3 points on 59.1 percent shooting in his last three games, though it hasn’t made a difference in the win column. He had 32 points on Wednesday against Boston College on 13-of-23 from the field, but the rest of the Cavaliers were 10-of-46 in an 80-70 loss.
Virginia has lost 23 straight on the road against top-five opponents since a 77-69 win at Duke on Jan. 17, 1993.