But instead of a freshman year marked by possible Rookie of the Year and All-ACC honors, May is now looking at two months of rehabilitation from a broken foot, then a struggle to regain fitness. That's a character test in itself.
What his teammates and coaches face is only slightly less daunting. I would not be surprised if the Heels follow the poor effort against Iona by mounting an inspired performance against St. John's Saturday afternoon in the consolation game, win or lose. Over the long haul, however, May's absence is going to make North Carolina an easier team to defend, an easier team to attack, an easier team to battle against on the boards. No illusions can be offered on that score, and January could be a long one, especially on the road.
In terms of the season as a whole, if Carolina can just hold its own, and play .500 ball until May returns, hopefully by late February, the Heels have will still have a chance to put together a late winning streak, earn a tournament bid, and declare the season a success.
But to do even that well, the Heels are going to have to show they can handle adversity well: execute well-thought out plans that maximize Carolina's strengths on the perimeter, avoid demoralizing late-game meltdowns, show much improved discipline on the offensive end, and above all, prevent the losses that may well be coming from breaking the heart or sense of togetherness of this team. The coaching staff too, faces a challenge not only of their tactical acumen but also their patience.
Carolina has been somewhat fortunate in recent years in terms of bad injuries such as May's, at least among projected starters. But there is no shortage of inspiration from the past to prove that the season need not be considered over: Byron Sanders and Damion Grant might now be usefully told the tale of how freshmen Rick Yonakor, Jeff Wolf, and Steve Krafcisin stepped in for senior Tom LaGarde in 1977, and ended up playing in a national title game.
Nietzsche famously said that that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Perhaps he had the most recent turn of events for the Tar Heels in mind.
Does the loss of Sean May mean Carolina will lose a few more games than they would have otherwise? Yes. Does this blow mean the season is over, or that Carolina cannot be fiercely competitive in the vast majority, if not all, of the next dozen games or so until May can return? No -- or to be more accurate, not as long as the Tar Heels don't let that happen.
Thad Williamson is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html. Thad welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.