To Play or Not to Play

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When No. 1 North Carolina takes the floor for its ACC quarterfinal matchup on Friday, there's a chance that history will be made as two teammates boasting ACC Player of the Year awards will step on the court together. But with Ty Lawson hobbled with a toe injury, will that actually happen?

If the ACC Tournament tipped on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week, that answer would be a resounding "No," according to UNC head coach Roy Williams. Extend a few days further out, and the answer becomes much less clear.

The 2008-09 ACC Player of the Year jammed his right big toe during practice on Friday when he smashed his foot into a basket support, but still managed to play 36 minutes against Duke on Sunday, posting a near triple-double of 13 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, with the help of an injection of numbing solution prior to tipoff.

But the injury took an apparent turn for the worse in the hours following the victory.

"I actually think it's worse than when I did it, because it's more swollen," Lawson told reporters during UNC's Tuesday press conference at the Smith Center. "I can barely walk on it. I need crutches most of the time. It's going to get better in probably one or two weeks, so hopefully I'll keep icing it and it will get better."

When you combine Williams' recent history of downplaying the significance of the ACC Tournament with Lawson's current injury situation, is there any reason at all to even play the junior point guard this weekend in Atlanta?

Williams explained his stance on the conference tournament by asking a question to reporters on Tuesday – "In 2005, we did not win the [ACC] Tournament. In 2007 and 2008, we did win the tournament. Now which year did you think Ol' Roy was feeling better or was criticized less?"

While most programs strive diligently for the ability to legitimately challenge for a conference crown, North Carolina is one of the select schools – possessing a league-best 17 ACC Tournament titles – that is judged by its NCAA Tournament success and not what happens in the "great cocktail party," as Williams termed it last March.

"It upsets some of the diehards and some of the old faithful, but [the ACC Tournament] is not what it used to be," Williams said. "It's not mandatory that you win the tournament to go on. It's very taxing. It's difficult for you to play three high-pressure games and then all of sudden say, ‘Oh gosh, now where do we go?' The times have changed. But I do believe the more you win, the more you win."

Williams even went so far on Tuesday as to point out that he has guided six teams to Final Four appearances as a head coach, and last season marked the first time that one of those squads had won its conference tournament.

North Carolina has all but locked up a No. 1 seed in next week's NCAA Tournament, and the temptation to rest its players for a couple of extra days is probably attractive to a significant portion of the Tar Heel fan base. Try to win the tournament title, but if you get upset on Friday or Saturday, so what, right?

But part of the reason this UNC program sits atop the college basketball perch is due to its illustrious history of winning – anywhere, anytime.

"We go everywhere wanting to win everything," senior wing Danny Green said. "We look at every game as an opportunity to get better and an opportunity to win something or put a banner up, and we want to put as many banners up as possible."

At the same time, however, the next four weeks present a grueling stretch that is unrelenting and uncompromising in the stress that it places on both coaches and players.

"It's incredibly difficult to remain focused," Williams said. "It's incredibly difficult to maintain the intensity level over a four-week period. It's incredibly difficult to stay healthy… The competition with each game just gets to be more physical and more demanding, mentally and physically… Sometimes it is survival of the fittest, or just who happens to still be standing."

Williams has a tough decision to make over the next two days. Does he just sit out Lawson if he's not a full 100 percent and save him for the NCAA Tournament, knowing that he may face varying levels of criticism from the media and fan base?

Or if a decision to play his junior point guard is made prior to Friday's opening round game against the winner of the No. 8 Virginia Tech-No. 9 Miami matchup, what happens if the toe flares up again and Lawson is unable to play over the weekend, hampering the chances of an ACC Tournament win anyway?

Those are questions that only Roy Williams can answer, but Lawson made it clear on Tuesday where the Tar Heels' priorities lie.

"If I can play in the ACC Tournament, I definitely will play if there's only a little bit of pain,'' Lawson said. "But the big picture right now is the NCAA Tournament, because that's where our goals are as a team. We'll just wait and see how it is, and make a decision from there."

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