In a suit and a walking boot instead of a uniform, Theo Pinson would storm off the North Carolina bench onto the edge of the court, into a defensive stance to inspire his teammates.
When he no longer needed the boot to protect his broken left foot, he showed off impressive dance moves, slip-sliding in his dress shoes.
Even as a freshman, even while sidelined for most of two months, Pinson was North Carolina’s primary source of energy. On a team coach Roy Williams called “a bunch of goofballs,” Pinson is the Goofball In Chief.
“He’s always going to be the guy to get us going. It’s kind of crazy,” North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks said. “People think it’s crazy because he’s a freshman, but I say it all the time. It doesn’t matter.”
The question facing North Carolina now, with Pinson slowly returning to health, is whether he can provide a similar boost on the court.
His fellow freshmen have lately. The return of Joel Berry from injury and the emergence of Justin Jackson as an impact player played critical roles in the Tar Heels’ late-season success, not only on their own but in relieving perimeter pressure on Marcus Paige.
Pinson, a long, athletic slasher, has the potential to bring a new dimension, one that would have been helpful Thursday when the Tar Heels were turning the ball over and struggling to score against Harvard, one that could be helpful Saturday when the Tar Heels face fifth-seeded Arkansas’ strangling pressure defense.
Pinson only played six minutes of the 67-65 win over the Crimson, but it was progress nevertheless. He was able to prove to himself that the foot was OK, which has been his biggest issue all along.
“That’s what I was mainly worried about going in, if the cutting and stuff was going to affect me at all,” Pinson said. “I thought I did a very good job of not worrying about it. I had no problems.”
It has been a long ordeal for Pinson, who has struggled to balance what the doctors tell him with what he feels after breaking the same bone in the same foot in high school. Dancing has been easy for him for a while, but it took him much longer to regain the confidence to cut and jump.
When he finally did, making an unexpected cameo appearance against Georgia Tech before playing seven minutes in the final regular-season game against Duke, he woke up two days later once again feeling pain and sat out the entire ACC tournament.
Before the championship game, he sat with Williams on the North Carolina bench after warm-ups and told Williams he just didn’t feel right, a painful conversation observed by many early arrivals in the Greensboro Coliseum.
“That’s been the tough part about the whole thing,” Pinson said. “I’m thinking I’m back out there, getting back in the flow of things, and I have to sit out another week of basketball with these guys. It was real tough, especially playing at home, in Greensboro. That was tough. My foot was just too sore to play at that high of a level in those type of games.”
Even this week, he was worried he had re-injured the foot again, until doctors showed him new X-rays that showed how much it had healed in the past two weeks.
“Our players have accepted that he’s not going to play, and then if he does play, ‘Oh well, we’ve got another player,’ and so that’s the way I’ve tried to look at it, too,” Williams said.
After Thursday’s narrow escape, the Tar Heels certainly might need another player if they’re going to advance to the second weekend for the first time since 2012. They can count on Pinson for energy, but he might have to contribute more than that.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947