GREENSBORO, N.C. — John Henson had a great seat on the North Carolina sideline to watch his teammates advance in the NCAA tournament. The question is how long the Tar Heels will have to win without him, not to mention if his sore left wrist will heal enough to make him a factor in March at all.
Tyler Zeller had 17 points and 15 rebounds to help North Carolina beat Vermont 77-58 on Friday in its NCAA tournament opener despite playing without its shot-blocking and rebound-snatching starter.
The top-seeded Tar Heels didn't turn in a rousing performance, but they had a danger-free afternoon and advanced to play Creighton on Sunday in the third round of the Midwest Regional. They also bought Henson another two days to recover.
"We know he's either going to be with us or (we're) without him," point guard Kendall Marshall said. "If he's in there, he can help us and that's great for our team. If he's not, we have other players who can step up."
Against the 16th-seeded Catamounts (24-12), that meant another strong performance from freshman James Michael McAdoo starting in Henson's place. McAdoo shook off a poor shooting start and finished with a season-high 17 points to give Zeller some help in the paint, including a one-handed tip slam off a missed 3-pointer from Reggie Bullock that sent the home-state crowd wearing plenty of light blue into a roar.
McAdoo also had consecutive three-point plays during the run that broke the game open after halftime.
"I kind of got down on myself a little because my shot wasn't falling (early), but I was getting great shots," McAdoo said. "That was what the coaches kept saying. I really just tried to play myself into the game on the defensive end and then just be aggressive."
While McAdoo's surge helped the Tar Heels improve to 30-1 in NCAA tournament games played in their home state, they know that the question of Henson's return is becoming more urgent with each game. The 6-foot-10 junior — who averages 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks — was hurt during when he fell to the floor while being fouled during last week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and missed the last two games in Atlanta.
He had practiced this week and said he hoped to play Friday, but coach Roy Williams didn't sound sure Thursday that Henson would be ready and the team announced about 90 minutes before tipoff he was out.
Williams said Henson looked better during a morning shootaround, including being able to palm the ball with his left hand, catch passes with both hands and make a couple of strong moves off the dribble.
"I went to him and I said, 'John, it just doesn't look like you're comfortable,'" Williams said. "And he says, 'Coach, not really, but I'm right there.'"
Williams said the chances of Henson playing Sunday are "a little better than 50-50" considering his recent progress.
Zeller shot just 4 for 9 from the floor but went 9 of 10 at the free throw line and was a rebound shy of a double-double by halftime. Harrison Barnes also finished with 14 points, while Marshall had 11 points and 10 assists for UNC.
The Tar Heels shot just 42 percent, but scored 24 points off 20 turnovers.
North Carolina led by 12 at halftime before blowing the game open. After McAdoo's three-point plays, fellow rookie P.J. Hairston followed with a 3-pointer, then Barnes added a three-point play that pushed North Carolina's lead to 60-37 with 8:12 left.
Sandro Carissimo had 11 points for the Catamounts, who beat Lamar in one of Wednesday's First Four games. They arrived in Greensboro late Thursday afternoon and had little time to get acclimated to their surroundings before getting the unenviable challenge of facing a high seed playing about an hour from its own campus.
"It's been an unbelievable ride and to have this opportunity to beat a very good Lamar team and to put ourselves in this situation was something that I don't think any of us have ever dreamed of," senior Matt Glass said. "So to be here in this atmosphere and have an opportunity to play one of the top teams in the country is very special and we're all very humbled."
The Catamounts shot 40 percent and missed 15 of 18 3-point tries. Perhaps no Vermont player struggled more than leading scorer Four McGlynn, who came in averaging about 12 points off the bench.
The freshman had 18 points against Lamar, but finished with just six against the Tar Heels on 2-for-13 shooting. He also missed all six of his shots from beyond the arc.