Wednesday March 18th, 2009

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The most famous digit in America right now isn't 64 for the NCAA tournament field, 44 for President Barack Obama's historic presidency, $165 million for AIG's contested bonus money or $787 billion for the government stimulus package.

It's Ty Lawson's big right toe.

The North Carolina point guard, who badly stubbed the toe in practice nearly two weeks ago, has recovered well enough to participate in about half of practice yesterday and this morning, but his progress isn't up to coach Roy Williams' liking in order to play against Radford.

"There is a huge, huge probability that Ty will not play tomorrow," Williams said. "He is not able to do the things that I want him to do in practice, so something would have to change drastically before I would change my mind on that."

Lawson, the ACC Player of the Year, insists that he could play through it, as he did on March 8 in scoring 13 points, dishing out nine assists and grabbing eight rebounds in a 79-71 win over Duke, but says he's still feeling pain when trying to push off. He called his participation tomorrow a "game time decision," despite Williams' comments to the contrary.

"I can go up and down, it's just hard to cut," Lawson said. "I could play through it. It's not as bad as it was before the Duke game. It's just a little bit of pain. It's hard pushing off of it and playing defense."

Lawson isn't important to a UNC victory over Radford tomorrow, but he is vital to the Tar Heels chances at making a Final Four run. He missed six games last season with a sprained ankle, a stretch in which the Tar Heels lost to Duke (one of only three losses all season), needed double overtime to beat Clemson and beat Virginia by only a point.

After it was revealed earlier today that President Obama, a onetime practice participant with UNC last April, had filled out his bracket with the Tar Heels as his predicted national champs, a television reporter asked senior teammate Danny Green if, perhaps, Obama had any inside information or direct contact with Lawson.

"I don't know, possibly," Green said, grinning. "Maybe they have a secret bromance that I don't know about."

Anything's plausible considering the cascade of coverage -- this story included -- granted to Lawson's toe. Even a few teammates sounded off, saying Lawson has some especially ugly toenails. It's been injured before (he admitted he broke it in high school), and it's all anyone wants to talk to him about.

"Everyone on campus, everybody I walk by, asks me how my toe's doing," Lawson said. "I'm just ready for it to be better and to concentrate on playing."

The team entered Greensboro Coliseum at 1:24 p.m., Williams leading the way, and despite the commotion in the hallway -- LSU was doing calisthenics, and an IT guy was scaling a ladder -- Lawson didn't limp and seemed just fine as he slowly weaved down the corridor to the locker room. He did not detour right into the training room.

After being peppered with questions by reporters in the corner of the tiny locker room, Lawson joined his teammates on the court for a public shootaround. While everyone else went through agilities -- running backwards, laterally and everything in between -- Lawson just kept his head down and jogged at a slow, matching pace.

The injury occurred on March 6, while racing back to defend Mike Copeland on a fastbreak. Lawson said he recovered in time to strip Copeland (who was cherrypicking, Lawson added) but caught a slight nudge and crashed into the basket support, stubbing his knee and big toe.

It was prudent to sit Lawson out of the ACC tournament, as less than half (28 of 57, or 49.1 percent) of all Final Four teams since 1993 who played in a league tournament also won it. Williams himself has led six Final Four teams (four at Kansas, two at Carolina) and only last year's Tar Heel team won the conference championship.

For now, the 5-foot-11 guard from Clinton, Md., is nursing the most famous toe in America.

"Last year I had the most famous ankle, this year I have the most famous toe -- I wish it wasn't like this," he said. "I wish I was healthy and 100 percent like I was almost all year."

Until then, the Tar Heel faithful holds its breath.

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