By Max Roitman
Positioned nicely on the right wing, Leaky Black received a well-timed swing pass from a teammate and squared up to the basket. He noticed a startling amount of space between him and the nearest defender, hesitated — maybe in disbelief — and tentatively went into his shooting mechanics. Still, no one bothered stepping out to contest the shot. The release was smooth, arc symmetrical, but the ball, nonetheless, rimmed out. Perhaps the sonorous yells from the hostile McCarthey Athletic Center crowd threw him off or maybe Black and his teammates have lacked the shot-making proficiency to earn gravity from 22-plus feet out. Either way, the wide-open miss serves as a banner-play among a surfeit of missed shots that have highlighted the young season for a plodding Tar Heels team. Future HOF coach Roy WIlliams has long been seen as an offensive-minded leader, but had failed to guide his team past the 80-point threshold until Wednesday night in a blowout loss to second-ranked Gonzaga. Many have cited talent level as the big problem, and ostensibly it is; evident in their atrocious shooting numbers — 29% from beyond the arc and 40% from the field. But inexperience and a lack of continuity are more telling and central to the team’s issues — ones Carolina might not be accustomed to reckoning with.
There has been a push at the Dean Smith Center for significant renovations, that is to say not much rebuilding has taken place on the hardwood recently in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A heavy basketball tradition and dignified lore dictate the winter months on campus and with little, if any, snow, precipitation felt in Chapel Hill takes the form of fadeaway jumpers and deep three-pointers. This year started out no different, highlighted best by freshman Cole Anothony’s 34-point outburst in his first collegiate game. That was merely a coming out party for Anthony, who has gone on to play as one of the nation’s most valuable players. A subsequent win over #8 Oregon seemed to validate UNC’s place in the Top 25. Despite success, uncharacteristic offensive struggles and an over-reliance on Anthony were still talking points, and eventually took over the narrative in an embarrassing home loss to fifth-ranked Ohio State and a slugfest defeat to ninth-ranked Virginia.
Now sitting at 7-5, UNC has been forced into somewhat of an identity-defining stretch after Anthony was ruled out for 4-6 weeks with a partially torn meniscus. Additionally, veteran Sterling Manley was ruled out for the season — another unfortunate break. This underscores a running parallel theme this season: UNC has had seven players miss time at some point this season. Injuries have undoubtedly contributed to some of their early woes and will continue to heavily influence games while Anthony sits. The iteration of this team with everyone at full strength could look a lot different from what we have seen so far.
Baby Blue’s first game without their star bordered on disastrous last Sunday: a 68-64 home loss to Wofford. This team will continue to walk a fine line as long as inexperience rears its ugly head and injury problems aren’t addressed. Freshman, Armando Bacot seemed like the logical man to step up in Anthony’s absence but could only muster a 2-14 shooting performance against a small Terriers front line.
The loss to Wofford led to UNC’s disappearance from the AP Top 25, a poll in which it appeared in for 104 consecutive weeks dating back to 2014.
“Guys, I ain’t got much left…You guys ask questions, and I’ll see what I got,” was what a visibly frustrated Roy WIlliams spat out at his post game presser. The angst hopefully dissipated for a short while because it would simply be rekindled three days later in Spokane, Washington.
Wednesday night’s game was not played in the cozy confines of the Smith Center but rather in front of a raucous opposing crowd that often serenaded the court with chants and cheers. The highly anticipated matchup against Gonzaga was a rematch of the 2017 National Championship game in which the Tar Heels added another banner to their already populated rafters. Of course, without Anthony, nobody expected a Tar Heels upset, but the 94-81 defeat was nonetheless disheartening.
They played hard for the first 30 minutes but simply were outmanned and unable to make shots. Former walk-on KJ Smith got another chance to run the point after a promising showing against Wofford but proved sloppy and ineffective, and was replaced quickly by freshman Jeremiah Francis. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the game was Francis’s promise as a future contributor for the rest of the season and beyond. In only his third collegiate game — and third organized basketball game — in the last two years, Francis ran the point somewhat effectively, especially while commanding the vaunted Carolina fast break. Multiple knee surgeries have kept him off the court and while he still appeared to be taking it easy, his visibly shaky legs seemed to stiffen as the game wore on. He finished with 11 points, three timely assists, and two steals, all while on slow footing and weak conditioning which should improve as his knee continues to heel.
In the half court, Anthony had been the navel of every play. Without his scintillating play, there has been no scorer or creator to catalyze the offense, or more fundamentally, make shots. Without a sidekick in the backcourt, while healthy, Anthony had to play on-ball and orchestrate any and all motion. Without him on Wednesday, the offense scored but often looked pedestrian-like, frenetic, and incongruent. An emerging Francis could be pivotal in keeping Carolina afloat and then taking them to a new level when Anthony returns.
On Saturday, Carolina quelled the some of its surrounding panic by taking down UCLA in Las Vegas, 74-64. Francis continued to show his adequate command of the offense with effective penetration and post-entry passes. Bacot also looked much better, scoring 15 points and corralling 12 tough rebounds. Additionally, this game was the first since 2010 in which three UNC freshman reached double figures.
Before the win against a mediocre Bruins team, the Tar Heels had dropped four straight games, a feat that also last popped up in 2010. They now face at least four more games without Anthony. Provisionally, assuming they don’t fall apart over this stretch, some positives can hopefully be gleaned from the otherwise-brutal impact of Anthony’s injury. Roy Williams is known for developing talent and has six newcomers in front of him to mold. Those four freshmen and two transfers have all received playing time thus far and have clear opportunities ahead of them.
While the mentioned talent gap does exist between this version of the Tar Heels and its predecessors, inexperience and injury have been the teams biggest pitfalls.
Anthony Harris, a top-75 recruit, has been nursing a torn ACL, which kept him on the bench for the season’s first eight games. His speed and shooting ability coincide perfectly with the team’s most dire needs. After Harris gets back to full speed (the sooner, the better), he could prove to be a major asset in terms of spacing the floor, getting out in transition, and looking to attack. On Saturday, Harris notched 14 points including eight straight to help lengthen a small Tar Heels lead. After playing only three first half minutes, one can only imagine Harris will receive a bump in playing time moving forward.
High profile grad-transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce have not lived up to the reputation each built at their respective previous programs. Whether it is a confidence issue or tougher competition, both players are experiencing a major drop in production. While transfer Cam Johnson had two years of play in Chapel Hill, instead of one, I would bet on the veterans similarly finding niche roles under Hall-of-Fame guidance.
Bacot remains one of the team’s best players despite some recent struggles. Foul trouble kept him limited against Gonzaga, but Williams should consider playing hyper-aggressively through the post where Bacot, and Garrison Brooks, the team’s most efficient scorer, are best.
Without Myles Powell, Seton Hall has similarly been forced to explore other options and have seemingly found an identity: defense. A win against a top ten Maryland team perhaps indicated progress towards a better team when Powell returns. The most optimistic perspective would be to view this Anthony-less stretch as an opportunity to let newcomers accrue experience and figure out their roles in a historic program playing in one of college basketball’s most cutthroat conferences. If Francis and Harris prove ready for the big stage, this could allow Anthony shoulder less of a load when he returns. All of a sudden, more floor spacing could open up, allowing better efficiency in the post and on the perimeter. Anthony could quite frankly play a completely different role, coming off screens more, working as a spot up shooter, and a secondary creator. Or, Francis or Harris could find their stride in a lower-usage role next to Anthony, providing the extra backcourt punch the pre-injury Tar Heels desperately needed.
After running out of gas in the Sweet Sixteen last season, North Carolina lost seven rotational players and four starters. Winning isn’t easy, but the grandiose standards in Chapel Hill will always keep expectations high. The recent din surrounding this team has questioned their ability to simply reach the NCAA Tournament come March. Discontent is warranted, and questions should be asked but in a season full of parity, I would bet on Roy Williams and his ability to develop players, most myopically reflected when Leaky Black took a deep breath and sunk a contested turnaround jumper two plays after his missed three.