Is It Time to Panic in Chapel Hill?

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 18th, 2019

Concerns about this version of North Carolina had been bubbling since its no-show home blowout loss at the hands of Ohio State two weeks back. Those concerns have now been heightened to crisis level after Sunday’s loss to Wofford, piggybacking the pregame news that star freshman Cole Anthony would be sidelined indefinitely with a knee issue.

Roy Williams Wears His Emotions (USA Today Images)

Because of the visibility of the game along with the scintillating performance by Anthony, the takeaway of the Tar Heels’ opening night win over Notre Dame now seems silly. The praise for Anthony, breathless as it was, was deserving, as he began the season in a manner few before him have — scoring 34 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out five assists. In the shadows of the analysis, though, was the fact that Anthony HAD to do that for his team to dispose of an average Notre Dame team, as only Garrison Brooks joined him in double figures.

As the schedule softened, Anthony’s productivity understandably dipped, but his efficiency also stumbled. The freshman hasn’t eclipsed 50 percent field goal shooting since the opener, and he is averaging nearly four turnovers per contest — and if you think there is an intimation that Anthony is the problem, citing these statistics is simply a way to take the opposite position.

On the prep circuit Anthony thrived mostly as a traditional point guard. Sure, his strength and athleticism make scoring rather easy, but facilitating offense for capable teammates was what elevated him to elite draft status. We knew that this wasn’t a traditional North Carolina roster — particularly in terms of frontcourt offensive skill and overall team speed. But, a lot of folks seemed to have assumed that Anthony’s greatness would hide those warts. The truth is that the warts are larger than initially hypothesized, making the burden excessive even for a talent as sublime as Anthony.

With Cole Anthony on the Bench, What Now for North Carolina? (USA Today Images)

The easiest place to start is North Carolina’s stark inability to stretch the defense by consistently making perimeter jump shots. Graduate transfer duo Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce were supposed to provide that marksmanship, but the pair has fallen short of those expectations to date. Pierce, who made 89 threes in his final two seasons at William & Mary, has connected on just 7-of-28 attempts to start the season, while Keeling, who drained 75 triples last year at Charleston Southern, has been even worse, making just 4-of-19 tries. As a team, the Tar Heels’ mark from beyond the arc stands at 28.7 percent, 305th nationally — strip out Anthony’s shots, however, and the rate plummets even further to an unsustainable 25.3 percent.

And life without Anthony is now the reality that Williams faces. On Sunday, little-used K.J. Smith drew the start and split time at the point guard slot with junior Andrew Platek. Serviceable backups? Perhaps. But Williams’ vaunted secondary break is point guard reliant — think Ray Felton, Ty Lawson, Joel Berry. This roster, devoid of Anthony for the next 4-6 weeks, is going to have to play differently than Williams is accustomed to. Brooks and Armando Bacot are exceptional athletes who can get out in transition and attack the offensive glass, but they are rim-runners rather than true low-post scorers. And if the space that Anthony provided couldn’t yield positive results from deep, how is that going to be enhanced when non-threatening offensive options are triggering sets?

From a long-term lens, a team that sits at 6-4 — 37th in KenPom and 95th in the initial NET rankings — may be facing a lost season in Chapel Hill. Tonight’s game at Gonzaga feels like an insurmountable task even with a healthy Anthony, but after that, a pair of games follow that have almost no upside. Beating UCLA and Yale won’t necessarily bolster the Tar Heels’ resume, but either team is capable of upending a short-handed team — losses in either or both would be devastating to the NCAA Tournament viability of the Tar Heels. This is especially true if the ACC is actually having a down season beyond the top few teams.

Betting against North Carolina isn’t something that historically is going to make you money. But with a current KenPom projection of 17-14 overall (11-9 ACC), the uncertainty surrounding Anthony’s availability and the current performance of the supporting roster, it is reasonable to suspect that the Tar Heels will be spectators of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.

Matthew Auerbach (69 Posts)


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