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Tar Heel Hangover: Despite a perfect start, injuries are piling up for UNC

A quick 2-0 start is a great introduction for the new look Heels.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s games, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

The Carolina basketball team kicked off the year with a pair of impressive wins. On Wednesday, Cole Anthony starred in the season opener against Notre Dame and powered the Heels to a victory. Friday night, it was transfer Justin Pierce’s turn to shine with a stat stuffing 18 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists and a block to deliver a road victory over UNC Wilmington.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

Last year, the Heels went 10 or 12 deep early in the year as the bench was full of talented (and healthy) players who could fill plenty of minutes. It looked like that bench would be a strength throughout the year. Rarely did any single player crack the 30 minute mark for playing time in the non-conference.

What a difference a year makes.

Cole Anthony is averaging over 35 minutes per game through the first two contests. Garrison Brooks is averaging 36 minutes a game, including a totally unheard of 39 minutes against the Fighting Irish. This is a late season rotation that Roy Williams is kicking off the year with.

Much of the issue revolves around injuries. Sterling Manley has continued an injury trend that has haunted his entire college career. Freshmen Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis are both progressing through knee injuries with uncertain timetables for return. Losing these key reserves, along with the injury to Armando Bacot against UNCW has really taken a toll on the bench.

Without Bacot for much of the game Friday, Carolina essentially went with a six-player lineup plus spot minutes from Brandon Huffman. Four players logged over 30 minutes and Andrew Platek put in 27. For many fans, hearing that Platek would have so much time early in the year would have thrown up warning flags. Instead, the contracted lineup has quickly gelled.

Seeing more minutes together on the court can certainly accelerate an understanding of positioning, defensive help, and offensive balance. The concern is that the situation can also accelerate long-term fatigue. From a short-term viewpoint, the lack of reserves also be an issue for foul trouble or additional injuries.

Leaky Black has played a few minutes as the back-up point guard but he has not looked comfortable yet in that role. Black will have to elevate his game in that regard and manage the minutes while Anthony gets a bit of rest here and there. The same is true for Huffman coming off the bench to provide a breather for Brooks from time to time.

In other words, the backups (including Black as a point guard) need to do precisely what Andrew Platek has done thus far. The junior guard is averaging over 26 minutes per game with 7 points and 3 assists (to only 1 turnover) per contest. He is making solid plays and keeping himself in position defensively. Through week one, Platek is an unexpectedly positive surprise. He will need to continue this effort.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

This is a split week with football on Thursday, and basketball on Friday.

After a week off the gridiron Heels return to action with a trip to Pitt. Two wins are needed in the final three games to get to bowl eligibility. With plenty of ups and downs this season, it would be easy to let the early season optimism cloud a broader perspective. This is a team that many viewed as still a year away from being truly competitive. Instead, Carolina has had a chance to win every game and is still knocking at the door of getting to a bowl. Such an accomplishment would be a huge step forward for the team.

Playing the Panthers on the road will not be an easy task. Pitt is 6-3 (3-2 in the conference) and is still eyeing a potential Coastal Championship. The Panthers put up less than 21 points and under 400 yards per game, which should aid a Carolina defense that has been challenged this year. The Pitt defense, however, is only giving up 280 yards a game including 86 yards per contest on the ground. The Heels will need a balanced attack to keep the chains moving and get points on the board. Also important to note is that this is a prime time nationally televised game for a program that is on a recruiting roll.

With only Mercer and NC State remaining, there is precious little room for error to get to a bowl and extend the season.

On Friday night the basketball team will host Gardner-Webb. At 0-2 with losses to Furman and Western Carolina, the Bulldogs could be an opportunity for Roy Williams to tinker with the lineup and get some playing time for bench development.

Final Thoughts

This is a great time of year for Carolina fans. The football team has a lot to play for, which is a different and positive development over the past couple of seasons. The basketball team is off to a quick start as fans are still getting to know the group of newcomers. Cole Anthony is just as good as advertised. Two total wins this week would be ideal.

Go Heels!