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UNC Basketball: Cole Anthony’s injury, his return timeline, and what it means

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While not the worst-case scenario, the Tar Heels will be without their primary source of offense for at least a month.

North Carolina v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The North Carolina Tar Heels announced yesterday that they will be without star freshman Cole Anthony for 4-6 weeks after having surgery performed on his torn meniscus. The good news, depending on how you look at it, is that even at the latest the Heels should get Anthony back before the tougher part of the ACC schedule begins. The bad news? Should things continue to go the way that they have, the schedule may not have to be all that difficult for the team to struggle putting points on the board against their competition between now and then.

It’s been a while since the Heels have had an injury this impactful to their season, and given the current state of the rest of the roster, there’s a lot of unpack here. Let’s take a look at Cole Anthony’s injury a little more in-depth, what the Heels can do to fill in such a massive void on the roster, and the schedule UNC has to navigate in his absence.

Cole Anthony’s road to recovery

If you are like me and aren’t terribly familiar with certain injuries, this one may or may not have been a bit jarring to hear about without any additional information. A torn meniscus sounds pretty bad, and is undoubtedly bad, but it is a fairly common injury that happens when the knee twists in such a way that the tissues in it tear. The explanation as to why Anthony was able to walk around during the Wofford game without a brace? The symptoms aren’t quite as severe as tearing something in other parts of the leg, and a brace/crutches weren’t necessary for him to move around. In fact, this injury actually can self-heal in a lot of cases, but surgery expedites the process considerably, which is the path UNC and Anthony took.

There’s no possible way of knowing just how soon or how much later Cole Anthony will be able to return to the floor, but the good news is that he is both in high spirits and is also already able to walk around following the surgery:

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I will be back stronger❗️

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Despite the inevitable conspiracy theories that Anthony could opt to sit out the rest of the season, I’d be willing to bet that everything goes smoothly and that he will make his return closer to 6 weeks from now in order to play it safe and make sure he’s good to go. It’s bad, but it def could be a lot worse.

Finding a replacement

With Cole Anthony being out for at least a month, and Leaky Black being listed as questionable for the game against Gonzaga, the point guard spot is wide open for Jeremiah Francis, Anthony Harris, and KJ Smith to step into. Despite Smith’s admirable effort against Wofford, it became a bit clearer that the move as far as starting point guard goes may be to see what Francis can do to help lead the team.

Despite an extremely long absence from competitive basketball activities, Jeremiah Francis showed that he is capable of being a solid facilitator for the Tar Heels. While he doesn’t bring any form of scoring power at this very moment, his vision on the court, ability to get the ball into the right spots, and push the tempo were bright spots in what was otherwise a pretty miserable game. KJ Smith was able to do this as well, don’t get me wrong, but his conditioning also seems to be much worse, as he was extremely tired just a few minutes into the game. Starting Francis and having both Harris and Smith come off the bench seems to be the best move at the moment, but we’ll have to say if that sticks.

As far as offensive production, things are pretty simple: the ball needs to get to the bigs more, and someone is going to have to figure out how to get their shots to fall. For what it’s worth, Brandon Robinson and Andrew Platek hit some shots against Wofford, collectively finishing the game shooting 41% from deep. The rest of the team went a cringeworthy 1-7 from three, which made it easy to overlook the promise that came from the upperclassmen. This kind of production doesn’t have to come from the same two players every game, but it has to come from somewhere on a nightly basis.

The semi-friendly schedule ahead

As far as the schedule goes, things could be a lot worse for the Tar Heels. Despite having to take on Gonzaga tonight, the team will have to take on UCLA and Yale to finish out the month. Following those games, at minimum the Heels will take on Georgia Tech, Pitt potentially twice, and Clemson without Cole Anthony. At worst, the Heels will also play Virginia Tech, Miami, and possibly NC State and Boston College before his return.

Since we are still in the non-conference portion of the schedule, it’s difficult to figure out just how good or bad some of these teams are looking at their records alone. However, it’s safe to say that none of the teams listed have had as “good” of losses as UNC, and while Wofford was a very disappointing loss it’s likely that none of these teams will live and die by thee three quite the same way the Terriers do. Simply put, UNC can survive this stretch without Cole Anthony, but it’s going to take a lot of work to stay above .500 in ACC play until he returns.

In short, things aren’t as bad as they could be for the Tar Heels, but they also could be much, much better. While I have done my best at being an optimist this season, I am also a realist, and that part of me believes that this team is in serious danger if they cannot figure out a way to gain some confidence on the offensive side of the ball in Cole Anthony’s absence. Let’s hope that they will take advantage of this schedule ahead of them and find a way to silence the very real possibility of this team not being able to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.