Let’s just get this out of the way right now: if you would’ve told me at the beginning of the season that UNC would lose to Michigan AND Ohio State in the same season, I’d be a bit skeptical. Nothing against either of these teams, as they are really, really good this year, but it’s just something you don’t normally see from the Heels. However, this year is already in a bad way, as injuries, shooting woes, and at times lack of effort plague a team that all things considered have lost two out of their three games against top-ten opponents. There are worse fates, but how it’s been happening has been brutal.
It’s hard to take lessons away from the game against the Buckeyes that don’t center around the primary struggle this season. However, there are three things in this game that could or could not be warning signs for things to come. Let’s dive in.
This team may never get healthy
This is a very tough pill to swallow, but it seems as though this year’s team may never be 100% healthy going into March. To start at the beginning of the night, it was announced that Cole Anthony was under the weather and he was a gametime decision. Roy Williams gave him the thumbs up to play, and so Cole Anthony basically played 30 minutes of basketball under the weather. Later in the game, Anthony took an elbow to his forehead and was busted open. Thankfully UNC’s staff was able to patch him up, and he was able to go back into the game.
One would hope this was the worst of their problems, but unfortunately the worst occurred early in the first half. With less than 13 minutes to go in the first half, Armando Bacot landed on someone’s foot and suffered an ankle injury that caused him to leave the game. He was unable to put any weight on his ankle, and was helped off of the court by his teammates. He was ruled out for the rest of the game, and the result was Ohio State getting 30 points in the paint to UNC’s 10. The Heels were also out-rebounded 48-32, which helped the Buckeyes score 16 second-chance points to their 8. If UNC had managed to match OSU in both of these categories, then they would’ve finished the game with a three-point victory. The moral of the story? They missed Bacot big time.
The irony in all of this is that for the first time this season, Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis were both seen warming up before the game. It’s likely that Bacot will be out at least a few games, which could be devastating for the Heels as he has been one of the two best players on the team. Did I forget to mention Sterling Manley is still out as well? The injury bug has been brutal for the Heels so far, and only time will tell if they’ll be able to defeat it at least enough to keep 95% of their roster active at the same time.
This year’s team must rely on toughness
One of the most brutal realizations of the season is that the 2019-20 Tar Heels may be have to take a page out of Virginia’s book and outsmart / out-tough their opponents in order to get wins. With the exception of a couple of iterations of the Cavaliers, Tony Bennett has had to get the most out of his teams through their defensive prowess mores than offensive firepower. This year’s team is a perfect example of that, and the downside to said method is that when toughness fails it looks like their 69-40 loss to unranked Purdue.
With that said, here’s the good news: UNC has lost to arguably tougher competition than Virginia did last night. The bad news of course is that even outside of this game and the Michigan game they have been a poor shooting team, as nobody has been able to generate consistent offense aside from Cole Anthony (we can argue efficiency another time). At this point some of it can be explained and other parts of it simply cannot, but what we can say for certain is that their defense has kept them in every single game so far — Michigan and Ohio State, while they shot fairly well in their wins, both turned the ball over 16 and 15 times, respectively. The Buckeyes also only shot 39.3% from the field in the first half before tearing the Heels apart in the second half. Yes, the final score last night was ugly, but for about 25 minutes of the game UNC didn’t let things get too out of hand..until they did.
After Cole Anthony brought things within three, the starters simply looked tired, uninterested, and things got really bad really fast. Roy cleared his bench for a shocking amount of the final 10 minutes because he didn’t like what he saw from his more talented personnel. Sure, Bacot’s injury was a huge blow to their gameplan, but in moments when things don’t go the way they want the Heels have to find a way to overcome adversity, and that’s something the team will have to figure out how to do before Sunday’s game against Virginia.
This young team has had a brutal schedule
While there are no excuses in college basketball and the Tar Heels have some very real and legitimate concerns to figure out before conference play, their non-conference schedule so far has been really tough. So far this year this team has faced three teams that have spent time in the AP top 15, with the only one outside of the top 10 being Oregon who was 11 last week. Coming up next? #5 Virginia, and a couple of games later #9 Gonzaga. Following the game in Spokane, the Heels if everything remains static won’t face another AP top 25 team until February 3rd against Florida State. It goes without saying that college basketball rankings are fluid, but nevertheless, the Heels’ schedule has been very, very top-heavy.
Given the fact that there are no excuses in college basketball, why bring this up at all? There are a few reasons. For one, this part of the schedule has guaranteed that this very young UNC team that is still learning how to play as a cohesive unit is learning a lot of difficult lessons against difficult opponents. The second reason is that because it is so top-heavy, things may look a little better at the beginning of conference play simply because of the drop-off in competition alone. This is of course without factoring the fact that any combination of Armando Bacot, Anthony Harris, and Jeremiah Francis could be back before ACC play begins. The final reason? It’s at least some silver-lining to keep in mind, as the Heels are now 7-2 with their only two losses being against two top-10 opponents.
Difficult or not, the show must go on, and the Tar Heels will have to figure out a way to bounce back against a Virginia team that is also coming off of a beating to a Big Ten opponent. Brace yourselves for what could be a sloppy, brutal, low-scoring affair.