All things end, and very rarely do they end well. For 38 minutes of the game clock on Saturday, it sure looked like the infamous Clemson 0-for streak wouldn’t end this year.
The last three games have all felt like rock-bottom for this UNC team, and quite frankly no matter how the rest of the season goes, it’s tough to see how things will feel any lower than this. The Tar Heels lost their streak against Clemson, lost their third game in a row in what was supposed to be the “winnable” part of the schedule, and made an emphatic statement that they are the worst team that Roy Williams has coached since he came to Chapel Hill. He’s been trying to tell us in so many words the difficulty he would have with this roster, and now everyone has come around to this.
Let’s somehow dig deeper into this and see what we learned from yesterday’s agonizing loss to the Tigers.
Cole Anthony cannot save this team
Clemson had come into the Smith Center with seven losses, to the likes of Yale, Miami, and South Carolina. There’s a pretty decent chance they’ll be playing on Tuesday of the ACC Tournament. For the majority of the game, they played like the inferior team compared to the one that Carolina rolled out on the floor. Clemson had trouble making shots, the Tar Heel defense was strong, and Carolina was consistently getting what they wanted on the offensive end, even if the shot wasn’t falling.
Then Clemson started pressing, Carolina’s veterans made some dumb turnovers, and we all know the result.
Does Carolina win this game with Cole Anthony on the floor? Probably. But what this showed us all was that one player can only do so much when the talent around him just isn’t good enough to match. In a situation where you had two juniors and a senior out on the floor there is zero excuse for panicking the way that they did, and unfortunately it’s the trend for this team.
We can save the debate about whether or not Cole should come back for another time. Ultimately it’s his decision and he’s said before that he’s a competitor and intends to play. The point here is that even should he come back, don’t expect this team to make a miraculous run.
The bench is not contributing
One possible reason for the collapse is the fact that Carolina has gotten zero production from those not in the starting lineup. See no further than this tweet from Pat James:
UNC has tallied just seven total bench points in the last two games. The Tar Heels had two tonight.— Pat James (@patjames24) January 11, 2020
Carolina only scored 76 points, 27 of those came from Brandon Robinson, 21 came from Armando Bacot, and 13 came from Garrison Brooks. In normal years, having three players score in double figures like that usually leads to scores in the 90’s with nine players scratching. The only bench player to get those two points? Christian Keeling via two free throws.
Eight players played yesterday, and of those three that came off the bench, two were the vaunted graduate transfers that were supposed to help replace the scoring of Cam Johnson and Luke Maye. At this point it’s fair to wonder if they are ever going to be able to produce at all.
This is all a long way to say that Roy felt like he had to play his starting five because that’s who produced, and they all played between 36 and 41 minutes. Is it possible that part of the collapse was due to the fact that they were just gassed? It’s not an excuse, but when you look at the decisions made it’s as good an explanation as any. It’s also another sign of why it’s tough to find hope for this team, as the two players coming back in Francis and Anthony probably aren’t going to increase production that much.
Time to reset expectations
If you listened to the podcast I did with Joe and Chad, you know I was the most optimistic, even positing that the NCAA Tournament was still possible as long as they could hold serve the rest of the way before Cole’s return.
Well, they haven’t.
It’s tempting to still say there’s hope when you see an ACC landscape that saw UVa lose to Syracuse and NC State lose to Virginia Tech, especially knowing that the Tar Heels now get a week off and a full series of practices to try and become a more cohesive unit. The problem is that even with all of the injuries, the fact remains there just seems to be a real structural defect with this team that will be too much to overcome. It happens, and it happens to just about every program.
Is it still possible that a Cole Anthony return leads to a Tar Heel team that somehow finishes 10-10 in conference, wins a couple in the ACC Tournament, and makes the NCAA give the Tar Heels the benefit of the doubt with a 9-5 record playing with a healthy Cole? Yes, it’s possible, but asking a freshman point guard to carry that much of a burden is difficult for anyone. Just ask Coby White, who struggled at times last season, and he had Luke Maye and Cam Johnson on the floor with him.
There’s still a lot of fun that can be experienced with this team, especially if Cole returns. Bacot is playing with more aggressiveness and appears to be developing well, Brooks should continue to improve as he plays at his natural four position, Brandon Robinson finally showed the grit as a senior that we had hoped, even though he was key in the collapse, and Anthony is a stone cold competitor who may bring a level of toughness to this team they have been missing.
Drop any expectations for the NCAA Tournament, and start rooting like hell for the guys that are out there giving it what they can. The ones that come back next season will be better for it, as players of the 2010 team can tell you.