Four weeks ago, the Tar Heels traveled down I-40 and played a masterful game that they controlled from almost beginning to end, taking out NC State 75-65. Garrison Brooks was a beast down low, and in general the feeling among Tar Heel fans was that the team was about to turn the corner, rescue their season, and fight for an NCAA spot. This was amplified by the fact that they had just throttled Miami, and by all account Cole Anthony was on the verge of returning.
Carolina has not won a game since.
That game less than a month ago feels like a lifetime ago, and in a lot of ways was the last truly happy moment fans have been able to have this season. Since then, the Tar Heels have sunk like a stone, having their hearts ripped out time and time again while the Wolfpack recovered to be in the mix for a double-bye, and may have sealed their NCAA bid with a thorough beating against Duke a week ago.
Now the two meet up with a lot more on the line for NC State than Carolina, so what can look for tomorrow?
The Wheel of Injuries
The season may be effectively done for Carolina, but that wheel of injuries keeps turning. On Saturday, they got a bonus spin as both Garrison Brooks and Justin Pierce were laid up and missed the game. Without two players who can play the four, Roy Williams had to experiment with four guard lineups and giving Walker Miller and Brandon Huffman extended time. In related news, the Tar Heels lost by 17.
Pierce with the ankle injury has an unknown time table for a return, but Brooks’ DNP had to do with an illness. Considering the amount of abuse Brooks has taken, including multiple hits to his face that resulted in a scratched cornea and him having to wear goggles, it’s a sign of just how sick he was that he ultimately felt like he couldn’t play in this game. One hopes that a few days’ recovery will be enough to see him out on the floor again, but of course one worries that he won’t be able to play at full speed as the body takes time to recover from being that wrecked.
The Tar Heels would have had a tough time winning on Saturday even with Brooks, but what was made painfully obvious is that they can’t win without him. We’ll see if he plays, or if some other player randomly ends up missing the game tomorrow because of a sudden illness or injury. Don’t be surprised, as it’s just par for the course this season.
The guard gets his first crack at the Wolfpack, and after watching how easily Garrison Brooks was able to score, he has to be eager to get back out and continue to show improvement as he has since returning from the knee injury. He’s been averaging 19.8 points a game, and had seen his assist numbers creep up each game until the cluster in Louisville on Saturday.
It’s easy to say Anthony’s experience at UNC has been a failure when you look at the win/loss record, but when you actually watch the game tape you can tell it’s just more complex than that. Saturday was a perfect example, as Louisville knew that Carolina was going to lean on Anthony heavily and no one else on the team stepped up to relive some of that pressure. It also doesn’t take a lot of game review to see blown assists because players can’t finish around the rim and zero movement on offense that forces a bad shot at the end.
The fact remains, though, that Anthony has yet to shoot above 50% in any of his games in college, and that has to be weighing on him as the season winds down and he ponders his NBA future. Coach Roy Williams has the benefit of having actually played this opponent on the road without Cole, the only opponent this season he’ll be able to say that about, which means they can actually study tape on what worked before and improve with the addition of Anthony. The recipe is there for him to have a breakout game.
How many will care?
We know Wolfpack fans are out there hoping for revenge, not to mention they are on the bubble for a NCAA Tournament bid. Also despite being three games back of Virginia, they still have a realistic shot at the fourth seed in the ACC Tournament. Why? The Cavaliers still have to go to Virginia Tech, host Duke, and host Louisville in the last game of the regular season, a game that the Cardinals will likely need in order to try and get the top seed.
Outside of that, though, there’s a real question of how many Carolina fans will want to watch. They already have the win in Raleigh, so a loss is basically expected here and a win would be gravy. Fans know the team is basically locked into Tuesday in Greensboro at this point, and there’s just not much left to enjoy from this season.
There are also real conflicts — Super Tuesday is in one week, and the Democrats are set to be an hour into their debate when the game starts. Also, the Carolina Hurricanes are right in the hunt of a return to the NHL playoffs, and they will be finishing up a game against the Dallas Stars, their first contest since the miraculous story of David Ayres. In any other year, any of these things would either be ignored or shunted to the side in favor of Carolina basketball, but this year? There’s a real chance here that fans are just done emotionally investing in the team.
It’s tough to blame fans, as this is rare territory for them to be in for basketball. They do, however, have plenty of recent experience from football, and based on that, the UNC fan buy-in will probably resemble Larry Fedora’s last game for the Tar Heels.
It’s the first step in starting to reconcile with what to do with a free March for the first time in a long, long time.