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Tar Heel Hangover: Looking ahead to UNC Basketball’s future this season

Cole Anthony’s return was supposed to cure all ills. It did not.

NCAA Basketball: Miami-Florida 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.

A quick turnaround on Monday yielded a rare road victory, a two-game conference winning streak, and a glimmer of hope for the future. With signs of Cole Anthony’s imminent return, Carolina fans started to hop back on the bandwagon of momentum. Even a NCAA Tournament bid was openly discussed during the week. That all ended on Saturday afternoon with yet another crushing defeat to yet another not-very-good team.

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

This year’s Carolina team is certainly unlike anything Roy Williams has seen during his time in Chapel Hill. The mass exodus due to graduation and the draft ended a four-year dynasty and forced role players from a year ago into the spotlight and newcomers in the form of freshmen and transfers. Then a devastating run of injuries crippled what looked to be a very promising start to the year. From December through January, the losses started to pile up.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, signs of life have broken through the clouds on the court. Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson have played extremely well, picking up the scoring slack and bringing leadership to the floor. Andrew Platek has admirably filled in as a starter and Justin Pierce played some of his best minutes of the season. The result was a double overtime loss on the road to Virginia Tech, a home blowout win over Miami, and a big statement on the road against NC State.

Adding a superstar back into the mix, however, is not easy. Cole Anthony takes a lot of shots and his teammates look to him to make plays whenever he is on the floor. The challenge is to maintain the growth and chemistry from the last couple of weeks for everyone else so that Anthony’s return is a net positive.

That did not happen on Saturday against Boston College.

Anthony came off the bench to play 26 minutes and put up 26 points including going a perfect 14-14 from the free throw line. He was only 5-14 from the field however, and his positive scoring contributions rippled negatively to the rest of the team. Brooks finished with only 10 points, his lowest scoring output since early December against Virginia (although the limited scoring was also due to him going 0-7 from the free throw line). Brandon Robinson also looked uncertain with Anthony on the floor and only scored 12 points. Together, Brooks and Robinson were a combined 10-31 from the field.

So why did the team’s shooting woes return along with their biggest star player? Much of the answer comes from ball movement or a lack thereof. The team managed only 9 assists on Saturday. Some of the problem is likely just a level of discomfort in the suddenly changed roles on the court. Brooks and Robinson instantly went from must-score leaders to must-support the scorer. This would be difficult for any team, and particularly one wavering in confidence levels.

One other possible explanation for what happened Saturday is that anticipation did not equal reality. For seven weeks, Carolina fans have eagerly anticipated Anthony’s return so he could save the season. Some of that excitement has likely permeated the locker room. But Anthony can only lead the team to victory if everyone else maintains their high level of execution instead of raising their reliance. This will be Coach Williams’ challenge moving forward; reintegrating a star without losing the supporting energy.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

It was just one game. There was bound to be some bumps in working Anthony back into the lineup and re-developing chemistry at such a late point in the year. The problem is that this team is out of cushion for error. Saturday’s loss will end the talk of a NCAA Tournament bid.

Moving forward, this team can and should continue to develop with an eye toward making a deep ACC Tournament run (against mostly mediocre competition) and hoping for a miracle. There will be more wins with a full lineup, which could include Jeremiah Francis and Cole Anthony on the floor at the same time. Growth should be the measure of the immediate future because there are not enough winnable games remaining on the schedule to otherwise make it to the field of 68.

There is very limited time for everyone to get comfortable in their modified roles ahead of the most difficult week on the schedule. Another short turnaround to a road game will take the Heels to Tallahassee. Florida State is very good this year and the trip looks to be a daunting task. Carolina then has the rest of the week to prepare for Duke. This is not a good time to be searching for an identity, but it is the week ahead. Let’s hope a confident, coordinated and cohesive team shows up in Carolina Blue.

Go Heels!