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UNC Basketball Freshman of the Year: Cole Anthony

His impact was first felt on the court, and then off when he was injured.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Tournament-North Carolina vs Virginia Tech Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the 2020 UNC Basketball Awards! The early end to the season that was totally caused by the caution for COVID-19 and not the fact that Carolina had a losing season has brought us to our annual year in review. This week, you can look forward to hearing the staff take on the players and moments that shined, as well as taking a look back and a look ahead to next year.

First up is recognizing UNC’s Freshman of the Year.

Going into the season, the winner seemed like it was pre-ordained. Cole Anthony was the highest ranked recruit to come to Carolina in a long time, and with the attrition and lack of experience on this year’s squad, everyone knew going in that Cole Anthony was going to have to take on a lion’s share of the work.

In the beginning, Anthony lived up to that promise. In his UNC and ACC debut, he hung 34 points on Notre Dame and helped lead Carolina to a 76-65 win in Chapel Hill. He won our first player of the game honor for the year, and his stats were tantalizing to fans about his potential. He was 6-11 from 3, 12-24 overall, logged 37 minutes, and grabbed 11 rebounds. He had his rougher moments, but particularly impressive was how he managed to take over in the second half. Despite the injury to Brandon Robinson, Carolina fans had every right to think they would weather the storm and have a great season.

Unfortunately, Cole would never score as many points again as teams quickly adjusted their defenses to account for the freshman. Still, he would hit the 20 point plateau three more times, and had Carolina rolling until the game against Ohio State in Chapel Hill.

What we didn’t know at the time was that Cole was already suffering with a knee injury by that point, likely suffered in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas (seriously, can Carolina just not do that tournament ever again? Both times they’ve gone they haven’t done well). Suddenly, the Virginia game would be the last we’d see of him for two months, and despite his dip in scoring, it was clear just how important he was for the team. He was someone defenders had to take seriously, he allowed for Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot to roam down low and occupy defenders to allow for rebounds, and he brought thre-point shooting to a team that would be achingly short on it.

By the time Cole returned in February, the Tar Heels were staring at a deep hole and last place in the ACC. They were able to celebrate his return with 26 points thanks to 14-14 from the line against Boston College. A few games later he was instrumental in hanging with Duke, scoring 24 points and going 9-10 from the line during a game where making free throws were...a problem. Unfortunately, none of these efforts brought wins, and it quickly became apparent that the team just missed too much development time with him.

His development became apparent by the end of the season, when the Tar Heels were able to win three in a row before stumbling against Duke on their way to the ACC Tournament. Despite the temptation to take all of the shots and try to show out for NBA scouts, Anthony had learned to facilitate in the offense, feeding Garrison Brooks and now trusting a more confident Christian Keeling. This led him to shoot over 50% in all three of those games, the game against Syracuse being the best of the bunch.

The season ended with a loss to those same Orange, and the fact that Syracuse had to take him more seriously as a shooter was a big reason for that. Ultimately, the team went as Cole went, turning the 2019-20 season into one big “what if?” Had 33% of his season not been taken up with the injury and then the time it took for him to get back up to game speed, how many games would Carolina had won if he had his full strength and naturally developed as most freshmen did?

Anthony was not the only freshman, and in fact Roy Williams brought in a big crop of newcomers this season. Biggest among them was Armando Bacot, who was a gamer and likely played a good chunk of the season on a hurt ankle suffered against Ohio State. He hit a wall, however, and didn’t really seem to develop the ability to fully use his strength and size until the very end thanks to those ankles. There had been thoughts he would go to the NBA, but he was talking anything but after the loss to Syracuse. The offseason plus another camp to work with Garrison Brooks, that and the arrival of Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe should help him develop into a real force down low that Roy has been lacking for several seasons.

Carolina was also able to get unexpected contributions in Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis. Neither were expected to contribute too much this season as they were both coming off long injuries, and initially in the wake of Cole Anthony’s injuries, they provided a spark. Unfortunately, and in what is likely the defining moment of the season, Harris suffered an ACL injury against Yale. That moment put the Tar Heels into shell-shock, leading them to almost lose that game. When compounded with the other injuries, the loss of Harris put the Tar Heels in a funk that took too long to dig out of. Francis came out strong but his lack of basketball work quickly caught up to him, to the point where he was seeing a small mount of minutes even before Cole came back. Still, Francis showed enough promise to be, at minimum, a solid backup option at point guard for the Tar Heels for the next few seasons.

Despite the inconsistency of his season, Anthony managed to impress members of the ACC press enough to earn inclusion on the All-Freshman Team, and made Third-Team All-ACC. Anthony may not have had the impact on the Tar Heels that fans were expecting, but his importance to the team wasn’t overstated.

More important than his attitude on the court was his actions off the court. As Carolina’s season continued to spiral, many would have understood if Cole decided his best move was to just sit out the rest of the year. Anthony shot that down immediately, and his reactions and connections with his teammates were genuine and ran counter to the reputation he had coming into the year. He was a delight to watch on the court, enough so that it would be great to see him wear the Carolina Blue one more year.

It likely isn’t to be, however, as the way Anthony finished the season calmed any sort of fears scouts may have had about him, and millions await him in the NBA. His time at Carolina will be short, even shorter than Coby White’s last year, but it sure was fun to see the potential while he was there.