Let’s rewind to UNC’s and Cole Anthony’s, first game of the season: that delightful win against Notre Dame where he simply dazzled in front of a home crowd, putting up 34 points on 12/24 shooting (including 6/11 from three-point range), grabbing 11 defensive rebounds, and dishing 5 assists in a 76-65 win that felt pretty easy, overall. But even then, the warning signs for the rest of the 2019-2020 season were evident, looking back. Garrison Brooks scored a modest 10 points on 4/7 shooting, and nobody else made more than 3 shots. Anthony had a lot of assists either ruined or turned into turnovers (of which he finished with 4). It might have been UNC’s first time in a while not scoring 80 points in a season opener, but it was also the first time UNC had played a conference opponent to open the season. We skimmed over all of this, for the most part, because his individual brilliance seemed like it might be enough for the Heels to be pretty good anyways.
Fast forward a bit to the first UVA game, and every hole that Anthony stitched against Notre Dame had burst wide open. The Heels had scored over 80 points just once in non-conference play, a double-digit loss to Gonzaga. He hadn’t hit more than 50% of his field goal attempts yet, finding his driving lanes clogged by stagnant teammates and, sometimes by force and sometimes by choice, taking tough shots completely out of the structure of the offense. Others helped occasionally. Brooks started growing into his own pretty early on, and Armando Bacot already had pretty good chemistry with Anthony and had a monster of a game against Oregon. But it was extremely clear that this team was riding with Anthony, to the point where it wasn’t uncommon to see them literally standing around to see what he’d do next. I don’t know whether it was the chicken or the egg that came first, so to speak: did his teammates lose confidence in him because he played too much hero-ball in practice/early games, or did he start playing hero-ball because his teammates were too enthralled with his skills to remember to play basketball? Roy Williams’ comments throughout the season indicate the latter: for whatever it’s worth, Williams never once publicly blamed Anthony for not playing team basketball, even when it was clear that this team, as we and I wrote several times, wasn’t playing as a team. Williams hasn’t been shy about that kind of blame, either, in previous seasons: Joel Berry not giving up a game-winning opportunity got blasted in 2018, Theo Pinson trying to do too much his first few seasons, Dexter Strickland not really playing point guard, all of those, through words and actions, have been moments of indictment. I’m inclined to believe the head coach here, at least mostly.
There was a brief moment where wins over NCSU and 6-man Miami without Anthony, the only games UNC won without him, made some fans think this team was better off without him, that they got the opportunity to play like a team and had figured out how to do so minus their point guard. That was dumb at the time and only looks dumber in hindsight, as after an adjustment period that lasted until the first Duke game, Anthony’s re-integration into the lineup showed off what this team could have been all along with him at the helm: probably not a top-10 team, but at least a middling seed in the NCAAT. He dazzled with his individual skill, he set up teammates with flashy passes that were also the right passes, and played, for the most part, tenacious on-ball defense. And again, the team was going as he went. Two of his last three games of the season were also among his worst, at Duke and against Syracuse, and they seemed to break something in the rest of the team (interrupted by a romp against Virginia Tech). As I wrote at the time, he was the unquestioned headliner in a season to forget.
Given the outsized expectations for Anthony and the disaster of a season that he helmed part-time, it’s really easy to overlook exactly how good a statistical season he had: 18.5 points per game on 15-ish shots, 5.7 rebounds, and 4 assists, shooting 35% from three-point range. Just on paper, that’s a really good line. It came with only okay efficiency and a higher-than-you’d-like number of turnovers, but it also came courtesy of an offensively inept perimeter and a system that just refused to work for half the year. I don’t really think about the stats when I think of Anthony’s season, though. I think of how very different the team’s 5 games pre-Syracuse looked from anything we’d seen since November, even the wins against State and Miami, and how obvious it was that without Anthony, this team was Garrison Brooks and a whole lot of prayer. Take him away for the whole season and I’m not sure this team wins double-digit games. For that, and the fact that he gave us some of the most electric individual highlights we’ve seen in Chapel Hill in a long, long time, all I can say to Cole Anthony is a heartfelt thank you, for the glimmers of hope and excitement in a season that should otherwise be fired straight into the sun.