UNC Tar Heels May Be Destined for Historic Disappointment Without Cole Anthony

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 19, 2019

Cole Anthony
Cole AnthonyRyan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The North Carolina Tar Heels have earned more No. 1 seeds (17) in the men's NCAA tournament than any other program, but they might set a much less flattering tournament record this year if things don't turn around soon.

Following Wednesday night's 94-81 loss to Gonzaga, the Tar Heels are 6-5 overall and mired in a four-game losing streak for the first time since February 2010. Star freshman Cole Anthony is expected to miss at least the next five games following surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus, and at last check, there's no known surgical procedure for fixing everything that's wrong with this offense.

Even before the knee injury that will keep Anthony off the court until at least mid-January, the Tar Heels were struggling something fierce.

During the loss to Michigan in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, there was a stretch of 12 minutes in which they were outscored 24-4 even though the Wolverines were without arguably their best player, Zavier Simpson, for a significant chunk of that run due to foul trouble.

Back on the mainland, UNC was destroyed 74-49 on its home floor by Ohio State. Granted, Armando Bacot left with an ankle injury early in the first half and Anthony was battling the flu, but the Heels never had much of a chance in that one.

Four days later, they went to Charlottesville and shot 1-of-14 from three-point range while losing 56-47 to Virginia. If the Cavaliers weren't dealing with substantial offensive woes of their own this season, that probably would have been another blowout by at least 25 points.

And then without Anthony (and Leaky Black) this past weekend, North Carolina lost at home to a Wofford team that is nowhere near as good as last year's squad after losing three of its best players and its head coach.

North Carolina lost to Wofford for the second time in three years.
North Carolina lost to Wofford for the second time in three years.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The Tar Heels have shot below 46 percent from the field in every game this season, haven't hit 37 percent from three-point range since the season opener against Notre Dame and have only had three games with a success rate of 62 percent or better from the free-throw line.

At least with Anthony, who is still leading the team in points, assists and steals despite missing the past two games, there was realistic hope that someone would eventually do something heroic to save this offense from itself.

Without him, it's going to be a nightly reminder that this team lost all five of its leading scorers from last season. It also lost key reserve Seventh Woods as a transfer (South Carolina) and will not have Sterling Manley at all this season due to knee injuries, which means it's actually adjusting to life without seven of last year's top nine guys.

Graduate transfers Justin Pierce (William & Mary) and Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern) were supposed to come in and give the Tar Heels some semblance of veteran leadership, but they have been almost unplayable.

In UNC's six games against major-conference opponents (excluding Wednesday night against "mid-major" Gonzaga), those two seniors have shot a combined 16-of-65 (24.6 percent) from the field for 43 points (3.6 per player per game) with seven total assists.

Granted, six games apiece isn't a colossal sample size, but it certainly seems as though the transition to the ACC is a bit much for either former minor-conference star to handle. And if not those guys, to whom can the Tar Heels turn for help?

Justin Pierce
Justin PierceGrant Halverson/Getty Images

Bacot and Garrison Brooks have been solid in the post, each averaging double figures and better than eight rebounds per game. But that's nowhere near enough for a team that had averaged at least 81.6 points per game in each of the last four seasons.

Plus, with Anthony out, who makes the entry passes to get the ball to those big men? Who keeps the defense honest as a three-point threat, preventing the opposition from collapsing on Bacot and Brooks? Facing constant double-teams against Wofford, Bacot shot just 2-of-14, and he's going to see more of that for the immediate future.

The loss to Wofford was an "All Hands on Deck" attempt to solve the unsolvable. Junior K.J. Smith and freshmen Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis each played more minutes against the Terriers than they had in the first nine games combined. The result was a combined nine points on 14 field-goal attempts, eight assists and a perimeter "defense" that allowed 40 three-point attempts and forced just five turnovers.

Not great.

Maybe Brandon Robinson is at least a partial-credit answer to both questions about entry passes and three-point shooting, as he is having a breakout senior year since returning from the ankle injury that kept him out of the first four games. However, he's nowhere near the Trae Young type of one-man offense that head coach Roy Williams needs running this show.

If Anthony comes back on the early end of his injury timeline and looks no worse for wear, maybe the Tar Heels will be fine.

They only have five games between now and Jan. 18, and all fiveUCLA on a neutral floor, home against Yale, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Clemson*are winnable, even without the star freshman. And in spite of their struggles, they do have an impressive neutral-site win over Oregon and plenty of opportunities in February and March to pick up quality victories.

*North Carolina has a 59-0 all-time record at home against Clemson, and the Tigers are currently 2-5 against teams in the KenPom Top 300. If the Heels lose that one, you know this season is devolving into a nightmare.

But what if it takes Anthony longer than expected to recover and he never quite looks 100 percent? Worse yet, what if he makes the business decision so many people thought Zion Williamson should have made last year and just shuts it down rather than risking further injury and a depleted draft stock?

In that scenario, North Carolina might have the worst season by a reigning NCAA tournament No. 1 seed in men's college basketball history.

Cole Anthony
Cole AnthonySteve Helber/Associated Press

Let's begin that discussion by noting that going from a No. 1 seed to missing the tournament happens more often than you probably think.

There have been 41 NCAA tournaments since seeding was added in 1979. Let's call it 40 by excluding 2019, though, since we do not yet know the fates of the No. 1 seeds from last year's tourney. In those 40 tournaments, there were 160 No. 1 seeds. And of those 160 teams, 23 (14.4 percent) failed to make the Big Dance the following season.

It has only happened once in the past five yearsXavier missed last year after earning a No. 1 seed in 2018but 11 of the 48 No. 1 seeds from the 2003-14 NCAA tournaments had to watch from home the following March, including two each from 2007 (Florida and Ohio State) and 2009 (North Carolina and Connecticut).

These things sometimes happen when you have a great season and subsequently lose a ton of seniors and early entrants to the NBA draft. And not to toot my own horn, but I did warn you back in April that this was a possibility for the Tar Heels.

For the most part, though, those teams barely missed the cut. Xavier still won 19 games last year and went to the NIT. Twenty of the 23 posted winning records. And even the biggest disappointmentsPurdue went 15-16 in 1988-89; Florida went 16-17 in 2014-15were only one shot away from winning records.

Thus, if North Carolina goes 15-17 or worse, it would set a notorious NCAA record for the lowest winning percentage the year after earning a No. 1 seed. And without Anthony, it's not a stretch to envision the Tar Heels losing at least 17 games.

KenPom.com currently has UNC projected for a 17-14 finish (excluding the ACC tournament). However, there are still preseason projections baked into those numbers to a certain degreeUNC was No. 6 on KenPom to start the yearand they don't account for Anthony's absence.

In their current state, I can't imagine the Tar Heels getting to 11 conference wins, even in a down year for the ACC overall. Saturday's game against UCLA in Las Vegas feels like a toss-up at best considering the Bruins rank top-15 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and only particularly struggle against teams that can stroke it from deep. In case you've forgotten, North Carolina cannot.

The 6-5 start to this season is North Carolina's worst since going 8-20 under Matt Doherty in 2001-02. Don't expect things to get that out of hand, but this is quickly shaping up as a year to forget in Chapel Hill.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.