North Carolina announced Tuesday that star freshman Cole Anthony would miss four to six weeks after undergoing an arthroscopic procedure in his right knee. By that time the Tar Heels — who fell out of the Top 25 after suffering their fourth loss in five games to Wofford on Sunday — will be in the thick of the conference season in the always rugged ACC.
In light of these developments, ESPN.com’s panel of experts considered the implications for UNC’s season, as well as for Anthony, who ranks No. 4 in ESPN’s latest NBA mock draft for 2020.
Given the 4-6-weeks timetable for Cole Anthony’s return, the strength of the ACC and the way North Carolina has played (even with Anthony), what do you think the chances are of the Tar Heels missing the NCAA tournament?Cole Anthony underwent arthroscopic surgery after suffering a torn right meniscus. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Before looking at the Tar Heels’ January schedule, I would have said the chances were fairly high. But once you look at their schedule, you realize it’s awfully manageable without Anthony. Of course, they lost to Wofford without him and had to start a former walk-on at the point guard spot. But Carolina avoids Virginia, Duke, Louisville and Florida State — the four best teams in the ACC — until February.
After the game at Gonzaga on Wednesday, the Tar Heels won’t play a true road game until Jan. 18. It’s neutral vs. UCLA, then home games against Yale, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Clemson, followed by road trips to Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. That brings us to about five weeks from now. I don’t expect the Tar Heels to go undefeated in that stretch without Anthony, but they should be able to tread water until he returns. How good the Tar Heels are, even with Anthony, is another question, though.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think the chances are quite high, because the truth is North Carolina hasn’t been a great team with Anthony. The Tar Heels might be terrible without him.
If that sounds harsh, let’s use some numbers to set up the dire situation that might lie ahead for UNC, a team that just lost to Wofford. Without Cole Anthony on the floor this season, North Carolina has averaged a subpar 86 points per 100 possessions, while making just 38% of its shots inside the arc and 30% of its 3-pointers, per HoopLens.com. The Tar Heels surrendered nearly a point per possession on defense as opponents collected more than 36% of their 3-pointers when Anthony was on the bench.
With him, this team only made 28% of its 3-pointers and registered just 94 points per 100 possessions. This could be a six-week tailspin for a team that fails to make the NCAA tournament. Even if he’s back for a chunk of the ACC season, we’ve already witnessed the truth: This might be one of Roy Williams’ worst UNC teams, and that was evident before Anthony’s injury.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Looks like a 50-50 chance that the Heels will miss the tournament entirely. The one win that will earn them credit in March is their victory over Oregon at the Battle 4 Atlantis. It’s true, as Jeff says, that UNC catches a break from the schedule and that Roy Williams’ men will open ACC play against the soft midsection of the league. Then again, that’s not such a good thing if you lose a healthy share of those games.
Just remember that everyone was already fretting about this offense when Anthony was healthy. Now, there’s always a chance that the freshman will return earlier than expected, and it’s likely that the rest of the team will develop even in his absence. But, strange as it is to say, North Carolina has work to do to earn a bid.
How must North Carolina change the way it plays? Who is going to have to pick up the slack?Roy Williams will have to get creative with his personnel minus Cole Anthony’s scoring prowess. Elsa/Getty Images
Gasaway: This is Armando Bacot’s time to shine. The freshman arrived in Chapel Hill as the “other” new guy besides Anthony, but he happens to have been the No. 18-rated freshman in the ESPN 100. We’ve seen guys at or even below that level do big things as freshmen before. (Coby White was ranked No. 23.) In the early going, Bacot has provided good rim defense and excellent offensive rebounding while converting more than 50% of his 2s (and, yes, struggling at the line). That’ll do. Feed the 6-foot-10 freshman in the paint.
Medcalf: Definitely time to play through Bacot. Make him the focus and then remain a great offensive rebounding team and make the most of second-chance opportunities on offense. The Tar Heels have a greater concern on defense without Anthony, a strong guard who can crash the offensive and defensive glass. But they have a personnel problem more than anything. Not sure they can make significant tweaks that suddenly reverse their fortunes.
Borzello: We saw a glimpse of how Carolina is going to deal with Anthony’s absence in its loss to Wofford over the weekend.
The Tar Heels had K.J. Smith start in the backcourt alongside Christian Keeling and Brandon Robinson, with freshmen Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris coming off the bench. Smith is a former walk-on, and Francis and Harris have been dealing with long-term injuries and missed the first eight games of the season. Harris was an ESPN 100 recruit coming out of high school and should be an impact player if he’s 100 percent healthy. Francis is another playmaker who was a top-100 player before his injury.
They could also use William & Mary grad transfer Justin Pierce more as a facilitator — he has seen his minutes drop since the start of the season, but he was a capable distributor and playmaker last season. None of the available perimeter players is Cole Anthony, but Roy Williams should still be able to put out a competitive guard group.
We went through this some with Zion Williamson last year … under what circumstances, if any, do you think Cole Anthony should shut it down for the season and get ready for the NBA draft?Anthony stands to make millions in the NBA, meaning his collegiate return brings a certain level of risk. AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Medcalf: I think that’s a personal decision. Knee surgeries are always terrifying. We have to see what happens after his recovery. But I’m in the camp that says you should always shut it down under these circumstances if you’re a lottery pick.
At this point, Anthony only has to prove he’s healthy during NBA workouts. I understand the desire to return, but if there are any concerns about his health down the line, there isn’t one compelling reason for him to play, especially for a team that doesn’t resemble anything close to a contender right now. Zion just really loved his team and wanted to be a part of that. Maybe Cole is the same way. But he can’t make the “wrong” decision here. It’s his choice.
Gasaway: If the “four to six weeks” turns out to be accurate, then I would expect Anthony to come back and play. Especially if it’s a four-week hiatus, there will be much basketball still to be played and plenty of opportunities for North Carolina to record quality wins. Anything longer than six weeks, though, and you do have to wonder.
If UNC has flailed in Anthony’s absence and a tournament bid is beginning to look unlikely, then the discussion would change for a freshman projected as a top-five pick. That’s the main difference between Anthony this season and Williamson a year ago. With Zion, it was just a given that Duke was going to make a run at a national title. We definitely don’t know that yet about the Tar Heels.
Borzello: The expectation is that Anthony will return to play this season, but one would have to assume it depends heavily on his recovery and rehabilitation after knee surgery. If it’s at the end of the estimated four to six weeks timetable, then we’re talking late January and he still has about two months of game time, including the NCAA tournament. However, if we get into mid-February and he’s still not 100 percent and Carolina is struggling much more than expected, then we might have to revisit the discussion. For now, though, I don’t foresee him missing the rest of the season.