But the Tar Heels, believe it or not, are not a good team this season, a point Coach Roy Williams bluntly drove home Monday night on his weekly radio show, one night after the aforementioned loss to the Yellow Jackets. He called this year’s team “the least gifted team I’ve ever coached in the time that I’ve been back here.”
“We stunk, okay. We were not very good,” Williams said. “The crazy thing about it is, our team, and we’ve had some very gifted teams, this is not a very gifted team. It’s just not.”
This probably isn’t what Williams expected. The Tar Heels entered the season ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason top 25 and rose to fifth amid a 5-0 start. They’ve gone 3-6 since, battered by an early-season schedule that featured the likes of Oregon (a win in the Bahamas), Michigan, Ohio State, Virginia and Gonzaga (all losses). Williams, 69, likely thought he would have caught mentor and North Carolina legend Dean Smith in career victories in early December. Instead, win No. 879 didn’t arrive until a Dec. 30 victory over Yale (and that only happened after the Bulldogs’ buzzer-beating three-point attempt rattled out).
Win No. 880 could come Wednesday night against Pittsburgh.
There’s one obvious reason for this, namely the absence of heralded freshman point guard Cole Anthony, who was averaging a team-high 19.1 points and 3.4 assists per game when he underwent an arthroscopic procedure on Dec. 16 to treat a partially torn meniscus. He was expected to miss four to six weeks and his recovery reportedly is progressing without incident, but his absence set the Tar Heels adrift (they’ve gone 2-3 without him).
“You lose your best player and your best player is also your point guard, you lose a lot more things other than just a player,” Williams said Monday.
Anthony wasn’t alone. Seven North Carolina players have missed games with injuries, including junior center Sterling Manley and freshman guard Anthony Harris, who are both out for the season. Williams said they would have been among the top players in his team’s rotation this season. Starting freshman center Armando Bacot, the second-best recruit in Williams’s Class of 2019 after Cole Anthony, has missed most of two games.
The Tar Heels could have mitigated these absences with depth, but Williams’s recruiting has slipped in recent years. According to 247 Sports’ composite rankings, his four classes between 2015 and 2018 ranked 70th, 14th, 19th and 13th, hardly terrible but not exactly elite, either. (Duke, the natural comparison, had the nation’s top-ranked class in three of those years.) That North Carolina advanced to the 2016 national title game and won it all in 2017 is a testament to Williams’s coaching. That, and the presence of an undersized point guard who was an exceptional college player but not good enough to leave early for the NBA (Joel Berry, a four-year player and three-year starter) and another player who wasn’t even on scholarship when he arrived at Chapel Hill (Luke Maye, a UNC legacy — his father was a Tar Heels quarterback).
The recruiting class that featured Anthony and Bacot was ranked ninth by 247, Williams’s first top 10 showing since 2014. Now both have missed time with injury, and there are questions about whether Anthony will ever suit up again for the Tar Heels. He’s seen as an NBA lottery pick, and if the 8-6 Tar Heels continue to spiral toward their first missed NCAA tournament since 2010 — and Williams’s third missed NCAA tournament ever — why would Anthony risk further injury and further erosion of his draft standing?
“It has been really hard,” Williams said this week. “I was talking to another coach the other day and he said, ‘It’s the most weird thing I have ever seen, but no one is going to feel sorry for North Carolina.’ So I realize that. That has made it a more difficult season for us. The good news is that we have a lot of games left to play.”
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