Walking into the Dean Dome for the Tar Heel matchup with Boston College, you could finally feel a glimmer of optimism in the air. It started percolating as soon as Carolina ran off the court at the RBC Center, winners of consecutive ACC games for the first time this season and winners for the 31st time in the last 35 games against the “rival” Wolfpack, and then it picked up steam with the confirmation freshman star Cole Anthony was returning after missing 11 games to injury.
For the first time since mid-December, Tar Heel fans dared to wonder whether there may be a path to March Madness that doesn’t require winning the ACC Tournament.
The answer was as swift as it was painful (literally for Brandon Robinson, who sustained yet another injury on the penultimate play). Just a handful of hours after learning Anthony was returning, hope was snuffed out by Jared Hamilton, a North Carolina kid who grew up pulling for the Tar Heels. (Isn’t that always the description of the guy who does this to Carolina?) As Hamilton stepped to the free throw line, the full-throated frenzy of the Carolina faithful betrayed how desperately the Tar Heels needed to beat the Eagles, who were 10-11 and ranked below 150 by KenPom, making them the Tar Heels’ weakest remaining opponent.
It wasn’t just the game on the line, but any semblance of a chance Carolina had left to earn an at-large NCAA bid, and everyone in the Dean Dome knew it. Despite our protests, Hamilton made two of three free throws, leaving Carolina with 17.2 seconds to try to salvage their season. Anthony pushed the ball into the front court, but his teammates appeared confused and Coach Williams elected to go home with three timeouts in his pocket, so Anthony heaved up an unanswered prayer.
Losing to Boston College felt all too familiar. The Tar Heels played decently, outrebounding the Eagles 42-35 and holding them to only 71 points, but Carolina’s shooting was terrible (FG 22-61, 3Pt 4-19, FTs 22-31, including 0-7 FTs by Garrison Brooks) and that led to a loss against a team most Carolina teams defeat. For a team ranked 329th nationally (next-to-last among Power Five schools) in Effective FG Percentage who had recently lost two games in overtime, it was déjà vu all over again.
The trend would continue two nights later when the Tar Heels played well against a top-ten Florida State team, holding the Seminoles to 65 points in Tallahassee, but losing by six, due largely to an 0 for 17 stretch during the second half and a miserable 30.9% field goal percentage.
The loss to Boston College was yet another game where Anthony’s preeminent talent was offset by an overall lack of ball movement and offensive fluidity. Too often, the ball seems to stick in his hand and plays end with Anthony dribbling the clock down, driving to the basket or pulling up from deep, and attempting a difficult shot. His game seems better suited for the isolation style of the NBA than for Carolina’s motion-based offense, where one player taking 33.7% of the shots signals a problem. (Tyler Hansbrough only took 25.6% when he won National Player of the Year in 2008.) In particular,
Anthony’s presence seems to negatively impact Brooks, whose scoring drops from 18.9 points per game in 11 games without Anthony to 10.8 in games with Anthony. Brooks’ rebounding numbers also shrink from 10.1 to 7.9 rebounds per game when Anthony plays.
Carolina’s other main post player, Armando Bacot, scores and rebounds at almost identical rates regardless of whether Anthony plays, leading to the inference that it’s not Anthony’s impact on post players that’s changing Brooks’ production, but more likely Anthony’s absence prompting Brooks to step forward and be more assertive on offense. None of that is meant to say that the Tar Heels are better off with Anthony in the lineup, but rather to point out that the other Tar Heels don’t seem to have figured out how to play with Anthony yet…and time is running out.
KenPom predicts Carolina will win three of its last nine games (UVa, NC State,Wake Forest), by a combined 6 points, all in Chapel Hill.
Not surprisingly, the computers are not bullish on the Tar Heels’ chances against Duke (15% home; 5% away) or Louisville (9%), but they also don’t offer much hope of winning road games against Wake Forest (41%), Notre Dame (29%), or Syracuse (26%). So when your never-negative friend says the Tar Heels could still win out and get an at-large NCAA bid, the proper response, in your best Lloyd from ‘Dumb and Dumber’ voice, is “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
While hoping Carolina can do the improbable, Tar Heel fans should focus their “what if” predictions on how to avoid playing during the First Round of the ACC Tournament and having to win five games in five days. Even that may be asking too much, given the Tar Heels current 3-8 ACC record. To avoid a Tuesday game, Carolina will need to finish at least ninth. Going back to 2015, only one team (8-10 Pitt in 2015) finished ninth or better with a record under .500. With the new 20-game ACC schedule, that means the Tar Heels would need to win at least six (probably seven) of their final nine games, a tall order considering the quality of their opponents and Carolina’s poor shooting.
So what’s left to hope for? Another win over State and stealing one from Wake on the road are realistic. Even shocking the world with a win over Duke isn’t impossible. Stranger things have happened. More importantly, let’s hope the Tar Heels can win Robinson’s senior game against Wake Forest. He’s personified toughness this season and he more than deserves to go out a winner in Chapel Hill.
And if none of that works out, take solace in knowing that it’s been 18 years since we went through a season like this, and we’ve won three national titles since then. Sure beats being a State fan.
So, as we pull for the Tar Heels to go on a run and shock the world, it’s time to go where you go, do what you do, and may all your skies be Carolina blue.