Cole Anthony's injury extends North Carolina's losing streak, presents big challenge for Roy Williams

Sporting News

It's four losses in a row now for the North Carolina Tar Heels: Ohio State, followed by Virginia, then Wofford and now, perhaps worst of all, star freshman point guard Cole Anthony will be lost for four to six weeks following knee surgery.

The Tar Heels could survive each of the first three defeats. Ohio State holds the No. 1 rating at KenPom.com, so falling to the Buckeyes was no shame. Virginia is the reigning NCAA champion and has the nation's highest-rated defense by a significant margin. The Wofford game was at home, and this is not the same team that dominated the Southern Conference and advanced in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, but the Heels were playing that game without Anthony.

That's one way to see how bad this could get.

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Anthony's offensive rating ranked fifth in the country among high-usage players. Only 16 Division I players out of more than 4,000 used more possessions than he did through his first nine games as a collegian. He led the Tar Heels in minutes at 33 per game, has attempted 67 more shots than his next-busiest teammate — even while playing one fewer game — and still accounted for 13 more assists than any other North Carolina player.

This season just became one of the most daunting of Roy Williams' Hall of Fame career.

"Obviously not having a player of Cole's caliber will be a tremendous challenge to our young team, but we have to play," Williams said in the school's release. "No one player is going to replace the production Cole Anthony gives us, so it's up to everyone who puts on a North Carolina jersey to raise his game and help our team play better."

Without Anthony, junior K.J. Smith will inherit much of the point guard responsibility. After playing little in the first nine games, he went 26 minutes against Wofford and delivered four assists while committing two turnovers. He is the son of former North Carolina All-American Kenny Smith. Anthony has considerable ballhandling help from wing Brandon Robins, who is averaging 3.2 assists, including five in the game against Wofford that Anthony missed. He went 33 minutes, scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds in that loss.

Even with Anthony, who is considered a likely top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the Tar Heels had trouble generating sufficient offense to be dangerous against many of their best opponents. They scored 49 points against Ohio State and 47 against UVa, although they earlier had been successful in games against Notre Dame and Oregon, now the No. 8 team in the AP poll.

The Heels have a busy week with a trip Wednesday to Gonzaga followed by a visit to Las Vegas to face UCLA in Saturday afternoon's CBS Sports Classic.

The good news is their early ACC schedule is not overwhelming. Their next six league opponents, starting Jan. 4 against Georgia Tech, have an average KenPom rating of 82. This does not mean the games should be easy, but it's not the same as dealing with Duke (No. 2), Louisville (No. 3) and Florida State (No. 16).

If the Heels can find a way to perform respectably between now and Anthony's possible return — the outer boundary of the projected recovery time is around the date when the Heels travel to rival NC State — they could keep alive an NCAA Tournament campaign.

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