How soon is soon enough?
If the goal of the current North Carolina Tar Heels is to reach the 2020 NCAA Tournament field, “soon enough” for the return of Cole Anthony might have passed two weeks ago.
With him as the team’s point guard and primary offensive option, the Tar Heels were a solid, developing high-major team. They were not the sort of team we've come to expect from North Carolina, but they were not the disheveled mess we’ve seen since Anthony's torn meniscus required surgery in mid-December.
Anthony on Wednesday posted on Instagram he “will be back soon” to rejoin the Heels. That should be a relief to coach Roy Williams, who has struggled under the weight of recent defeats. Whether Anthony's return can have the desired effect on the Tar Heels’ ambitions, though, involves a lot of variables:
1. Will Anthony immediately be as good as new? Anthony was averaging 19.1 points, 3.4 assists and an astounding 6.3 rebounds from a backcourt position. He had scored in double figures in every game but one. His two weakest games were the two just before he departed the lineup for his surgery, when he shot a combined 8 of 30 from the field. But because there was no specific incident that led to the injury, he might have been diminished by discomfort in those games.
2. Is North Carolina too broken to be repaired? They are 8-8 and ranked 115th in the NCAA’s NET ratings. We do not have a history on how teams can overcome such a disadvantage in the NET because this is only the second year it has been in use.
The closest comparison using the NCAA’s old metric, the RPI, might be Washington’s run at the end of the 2003-04 season, when they were ranked in the 90s in early February and closed with nine victories in 11 games — including ending Stanford’s quest for an undefeated season in the last regular-season game — to climb to 60th and earn an at-large bid.
These rankings are used not to specifically slot teams into the field, but as a tool to measure team accomplishment. But it’s safe to say a team with an abysmal NET ranking is going to have a difficult time making the field. The lowest-ranked team to make it in the NET’s first-year was No. 73 St. John’s.
3. Were the Tar Heels an NCAA team, anyway? With him in the lineup, even with the two losses immediately prior to this departure, Carolina was 6-3 with victories over Alabama, Notre Dame and Oregon. Only the one over the Ducks is the kind that gets a team into the tournament, but their only losses were to NCAA contenders Michigan, Ohio State and Virginia.
Without him, they are 2-5 with losses to Wofford, Pitt, Georgia Tech and Clemson — the latter breaking a string of home wins against the Tigers that dated back almost a century.
It’s easy to forget, buried under the weight of the unexpected defeats to Georgia Tech and Clemson, that North Carolina began this season respectably, with an 11-point victory against the Fighting Irish, and that the Heels performed well in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Anthony played 34 minutes a game then. He was an enormous part of the success the Tar Heels did enjoy. The Heels’ next game is Saturday at Pitt. It is not clear exactly what Anthony meant by “soon,” but assuming that the trip to Pittsburgh is “too soon,” they play road games at Virginia Tech and N.C. State over the next three games.
There are consecutive Quad 1 opportunities against Florida State and Duke in the first week of February.
It would be asking a lot to expect Anthony to carry this North Carolina team from its current predicament into NCAA Tournament contention. If he’ll be “back soon,” though, you know he’s going to give it a shot.