The North Carolina Tar Heels returned to the Smith Center hardwood to open the 2019-20 season against conference foe Notre Dame as part of the ACC’s expanded 20-game conference schedule. Definitely not an ideal start for a young team that was needing to replace their top five scorers from a year ago, wouldn't you say. That didn’t matter for this Tar Heel team on Wednesday night, though.
We had heard all offseason about how far ahead of the curve Cole Anthony was, but Wednesday night was the first true look at a player that has been deemed as arguably the best prospect the Tar Heels have landed in the modern recruiting era. Despite a slow start, the freshman, who Roy Williams has called the most advanced freshman he has ever coached, dominated after returning from a brief three minute stint on the bench late in the first half to put together a historic performance. Anthony dropped 34 points on 12-24 shooting, including 6-11 from the outside. That mark is the top scoring performance by a freshman in their first game in program and ACC history and is tied for the third-highest mark in a game by a freshman in program history. Anthony took over the game late, pouring in 23 of the team’s 46 second half points as they Tar Heels overcame a five point second half deficit to pick up the Roy Williams sixteenth season opening victory since his return to Chapel Hill.
Anthony didn’t just impress with his scoring ability, though. His 11 rebounds led the Tar Heels on Wednesday night and backed up Roy Williams’ comments in the summer about him being the best rebounding point guard he has ever seen. His nose for the basketball will make it tough for opposing teams to coral those long rebounds that some thought could be there with all of the perimeter rebounding that departed in the offseason.
He tied for the team lead with five assists, a number that might not be mind-blowing, but one that didn’t need to be with how well he shooting the basketball. He paired those five assists with just four turnovers, something that was definitely a concern heading in against a Fighting Irish team that thrives on winning the turnover battle.
Anthony could not have asked for a better performance to begin his career. This “tough little nut” played 37 minutes on Wednesday night and better expect to see this kind of role for the bulk of the season, especially if he keeps playing this well. There is a reason this young man was compared by one former Tar Heel player to Phil Ford back in the summer. My advice to Tar Heel fans: enjoy what should be a special season for this special player.
-Anthony wasn’t the only player who saw big minutes on Wednesday night. Garrison Brooks played 39 minutes for the Tar Heels in the post, while Leaky Black added 33 minutes, playing everywhere from the 3 to the 1.
-Andrew Platek will play a lot early in the season with Brandon Robinson on the shelf and he played very well in big minutes. Platek played 26 minutes for Roy Williams on Wednesday night, bouncing between both the 1 and 2 spots, dropping eight points on 3-4 shooting and pulling down four rebounds.
-There was some concern about replacing the production on the glass, but the Tar Heels outrebounded a veteran Notre Dame team by 20 on Wednesday night. Anthony was the star, but fellow freshman Armando Bacot ripped down eight rebounds of his own. Garrison Brooks added nine boards, while Justin Pierce and Leaky Black both pulled down seven.
-Pierce and fellow transfer Christian Keeling had some nice moments, but didn’t shine in their Tar Heel debuts. The two combined to shoot just 3-10 from the field and hit just two combined three on the night. Keeling also struggled with ball control, turning the ball over five times on Wednesday.
-The Tar Heels shot just 10-17 from the free throw line on Wednesday night. Five of those misses came from Bacot, who was just 1-6 from the line. Bacot does a great job of drawing contact; now he just has to finish at the stripe.