Heel Tough Blog: 2019-20 Season Recap
When we all gathered for the 2019 version of Late Nite With Roy, there was a sense of uncertainty around the program for the first time since the NCAA investigation concluded. Gone were senior leaders Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson. Add in the NBA departures of freshman sensation COby White, and his classmate Nassir Little, and the uncertainty was justified. Still despite all that was lost, Carolina was a consensus top ten team in the preseason. Roy Williams returned Garrison Brooks, who had anchored the defense the last two seasons. Leaky Black was supposedly healthy, and his skill set fits the modern game. Brandon Robinson was a reliable sixth man a season ago, and we believed his transition into the starting role would be seamless. On top of all that returned, Carolina brought in a loaded recruiting class headlined by point guard Cole Anthony. The freshman phenom from New York, and the son of Greg Anthony was the #2 players in high school. He was also considered by his new coach to be the most complete point guard he’s ever coached. That’s high praise coming from a guy who’s considered a point guard whisperer. In addition to Anthony, Armando Bacot, another 5 star caliber player, committed and was expected to be Brooks’ postmate. After the way the 2019 season ended. Williams’ vowed to get back to playing a more traditional brand of basketball, Bacot was figured to be the perfect big to do just that.Despite landing Cole Anthony, Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris committed as point guards, but would miss some time rehabbing from knee injuries. To add experience to the roster, Carolina also landed coveted grad transfers Christian Keeling & Justin Pierce. Both excelled at the mid-major level, but were thought of to transition to the ACC rather smoothly. All in all, Carolina was entering the 2019-20 season with talent, but with a lot of questions. What could possibly go wrong for the Tar Heels?
November: It was a unique start to the season, as the team opened up against an ACC opponent Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish returned a lot of experienced talent. It was also the first time we’d get to see the new look Tar Heels in action. Cole Anthony was sensational, scoring 34 points to guide Carolina to a season opening win, where we saw the potential of this team in the second half. From there Carolina won games against UNC-W, Gardner-Webb, and Elon before going to Paradise Island, to compete in the Battle 4 Atlantis . They opened the tournament getting past Alabama, setting up a meeting with Michigan for the third straight season. In the eventual loss to the Wolverines, we saw the struggles this team could have scoring the basketball. The loss meant Carolina was playing for third place against Oregon. The Ducks were a pre-season top 10 team, and many thought they were capable of making it to the Final Four. Carolina showed resilience and toughness, we didn't know they had, beating Oregon 78-74, and looking like a team ready to make a statement in December.
December: They opened the month hosting Ohio State in the ACC/Big 10 challenge, a matchup of top 10 teams. Armando Bacot suffered a severe injury early on, and Carolina could never recover, losing 74-49. A lot like the Michigan game the week prior, the offense bogged down when Anthony wasn’t making shots. Following the home loss to Ohio State, Carolina traveled to Charlottesville to take on UVA. It was a second consecutive game against a top 10 team, and the second time they lost, while not scoring more than 50 points. They traveled back home to take on Wofford, but before the game it was announced that Cole Anthony would be out 4-6 weeks, and that Leaky Black wasn’t available. The absence of Anthony thrusted K.J. Smith into the starting lineup, and the offense never found itself. Wofford won for a second consecutive time in Chapel Hill, and with a third straight loss the season was hanging in the balance. With the team in a downward spiral, it didn’t help that the schedule wasn’t going to lighten up. Carolina headed west to play Gonzaga, and the Bulldogs made quick work of the visitors 94-81. Despite the loss, Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris provided much needed energy to a team desperate for it. From Spokane, they went to Las Vegas. There they ended a 4 game losing streak, beating UCLA. Anthony Harris shined, and as they returned to Chapel Hill, a sense of optimism. They closed the year with a win against Yale in the Smith Center, where Roy Williams tied his mentor Dean Smith on the all time wins list. The win was overshadowed as Anthony Harris tore his ACL late in the second half. Carolina would enter ACC play with a 8-5 record, and more injuries than the answers from the preseason.
January: The Tar Heels entered the new year, at 8-5 but the ACC season was still ahead of them. They had 3 straight home games, and the hope was to win all those games, build some confidence as Cole Anthony would be nearing his return. Instead they lost all 3, including games against Pittsburgh & Clemson where they blew double digits leads in the second half. The home loss to Clemson, was the most heartbreaking, as the Tigers ended their historic losing streak in Chapel Hill. Instead of boosting their record, and putting themselves in position to compete to win the ACC, they instead sat at 8-8 ( 1-4 ) in the ACC. After the 3 straight games in the Smith Center, it was time for consecutive road games, which both resulted in losses. Pittsburgh swept Carolina, and Virginia Tech earned a gutsy overtime win in Blacksburg. Those two losses, meant it was now a 5 game losing streak, and questions were mounting about the possible return of Anthony? Why would a consensus top 5 pick, in the NBA Draft return to a team that most likely wasn’t going to compete in the NCAA tournament? Roy Williams still hadn’t passed his mentor on the all time wins list when Miami visited Chapel Hill, on January 25th. That all changed, after the Tar Heels decimated a depleted Hurricanes team, 94-71 in front of an energetic crowd. Following the win over Miami, they made the short trip to Raleigh to renew the rivalry with the Wolfpack. Despite this team not being as good as expected, they were still good enough to win for a 7th straight time in PNC Arena. The win leveled their record at 10-10 as January came to a close, and the team still had everything in front of them.
February: When Carolina hosted Boston College the first day of the month, it had appeared that the season was on the verge of turning around. Even at 10-10, the bubble was shaping up to be a weak one for the NCAA Tournament. If Carolina could get their head above water, and notch some upsets making the NCAA Tournament wasn’t out the possibility. Instead Carolina went on a 7 game losing streak, starting ironically with the return of Cole Anthony in the BC game. The Tar Heels found every which way to lose games. Against BC it was the inability to make foul shots. At Florida State they went over 11 minutes without making a basket. They led Duke by 13 with over 4 minutes left, yet couldn’t finish the deal and lost in overtime. Against Virginia and Notre Dame, it was last second shots that broke the hearts of everyone involved. In a span of 30 days, Carolina lost as many one possession games, as they had in the last 2,300 days combined. All the losing was overshadowing the great individual play of Garrison Brooks, who was quietly putting together an All-ACC caliber season. Over the course of the season, Brooks’ had transformed himself from a guy who was considered a great individual and team defender, into the first scoring option. The 7 game losing streak tied the longest in program history, and it was the second longest ever for Roy Williams. It all came to an end against NC State, on the final Tuesday of February. Carolina erased a double digit deficit, to sweep the Wolfpack for the 13th time in the last 17 years. They then closed the month with a impressive road victory at Syracuse, to build some much needed momentum heading into March
March: The team entered the biggest month of the season in uncharted territory. Carolina isn’t used to having to win the ACC tournament just to compete in March Madness, but here they were. Before the ACC Tournament, they outscored Wake Forest on Senior Night, as the program said goodbye to 6 players. That set up the rematch with Duke in Durham in the season finale. It wasn’t the upset we got the previous meeting in Cameron, as Duke swept the regular season for the first time since 2015. Carolina wrapped up the regular season at 13-18, but headed into the ACC tournament confident they could make a run. In order to make it in the NCAA tournament, they’d have to win 5 games in 5 days, something that hadn’t been done in the history of the ACC tournament. They got off to a good start routing Virginia Tech, 78-56. That set up another game with Syracuse, a team that UNC easily beat less than two weeks ago. It wasn’t the same result, as the Orange made quick work of the Heels 81-53 to end their season. The next day every teams’ season came to an end as the ACC tournament was cancelled amid concerns about the COVID-19 virus. The NCAA followed suit by cancelling March Madness, in an unprecedented move.
It wasn’t the season that we wanted or expected to see Carolina have. There were many factors that played into the losing season ( the first for Roy Williams ), but all of those are just excuses. We still got to see guys like Brandon Robinson live out his dream, and become a key part of the success this team did experience. Garrison Brooks blossomed into an all around great player, and displayed the type of leadership we can all envy. As fans of this storied program, we’ve been spoiled by endless wins and championships, when in reality these types of seasons are a normal occurrence for most. One thing we can all agree on is that our lives are better with Carolina Basketball at the center of it, whether they are winning or losing.