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Tar Heels tumble into losing mark in January for 1st time since 2001-02 season

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It has been a long time since North Carolina has looked as helpless and hapless on the basketball floor as they have over the past month, as the Heels now have their first losing record (8-9) since losing the opener to Santa Clara in the 2004-05 season.

Of course, that team went on to win a national championship, so to get a better comparison to the current situation, one has to go back to the 2001-02 season to find the last time UNC had a losing record in January. That team went 1-7 in January and finished the month 6-12 on its way to a final record of 8-20 (4-12 ACC).

The 2019-20 Heels are now 0-4 in January and have lost nine of their last 12, including five consecutive conference games. Carolina is currently last in the ACC standings after starting 1-5 in conference play.

But it’s not just the wins and losses. Carolina hasn’t even looked competitive in most of the losses. The Heels were down 47-27 at the half at Pittsburgh, the second time in four games UNC trailed by 20 at the half (Georgia Tech was the other). And these games haven’t been against conference elites — Pitt, Clemson and Georgia Tech all have losing records in ACC play.

WILLIAMS TRYING EVERYTHING

It’s not as though Roy Williams is stubbornly sticking with one approach despite the results; the UNC head coach has seemingly tried everything to give his struggling team a boost. Against Pitt, he tried different defenses, with defenders switching on every screen in the first half and employing zone in spots in the second half. Pitt responded by going 6 of 15 from 3-point range in the first half, and Carolina couldn’t score enough in the second to make any difference meaningful.

Williams also tried different lineup options, including a bigger look with graduate transfer Justin Pierce at the small forward position alongside Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot. Pierce responded by going missing all three of his 3-point attempts as Carolina continued to struggle to score regardless of which combination was on the floor.

QUANTIFYING ANTHONY’S IMPORTANCE

After the loss to Pitt, stats guru Adrian Atkinson noted that of the six lineup combinations that have played over 25 minutes for Carolina this season, three have a positive efficiency margin (the difference between points scored and given up per 100 possessions) and three are negative. The difference is predictable: The three lineups that include Cole Anthony are all positive (26.1, 23.4 and 12.8) while the three without Anthony are very negative (minus-15.4, minus-19.7 and minus-28.3).

Anthony’s importance to this Carolina team has been obvious and is reflected in his individual efficiency margin of plus-11.3 through nine games, but those numbers make it clear just how sharp the difference has been — the efficiency gap between the best lineup with Anthony and the worst of the other three most-used lineups is a whopping 54.4 points per 100 possessions.

Given Carolina’s pace of 71.4 possessions per game this season, a full game with the worst frequently employed lineup including Anthony would be 20.1 points better than the Heels’ best lineup without Anthony. Since Anthony averages 33 minutes per game and the spread between the best and worst lineups is significantly larger, it seems safe to say Carolina is in the neighborhood of 20 points per game better in games in which Anthony plays than in games he doesn’t.

These figures give some hope that, unlike the 2001-02 season, this team could still turn things around with solid play down the stretch. But given that Carolina is now down to 116 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, which are used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, that still isn’t likely to be enough to make the “Big Dance.”

Williams’ response when asked about Anthony’s status for Wednesday’s game at Virginia Tech on Monday’s ACC teleconference was, “I have no idea.”

Anthony’s rehab from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee continues to progress, but the freshman has not yet rejoined practice. Given that it’s unlikely Anthony’s return would vault UNC into tournament contention, any impulse to rush the rehabilitation process seems even more foolhardy, so bet on the return coming later rather than sooner.

NUMBERS OF THE WEEK

22.7%. Pitt shot 5 of 22 from the field in the second half, marking the first time UNC has lost when an opponent has shot under 25% in a half since Dec. 3, 2014, against Iowa. It’s also the third time this season Carolina has lost to a team that shot under 40% from the field (Virginia and Wofford). Carolina was 52-3 in the last four seasons when holding opponents under 40% from the field.

 

.71. That’s the number of points UNC scored per two-point attempt against Pitt (38 points on 60 attempts), exactly the kind of shooting display needed to lose to an opponent that also struggled to put the ball in the basket. Thanks an edge on the offensive boards, Carolina attempted 14 more shots than Pitt in the second half (36-22) and still only managed to outscore the Panthers by six.

 

Minus-15. That was Carolina’s points-off-turnovers margin against Pitt, as the Panthers finished with a 23-8 edge after scoring the game’s first 12 points off turnovers. Carolina turned the ball over on 24.8% of its possessions against Pitt (forcing turnovers on only 14% of Pitt possessions), yet another reflection of the unstable situation at point guard.

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.

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