Two minutes and 59 seconds remain in №9 North Carolina’s exhibition matchup against the Winston-Salem State Rams, a lesser-known D-II program that proudly took up the chance to play — and inevitably lose — in Chapel Hill.
WSSU’s Jon Hicklin receives the ball off of a handoff, with UNC’s starting power forward Garrison Brooks between him and the basket. He has a mismatch. He dances. Left, then right, and then left once more, before settling into a contested fadeaway jumper from 10-feet.
The ball misses everything but the backboard before tumbling and finding its way to Cole Anthony. The pride and joy of UNC’s top-10 recruiting class. The top freshman point guard in the nation. A 19-year-old kid that many websites like ESPN are claiming could be the top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft next summer.
The ball, after bouncing around through a thicket of bodies, is now safely in Anthony’s hands, nearly 94 feet away from the other basket.
He’s looking to make a play.
He begins his assault, using a quick head-fake hesitation to get his initial defender to sag off, giving him breathing room as he jogs up the court in transition.
Anthony dribbles his way toward the half-court line. One dribble. Two dribbles. And, with the third dribble on its way up, he catches an open teammate, Andrew Platek, cutting toward the basket some 30-plus feet away. Before he even thinks about dribbling one more time, he smoothly transitions into a one-handed bullet pass to the cutting Platek, hoping to pick up assist number eight on the evening.
The ball sails far through the air. Too far. Way too far. Into the second row of the baby blue stands and narrowly missing an onlooker’s head.
One of four total turnovers in 27 minutes played by the freshman. He wasn’t alone, though.
If those in attendance at the Smith Center and those watching from home were keeping count, freshman center Armando Bacot also had four. So did junior forward Garrison Brooks. Justin Pierce, a grad-transfer, had three. Christian Keeling and Walker Miller had two apiece as well, and four other Tar Heels that saw the floor that night lost the ball in some fashion.
Maybe the audience didn’t count. Probably not. It’s WSSU, an exhibition, a game that doesn’t count in the standings and stats that don’t get Sharpied into stat books. Who cares?
Roy Williams did. He counted, he counted them all. All 23 turnovers were taken account of with glaring, scrutinizing detail from a head coach who never shies away from expressing discontent in the form of red-faced outbursts from the bench and colorful “Royisms” — odd figures of speech that have become an endearing trait of his over the years, particularly “daggum” — when speaking at postgame press conferences.
But after Friday’s 96–61 win over the WSSU Rams, a win that was never in doubt, Williams didn’t bother to dress up his language when explaining the reason for the high number of mistakes made in what he called a glorified practice.
He kept it simple. The culprit? One word:
Williams didn’t care about the margin of victory, or that Brooks had a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds), or that both Anthony and Leaky Black dished out seven assists. The only stat he cared about was found in a narrow column on the box score marked with two letters: T-O.
“Coach [Dean] Smith used to say you shouldn’t get too mad until you look at the tape,” Williams said after the game. “I’m already too mad, so I’m not going to say anything else until I look at the tape.”
In the tape he’ll find a lot of things he doesn’t like: dropped balls, traveling violations in congested lanes, awkward pass attempts, blind decision-making, and lazy ball-handling.
But he’ll also find something that can improve over time: first-game jitters and team chemistry that’s still a work in progress.
With six of last year’s key rotation players — Coby White, Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Nassir Little, and Seventh Woods — now gone, the 2019–20 iteration of the North Carolina Tar Heels have six fresh faces, including four freshmen and two graduate-transfers.
“We was just nervous,” Brooks, the lone returning starter from last year’s team, said of the turnovers. “It was our first game playing together against someone else.”
Leaky Black, who managed to rack up seven assists to only one turnover, agreed with Williams’ assessment of the team’s turnover problem.
“It is stupidity. We got ahead of ourselves and we just got real anxious so that was pretty much it,” Black said, mentioning that the team is still trying to play fast and on the same page. “He still wants us to push it, we just gotta be smart with our passes … It’s personnel, just getting in that rhythm (with each other).”
Establishing rhythm is something that takes time, and they understand this. Days on and off the court, gelling with one another as friends and teammates. Learning habits, tendencies, quirks. Strengths and weaknesses. What works and what doesn’t work.
It all takes time.
But what makes that adjustment harder for this team, beyond the new faces, is the injury woes plaguing several players: freshman guards Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris are still recovering from high school knee injuries; Sterling Manley, who missed half of last season with left knee soreness, is still out of the picture; and Brandon Robinson, the team’s senior leader, went down early in Friday’s exhibition with a sprained right ankle.
Establishing chemistry takes time. Learning how to play together while others are on the mend? Even more time.
But with Wednesday night’s season opener against Notre Dame — an early Atlantic Coast Conference matchup as part of the ACC’s new 20-game conference slate — rapidly approaching, the Tar Heels will have to make do with the bodies they have and learn to simply brush off bad games.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Christian Keeling said postgame. “You’re not always going to be your best. You’re going to have some downs. You got to have a short memory.”
For Anthony, the team’s floor general, his memory will need to be especially short as his playmaking and scoring duties will likely increase with a noteworthy rotation player out for the next few weeks.
“I came out nervous, [I] wasn’t ready to play. I mean, s***, it was a bunch of things that were going wrong for me,” Anthony said of his off night. “I just made some bad decisions because I wasn’t all the way locked in. I’m just glad I was able to get all this stuff out now so now I can really lock in.”
Nerves. Finding rhythm. Getting focused.
Outsiders were able to glean these as some of the reasons for the rough outing against WSSU. According to the players, that’s what jumps out.
But the thing that jumped out to coach Williams from Friday night?
“They know I can get mad now,” Williams said with a sly smile and frustrated laugh. “It’s been in the back of their minds. They didn’t know that for sure, but (the game) removed any doubt.”