Luke DeCock

After Cole Anthony’s spectacular UNC debut, he’s not just talented. He’s indispensable.

Set aside for the moment the discussion about whether Cole Anthony’s debut was the most anticipated by a North Carolina freshman, or where he fits — or will fit — in the pantheon of Tar Heels point guards. Both topics are worthy of debate after a spectacular, record-setting beginning to his college career, and will continue to be throughout his single season in Chapel Hill.

Let there be no doubt, however, that Anthony is the most indispensable any freshman has been in the Roy Williams era. With Brandon Robinson sidelined and a dearth of options at the point, Anthony became irreplaceable the moment he stepped on the floor, before a performance that only served to highlight that reality.

“That is one tough little nut,” Williams said, bestowing his highest praise.

After all the times post-2012-poor-Stilman that Williams said he wouldn’t be caught short of point guards, the combination of Coby White exiting early for the NBA and Seventh Woods transferring to South Carolina has left him exactly in that spot.

Anthony has only Leaky Black to spell him, nominally a perimeter slasher. Robinson, who would potentially assume some of that duty, is out indefinitely with a sprained ankle anyway. Williams said afterward he even considered using Robbie O’Han, the point guard from UNC’s JV team. With Anthony on the bench briefly late in the first half Wednesday, Notre Dame went on a 12-2 run. Reinserted, he immediately hit a 3-pointer to stop the bleeding.

Later, with the Tar Heels trailing for the first chunk of the second half, struggling to exert any dominance, Anthony scored eight straight UNC points on his way to 34 points and 11 rebounds. The Tar Heels went from down three to up two in an 76-65 win. It was not the usual double-double from a Tar Heels point guard, but it was more than enough to break Rashad McCants’ record for points by a North Carolina freshman in his first game..

“Basically, guys, in the second half Cole Anthony carried us,” Williams said. “Sometimes Tyler Hansbrough carried us. Cole carried us tonight.”

Beyond the deliberate invocation of Hansbrough’s name, Anthony didn’t leave the game in the second half, an unexpected and jarring statement of Anthony’s extraordinary value to the Tar Heels, something almost entirely detached from any evaluation of his talent.

“He told me, ‘Coach, I can go 40,’ ” Williams said. “I don’t want to do that very often, to say the least.”

The talent evaluation almost feels complete after Wednesday, even with a decided drop-off in quickness in the North Carolina offense from a year ago, an area where White was nearly without peer, both in getting the ball up the court and triggering the sets with pace.

Some of the perceived difference may be the change from White to Anthony. Some of that may be the unique circumstances of this opener, an early November game against an opponent not easily overrun. The Tar Heels may not have looked as fluid, but the memory freshest in mind is of a finely tuned late-season machine, not the early version working out the kinks.

This early version has a lot of kinks beyond Anthony, who is exactly as advertised. He came out wearing rec specs, only to ditch them midway through the first half. He was 2-for-7 at that point, but he was far from alone. North Carolina and Notre Dame had combined, at that point, to miss 33 shots in 13 minutes. It seemed they should be looking to add visual aids, not doffing them. Everything does indeed look better when the ball goes in the basket, as Roy is wont to say, but this was a bit of a chicken-and-egg reversal.

Just as a good pair of glasses can smooth fuzzy edges, the Tar Heels have some areas where they can tighten their focus. It was what you’d expect in November, only on an ACC stage where there was nowhere to hide. And without do-everything veteran Robinson, whose presence would spackle over a lot of these cracks and caulk the creaking gaps. His absence was felt as strongly as Anthony’s presence.

Wednesday made clear just how badly the Tar Heels need both of them, one to stay on the floor, the other to get back onto it. Anthony dribbled out the clock as time expired, finishing what he started but not close to finished.

“We’ve got practice tomorrow,” Anthony said. “We’ve got to clock back in.”

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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