The crazy thing about it is, our team, and we've had some very gifted teams, this is not a very gifted team. It's just not.
Things haven't gotten any better for North Carolina since coach Roy Williams made those notorious comments earlier this month. The Tar Heels' 66-52 loss at Pittsburgh on Saturday dropped them to 8-9 overall and 1-5 in the ACC, tied for last place in the league. It is the first time UNC has been below .500 since losing its season opener to Santa Clara in 2004.
The Tar Heels went on to win the national championship that season. Suffice it to say, it is unlikely we'll see a repeat of that feat two months from now. North Carolina (at Virginia Tech on Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, ACC Network) has lost four in a row and eight of its past 10, and it fell to Clemson in Chapel Hill for the first time ever.
Can it be fixed? Perhaps, but not to the point where UNC is fighting for a trip to Atlanta.
The bigger question: How did we get here? You could argue that it is a situation more than five years in the making:
Recruiting 2014-17: A dark cloud, overhyped underachievers and the one-and-done no one saw coming
June 30, 2014: The NCAA reopens its investigation into academic misconduct at North Carolina.
The Tar Heels' football team was sanctioned by the NCAA in 2012 due to impermissible benefits and academic fraud, and the NCAA reopened the investigation shortly after former North Carolina basketball star Rashad McCants alleged academic fraud on Outside the Lines. The investigation hung over the program for the next few years, clearly impacting North Carolina's ability to land elite recruits on the recruiting trail. Over the next three classes, the Tar Heels would land 10 high school players: two five-stars, four ESPN 100 four-stars and four unranked prospects.
Dec. 30, 2014: Five-star Jalek Felton, nephew of former Tar Heel and longtime NBA player Raymond Felton, commits to North Carolina.
Felton, a South Carolina native, was considered a big recruit for the Tar Heels. There were the family connections, but it was still a five-star pledge only a few months after the NCAA investigation. But Felton didn't pan out in Chapel Hill. He played a bench role for 22 games as a freshman in 2017-18, averaging fewer than three points, before being suspended in late January 2018 and withdrawing from school on March 1.
Nov. 11, 2015: Seventh Woods commits to North Carolina.
Woods was a mixtape legend early in his high school career, with YouTube videos chronicling his absurd dunking ability. The Tar Heels beat out in-state South Carolina for his commitment, and Woods was expected to fight for the starting point guard spot. That didn't happen. Woods started one game in three seasons at North Carolina, averaging 1.8 points for his career. He left the program last April and transferred to South Carolina.
July 28, 2016: Coby White comes off the board early, pledges to North Carolina.
White, an in-state point guard, committed to the Tar Heels three days after Roy Williams extended him a scholarship offer. White was considered a top-25 prospect throughout the final couple of years of his high school career, but he was not expected to be a one-and-done NBA prospect. He was not included in ESPN's NBA draft rankings in the preseason before his freshman season in Chapel Hill. But White quickly established himself as arguably the best freshman guard in the country, putting up 33 points and seven 3-pointers against Texas in late November. It was history from there; White left after his freshman season and was the seventh pick in last June's NBA draft. Imagine a White-Cole Anthony backcourt?
Oct. 13, 2017: NCAA closes its investigation into academic misconduct, says North Carolina won't be punished because it didn't break NCAA rules.
One month after the NCAA ended its investigation, North Carolina announced its 2017 recruiting class. Felton was the only ESPN 100 prospect in the five-man group. Garrison Brooks became a solid contributor early in his career, and he could end up starting more than 100 games before he leaves UNC, but Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley and Andrew Platek have combined for 521 points in almost three seasons.
The spring 2019 rebuild: Disappointing hits, notable misses
Recruiting picked up after the NCAA investigation ended, with the Tar Heels landing five-stars White and Nassir Little and ESPN 100 wing Leaky Black in the 2018 class and then five-stars Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot and four-star guards Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis in 2019.
But with the early departures of Little and White and the graduations of Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams after last season, Williams had to replace his top five scorers from 2018-19. When the season ended, North Carolina had only three players returning who played double-figure minutes, and only Bacot and Francis who would be entering the program.
Part of the reason for the lack of commitments by last April was a number of swings and misses during the fall. There were several key targets for which, at one time or another, the Tar Heels looked like a potential landing spot.
North Carolina started recruiting McDonald's All American Tre Mann in July 2018, but he decided a few weeks later to stay home at Florida. Five-star Josh Green said UNC was his dream school growing up, and once the Tar Heels offered him after July, it was assumed he would end up in Chapel Hill. Green committed to Arizona. The Tar Heels were involved with five-star wing Wendell Moore Jr. very early in the process, but he never took an official visit to Chapel Hill and committed to Duke. Big man Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was long thought to be in a battle between Kansas and North Carolina -- since Williams coached his father, Lester, at Kansas -- but Robinson-Earl ultimately committed to Villanova. And the Tar Heels made a late run at Zeke Nnaji and brought him on campus right before his announcement date, but he also committed to Arizona.
That doesn't include the players who had North Carolina on their lists at various points who the Tar Heels didn't land, among them James Wiseman (Memphis), Vernon Carey Jr. (Duke), Anthony Edwards (Georgia), Precious Achiuwa (Memphis), Matthew Hurt (Duke), Keion Brooks Jr. (Kentucky) and Boogie Ellis (Memphis).
So North Carolina exited the NCAA tournament with only two commitments, and it needed to reload quickly. And that's what Williams did.
April 23, 2019: Cole Anthony commits to North Carolina
April 23, 2019: Anthony Harris commits to North Carolina
April 26, 2019: Christian Keeling transfers to North Carolina
May 2, 2019: Justin Pierce transfers to North Carolina
Suddenly, North Carolina went from a team that was a borderline preseason top-25 group to one expected to compete for an ACC title and a spot in the Final Four. Anthony was the major coup. The son of former NBAer Greg Anthony, he was the No. 1 guard in the 2019 class and considered a future top-five NBA draft pick. Anthony single-handedly changed the Tar Heels' on-paper expectations. He was followed the same day by ESPN 100 guard Harris, who decommitted from Virginia Tech three weeks earlier, after Buzz Williams left for Texas A&M.
Then came the two graduate transfers: Keeling from Charleston Southern and Pierce from William & Mary. Keeling was a big-time scorer in the Big South, averaging 18.7 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 38% from 3. Pierce was a versatile option for William & Mary, putting up 14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Both transfers were expected to contribute immediately, and maybe even start, for North Carolina.
Here's the problem: None of the four players has made the expected impact.
Anthony and Harris are injured -- which we'll get to shortly -- while Keeling and Pierce have struggled. Keeling started the first four games of the season, but he is now a bit part of the rotation. Keeling has scored two points in five of his past six games, and he has hit double figures once all season. Pierce has shown flashes of why he was a sought-after grad transfer, but he also has been held scoreless in four of his past nine games.
Remember, UNC was barely a preseason top-25 team before Williams' spring rebuild -- and now all four players that were part of that rebuild are not performing as expected.
Injuries, Chapter I: A star goes down
Even with all the issues -- the recruiting misses, the early departures, an increasing spate of injuries -- North Carolina wasn't a bad team. Or not this bad, at least.
The Tar Heels started 5-0, lost to Michigan in the Bahamas and then beat Oregon to finish third in the Battle 4 Atlantis. They came home to get smoked by 25 by Ohio State, then lost to Virginia. At the time, those defeats looked a lot better than they do now. The Buckeyes are 4-6 since beating North Carolina, and Virginia is 3-4.
But it all came crashing down shortly before the game against Wofford on Dec. 15. The school announced that Anthony was out for the game against the Terriers and would miss an indefinite amount of time with a knee injury. Two days later, the verdict was in: Anthony needed to undergo an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee and would be out four to six weeks.
Anthony was supposed to be the difference-maker for this North Carolina team. UNC made him a priority recruit very early in the recruiting process, with Williams spotted at nearly every game during the spring and summer after Anthony's junior year in high school. Anthony was always going to be one of the final recruits in the 2019 class to make his college decision, but that didn't dissuade Williams and the Tar Heels. Anthony took his official visit to Chapel Hill in late September 2018, and UNC turned up the heat once it was clear White was going to the NBA.
And while North Carolina was too Anthony-centered when he was healthy, he was enough to keep them competitive. Now that he is injured, all of the aforementioned factors are just too much to overcome.
A team that was already overly reliant on Anthony suddenly had nobody on which to rely. Bacot has been very solid as a freshman, but he has always been a No. 2 or secondary option, not a go-to guy. Brandon Robinson and Garrison Brooks have had expanded roles, but they were never top offensive options. Black hasn't blossomed as expected, and we've already mentioned the Pierce and Keeling struggles. Harris has been hurt. And Francis has been thrust into a role earlier than some might have thought -- and he also missed the Jan. 11 game against Clemson with a knee injury.
"We knew that Cole had a chance to be a big-time, big-time player," Williams said. "Losing him was a blow to your team, but it wasn't just going to be Cole. We thought we'd have some other guys to give us help in the backcourt, and we've lost two or three of those guys at different times."
Injuries, Chapter II: The hobbling of the Heels
Beyond Anthony, North Carolina has had horrible injury luck. Due to injuries, only four players on the roster have played in all 17 games.
The Tar Heels' injury epidemic with this year's roster goes back beyond this season. Two freshmen, Francis and Harris, suffered knee injuries in high school that required surgery. Francis underwent knee surgery in December 2017 and August 2018; Harris tore his ACL in December 2018. Both players missed the first eight games of the season before making their collegiate debuts.
Then there were the new injuries of the past few months:
Nov. 1, 2019: Brandon Robinson injures ankle against Winston-Salem State
Dec. 4, 2019: Armando Bacot sprains ankle vs. Ohio State
Dec. 12, 2019: Sterling Manley undergoes knee surgery, ruled out for the season (Manley also missed 16 games in 2018-19)
Dec. 15, 2019: Leaky Black out vs. Wofford with a sprained right foot
Dec. 17, 2019: Cole Anthony ruled out four to six weeks after knee surgery
Dec. 30, 2019: Andrew Platek out vs. Yale (and then Georgia Tech) with sprained left ankle
Jan. 3, 2020: Anthony Harris out with torn ACL
Brooks, Bacot, Keeling and Pierce are the only members of the rotation not to miss any games through injury.
"The injuries are an issue, there's no question about that," Williams said recently on the ACC coaches' teleconference. "I've never coached a team when I started four different point guards in a season."
In spite of the issues, North Carolina won't be down forever, and some hope remains for this season. While there have been whispers that Anthony could shut it down for the season, he hinted at a return on Instagram last week.
"Can't wait to join my brothers on the court again," Anthony wrote.
Beyond that, the Tar Heels have one of the top three recruiting classes in the country coming into the program next season, and UNC's subpar season could keep Bacot in Chapel Hill for another season.
Until those clouds part, though, North Carolina is going to continue to look like one of the worst teams in the ACC -- and perhaps prove Williams' statements about his program's relative lack of talent to be true.