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Freshmen spark offense as Tar Heels end skid

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Even before a minor meniscus tear sidelined super freshman Cole Anthony (who is expected to miss another month), head coach Roy Williams warned everyone before the season that his North Carolina team couldn’t score, but it was simply difficult to believe that a Williams-coached team would struggle so badly to put the ball in the basket.

We should have believed him.

Carolina has now scored less than a point per possession in half of its 12 games this season. That’s already double the number of times that happened last season and equals the most Carolina has had in a single season since 2013–14, when it happened eight times.

Over the seven-year span from 2013-14 through last season, Carolina has scored less than one point per possession in 29 games, with a dismal record of 5-24 in such contests. The good news is that Carolina has had better success in such games this season, as the Heels are 2-4 when scoring minus-1 PPP this season, including Saturday’s win over UCLA.

Even more remarkably, Carolina managed the win over UCLA despite the Bruins shooting a higher percentage from the field (.424 vs. .418) and outrebounding the Tar Heels 42-37. The difference in the game — and the best development of the season so far — was the emergence of freshmen guards Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris, who shined in the second half against UCLA.

Each registered a plus-15 plus/minus for the game (meaning Carolina outscored UCLA by 15 with them on the floor), as their fearless, attacking style led to Carolina making more free throws (22) than UCLA attempted (18), with Francis alone going 9 of 10 from the line. Harris scored all 14 of his points in the second half, including eight straight in a 10-2 run that extended UNC’s lead to 12 with 5:56 to play.

Williams praised the two for their work ethic, explaining that although they arrived on campus still rehabbing injuries, each has displayed a “Tyler Hansbrough-level” commitment to the weight room. That commitment showed through for the first time against UCLA, and Carolina fans can only hope that work continues to pay off as they continue to develop in Anthony’s absence.

DEFENSE ALSO NEEDS IMPROVEMENT

Offense hasn’t been the only problem for Carolina though, as last week’s contest against Gonzaga revealed; the Zags shot a torrid .593 from the field (including 9 of 18 from 3-point range) as the outmanned Tar Heels simply couldn’t keep up with the Gonzaga offensive attack. One positive from that game: Christian Keeling’s 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting.

Suffice to say, this inexperienced Carolina team still has a long way to go, though there have been encouraging signs of newcomers getting more comfortable in their roles in each of the last two games.

SUCCESSFUL EARLY SIGNING PERIOD

Football head coach Mack Brown and staff inked 25 newcomers Wednesday for a class that exits the early signing period ranked 19th in the nation and third in the ACC according to the 247Composite. The class includes seven blue-chip players (rated 4- or 5-stars) and is the first class since 2006 in which UNC has signed 12 of the top players from the state of North Carolina.

Most importantly, the class is loaded right where Carolina needs it most, with five of those blue-chippers on defense and the three highest-rated players coming on the defensive line. Carolina also withstood a late charge from Florida to claim 300-pound defensive tackle Clyde Pinder Jr. (Seffner, Florida) from the Gators’ backyard. Pinder and 4-stars Desmond Evans (Lee County), Myles Murphy (Greensboro Dudley), and Kendrick Bingley-Jones (Charlotte Providence Day) are all expected to contend for early playing time as Carolina will have to replace its two best defensive linemen from this season.

The class also includes 12 players who will enroll in January and participate in spring practice — a huge advantage for players hoping to get acclimated to college and make an early contribution on the field.

“We felt like we had to improve on both lines of scrimmage,” a jubilant Brown explained in his signing day press conference, emphasizing the importance of this class for upgrading Carolina’s size, physicality, and toughness in the trenches. After signing five defensive linemen and four highly-regarded offensive linemen, Brown and staff can consider that mission accomplished for the 2020 recruiting class.

Carolina still expects to sign at least one more in the later signing period, but having this class almost entirely locked up allows the staff to focus their attention on the 2021 class, which is shaping up to have an unusually strong crop of in-state talent, including five players in the national top 100, such as priority Carolina targets DT Payton Page (Greensboro Dudley) and QB Drake Maye (the younger brother of UNC basketball star Luke).

MILITARY BOWL AWAITS

Carolina is currently undergoing bowl preparation for Friday’s matchup against Temple in Annapolis, Maryland, and Brown has emphasized the importance of his young players stepping up in practice, even going out of his way to show them the highlights of the incoming freshmen, reminding them that they’ll have to fight to keep their jobs as the talented youngsters arrive.

NUMBERS OF THE WEEK

0. Harris has yet to turn the ball over in 47 minutes of playing time against Virginia, Wofford and UCLA while shooting .588 from the field and .833 from the free-throw line.

9. Together with 15 points from Armando Bacot, Harris (14) and Francis (12) became the first trio of freshmen to score in double figures in the same game in nine years. The last group to accomplish the same was Harrison Barnes (14), Reggie Bullock (12), and Kendall Marshall (10) accomplished the same feat against Lipscomb in November of 2010. Once Anthony returns, they’ll be in position to become the first four freshmen to do the same together since 2007.

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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