Battle of the Blues: Anthony’s back, but Duke awaits

Point guards Tre Jones and Cole Anthony will be at the center of the season’s first matchip of rivals Duke and North Carolina. (AP Photos)

CHAPEL HILL — Those who assumed that North Carolina basketball star Cole Anthony would be back on the court in time to play in an intense rivalry game were right.

Sort of.

While he wasn’t ready to make a grand return against NC State last week as many Wolfpack fans had feared, the talented freshman point guard will be at full strength and ready to go when the Tar Heels renew hostilities with Duke at Smith Center on Saturday.

His participation should make for great theater, especially given the propensity for hype of the four-lettered network televising the game. But based on the results of his first two outings since undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, UNC might still be in for a long night against the seventh-ranked Blue Devils.

“We just have to regroup,” Anthony said after Saturday’s 71-70 loss to Boston College in Chapel Hill, the first of two defeats in a 48-hour span since his return. “We can still obviously get a lot better as a team, as a unit. We just have to stick together.”

Anthony, a projected lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, has been nothing short of sensational since getting back into action following an 11-game layoff.

He scored 26 points, going 14 for 14 from the free-throw line along the way, in Saturday’s re-debut — a game in which he was the driving force behind a second half comeback that saw the Tar Heels rally from an 11-point deficit.

Then Monday at Florida State, he led UNC in scoring with 16 points, in rebounds with eight and tied for the team lead with three assists. But as much as he contributed, his individual performance had little effect on his team’s results.

The Tar Heels lost both games to fall to 10-12 overall, 3-8 in the ACC, and Anthony took the blame.

“I let my teammates down,” he said after Monday’s 65-59 setback in Tallahassee. “It’s my fault.”

While Anthony had the ball in his hands on a disjointed final play against BC and went 5 of 22 from the floor and 3 of 8 from the line against FSU, he was hardly the only reason the Tar Heels fell deeper into a hole that will likely see them miss out on the postseason for the first time since 2002.

Decimated by injuries other than the one to Anthony and saddled with a rotation that includes players that were at Charleston Southern and William & Mary at this time last year, UNC is a flawed team with or without its star in the lineup.

Coach Roy Williams defended Anthony by saying, “Anybody that thinks he caused us to play poorly is an idiot.”

At the same time, though, Williams acknowledged that there’s a certain reacclimation process that has to take place now that Anthony is back in the lineup.

The momentum that the team seemed to be building during a three-game stretch in which it took Virginia Tech to overtime before beating both Miami and NC State has come to a screeching halt and the roles players had begun to learn and accept have now suddenly changed.

That’s especially the case with big men Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot.

An integral part of the Tar Heels’ offense during Anthony’s absence, especially in the win against the Wolfpack, UNC’s inside game has been virtually nonexistent over the past two games.

Part of the problem is that its big men have been reduced to spectators while their ball-dominant point guard works to create scoring opportunities for himself.

“It’s an adjustment,” Bacot said after the BC game. “I feel like me and Garrison got a little stagnant, just watching instead of doing what we were doing — posting up, just giving Cole other options We’re just kind of leaving it all up to him, but that’s kind of unfair to him.”

Anthony and his bigs did a better job of meshing against Florida State and had their team in the lead into the second half before their chances at a badly needed victory were ended by an 0-for-17 shooting drought.

The fact they played the nation’s eighth-ranked team so closely on the road, despite that cold spell, is a source of optimism heading into Saturday’s showdown with Duke — especially since, as history has shown, the disparity in the rivals’ records isn’t always an accurate indicator of how competitive the games will be.

Not that Williams is feeling optimistic about anything these days — with or without Anthony on the floor.

“I don’t think about optimism, pessimism,” he said. “We’ve got to get to practice, try to work and see if we can get better. It’s not frickin’ nuclear science out there. We’ve got to get better and got to get the shots to go in and get some defensive stops, as well. We’re going to keep practicing.

“I think we’ve got some good things out of (the Florida State) game, but also the game of basketball there’s a winner and a loser and you’ve got to have your kids feel like they’re gaining something. I don’t know if our kids feel like we’re making any strides right now.”