The hype for the Tar Heel first-years is palpable heading into the season for the No. 9 North Carolina men’s basketball team.
But it was the team’s veterans that stood out in the team’s only exhibition game of the season against Winston-Salem State.
The main attractions were the Tar Heels’ new faces, particularly first-years Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot. Early in the game, though, senior guard Brandon Robinson and junior forward Garrison Brooks made their presences known.
Robinson was aggressive, scoring eight quick points and having his way with the Winston-Salem State defense. Brooks had eight of his own in the first half and finished the game with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Midway through the first half, though, Robinson limped off the court with an ankle injury and wouldn’t return to the game. His status moving forward is uncertain.
“We don’t know anything about B-Rob,” head coach Roy Williams said. “They’re gonna have some X-rays made tomorrow morning, and we’ll know more after we see that.”
An extended absence could be particularly concerning for a UNC team that doesn’t have a lot of depth at the guard positions. The Tar Heels will look to some younger players to carry the load, like sophomore Leaky Black. As the team's Swiss army knife, Black says he'll play wherever he has to to help the team.
“Tonight, as soon as he went down, I knew I was gonna have to play more minutes,” Black said. “And I don’t mind doing that. I’ll play wing, point guard, whatever the case may be.”
Another veteran who picked up the load after Robinson’s injury was graduate guard Christian Keeling. He scored 14 points in the game, all in the second half. Keeling was a bit of an unknown, transferring in from Charleston Southern this season, but has already taken on a leadership role for the Tar Heels.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Keeling told the younger players. “You're not always gonna be your best, you’re gonna have some ups and downs. You just have to have a short memory. If you mess up one play get it back the next play.”
According to Bacot, he and Anthony didn’t play to their expectations on Friday – so they turned to their veteran leaders for advice.
“Me and Cole, we didn’t play as good as we usually play,” Bacot said. “The veterans were just telling us it was the first game and we can get through it. 'Just come prepared. We got practice tomorrow, so we’re just gonna keep working just to get better every day.'”
The team's experienced college players – some new to UNC fans, some familiar – will look to keep helping the first-years along when the season begins Wednesday against Notre Dame. In the meantime, with the uncertainty of Robinson’s status, UNC might need to find a way to win without its senior captain.
“The whole team would need to step up,” Anthony said. “Hopefully he will be back soon. I don't know what his status is right now but I’m praying for him, that’s my brother. I’m gonna talk to him to make sure he’s good. Hopefully we won’t have to deal with that.”
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