A Tough Little Nut, a Manager and a Pair of Goggles: Inside Cole Anthony's Ridiculous Debut

Brant Wilkerson-New

CHAPEL HILL — After his first exhibition game on Friday night, Cole Anthony’s disappointment was obvious as he sat on a couch in North Carolina’s players’ lounge, surrounded by cameras who arrived expecting to see yet another freshman savior roll through the Triangle.

It wasn’t a bad game — 11 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds — but it wasn’t the type of game that’s become the expectation for a kid who’s spent his entire life preparing to take college basketball by storm.

“We had some mental lapses, I had a bunch of mental lapses,” he said that night. “We’ll be better next game.”

Getting better couldn’t wait for Anthony.

Moments after the cameras disappeared, he was back on the Smith Center floor with manager Robby Ruffolo, getting shots up while the clean-up crew buzzed through the dimly-lit rows.

“Since I’ve gotten here, he’s been that dude I’ve been able to depend on, call on whether it’s to go get food, just hang out, get in the gym,” Anthony said. “He’s always been there with me.”

Later on, he barely recognized the player he saw on tape, nor did his father, NBA veteran and former UNLV star Greg Anthony.

“I was rushing it, I felt like I was playing for the crowd; I wasn’t really playing my game,” Anthony said. “That’s one thing my dad talked to me about, just making sure I watched that game and learned from it; he’s told me film is going to be the most important thing to separate me from all of my competitors.”

On Wednesday night, it was clear that the younger Anthony took those words to heart and made good use of his time since that disappointing Smith Center debut, turning in the best scoring performance for a Tar Heel in their first game, putting up 34 points — 23 in the second half — to go with 11 rebounds and 5 assists as Carolina topped Notre Dame 76-65 on Wednesday night.

"That dude is pretty good, isn't he? Just unbelievable,” junior guard Andrew Platek said. “I have been telling everyone that will listen: he is the best point guard in the country, he is one of the best players in the country. He is going to show that every single game; he's just an absolutely unbelievable player.”

Roy Williams has had a few freshmen stars blossom in Chapel Hill, ranging from Marvin Williams to Coby White just last season, and in drawing a comparison for the performance, he evoked the name of Carolina’s all-time leading scorer.

“Basically, guys, the second half, it was Cole Anthony,” he said. “I used to sit in here sometimes and say, ‘Tyler Hansbrough carried us tonight.” We cannot depend on him being the only guy that’s tough enough to get a rebound, tough enough to make a shot. That was pretty impressive to say the least.”

Things didn’t exactly start that way, as Carolina failed to find any offensive rhythm.

Anthony, wearing prescription goggles to start the game, ditched them at the under-eight media timeout after making 2 of his first 6 field goal attempts.

“When I was shooting, I just felt like my depth perception was off,” he said. “I didn’t have a good feel for where the rim was. I took those off and adjusted and felt a lot better.”

The real fireworks began in the second half, when out of the gate, Anthony was more assertive in looking for his shot.

The first came at 18:10, then bang, back-to-back buckets just before the 12-minute mark got him going, and with two straight 3-pointers, Anthony knew something special was happening.

“At that point, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m feeling pretty damn good; this is my language,’” Anthony said.

The quick threes — with one from Platek between them — gave the Tar Heels their first breathing-room of the night, and with Anthony heating up, teammates were anxious to see what he had up his sleeve next.

“Feed him the ball,” sophomore Leaky Black said. “’Do everything you can to just keep going, keep going ‘til they stop you, just keep going; I’m going to try to keep getting boards.’”

If the mythical “zone” exists, Anthony found it on Wednesday, and unlike his previous outing, blocked out the 21,750 in the arena.

“It’s surreal; It’s a good word for it,” he said. “It’s like you’re not thinking about anything else, it feels like that stadium was empty to me. I was in there just playing basketball.”

By the end, every trip down the floor brought the kind of buzz that has accompanied a few freshmen to recently come through this area. One is currently playing in Chicago and the other will soon debut for New Orleans.

The performance that left veteran sportswriters in awe was just another night for him.

“Yeah, it was really not much to it; I worked for this,” he said. “I’m just really happy to see my work pay off.”

Met by a horde of media after the game, Anthony calmly broke down his performance and how his struggles on Friday guided him over the past several days. He talked about the names of family members tattooed on his forearms and the next pieces he hopes to add, and perhaps more than anything, he wanted to talk about his teammates.

This wasn’t a guy who’s been proclaimed a national player of the year candidate in some places and a future No. 1 pick in others.

"What is pressure to him? He's had it his whole life,” Platek said. “He has been THE guy for this entire life. He's been the best player in the country, he's been a McDonald's All-American; he has all these accolades and all these awards. He just carries himself with a confidence that exudes out of him and it's contagious for all of us. We all feel like we are going to play better when he is on the floor."

Confidence is great, but it doesn’t mean anything if it’s not built on a foundation of work, and there’s no doubt in Williams’ mind that’s where Anthony’s come from.

And moments after the Hansbrough reference, he evoked another reference, bestowing the same nickname he’s used to describe a couple of guys with their jerseys in the rafters in Joel Berry and Marcus Paige.

“His toughness is something that I’ve really appreciated since the first time I watched him play as a high school freshman,” he said. “I think he’s one of the toughest … between those lines, during conditioning, during the simplest little thing, that is one tough little nut. I used to call a couple other players that too, that were pretty doggone good.”