Luke DeCock

A good time for UNC for star freshman to play a Little better

UNC’s Roy Williams after win over Florida State: ‘We had 10 turnovers, I thought we had 103’

Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over Florida State.
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Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over Florida State.

What, exactly, got into Nassir Little? It wasn’t just the dunk, the one on all 82 inches of Mfiondu Kabengele, the one that launched a thousand highlights. Twice, he also fought through contact to power the ball off the glass and finish while being fouled.

North Carolina’s Nassir Little (5) drives on Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabegnele (25) for a dunk during the first half on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C Robert Willett

He was aggressive, explosive and dramatic. In short, everything North Carolina fans – not to mention Roy Williams – have been wanting to see from Little all season, even beyond the 18 points and eight rebounds.

But it was the dunk that resonated, a drive down the right side of the lane that continued unabated even as Kabengele cut across the lane as a help defender to block Little’s shot, only to have Little throw it down past Kabengele’s extended hand to oohs and aahs, in the middle of a 77-59 win over Florida State that was very much the opposite of his previous appearance.

As Little went up for the dunk, not many players would proceed with that flight plan against Kabengele, who had three blocks Saturday. That didn’t turn out to be one of them.

North Carolina’s Nassir Little (5) dunks on Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabegnele (25) during the first half on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C Robert Willett

“It didn’t really matter,” Little said. “I had to make the play I had to make. He’s a big guy. I didn’t know he was that big. Once I’m in the air, it’s either me or him.”

In many ways, it was the kind of aggression that was expected from him Wednesday in Durham, his first chance to prove, as he said early in the season, that North Carolina’s freshmen weren’t getting their proper due in the shadow of their Duke counterparts, Zion Williamson in particular.

But even with Williamson out of the game in less than a minute thanks to his footwear malfunction, Little was a curious nonfactor, lost in what looked like a complete fog against the Blue Devils, with three turnovers in only 11 minutes. The Tar Heels won the matchup game, but with more experienced players – Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks inside, Cam Johnson outside.

Some of that was out of Little’s control. He twisted his ankle against Virginia, took a pop in the sternum against Wake Forest and bumped knees with a teammate before the Duke game, making Saturday his first healthy game in a while.

“I was playing tentatively, because my chest hurt and I didn’t want to crash and get hit,” Little said. “I was playing not like myself.”

But it was not out of context with his season in general: explosive at times – like his 23 points against Virginia Tech a month ago – while absent at others. He leads the team in dunks, still, but there’s clearly so much more to his game than that. Saturday, North Carolina outscored Florida State 27-20 with him on the floor in the first half and was outscored 14-10 without him.

North Carolina’s Luke Maye (32) congratulates teammate Nassir Little (5) after a score in the first half against Florida State on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“When he plays like that,” Coby White said, “I don’t think anybody can stop him.”

It’s hard to shake off history at North Carolina, and Little’s combination of one-and-done talent and posterizing explosiveness brought on preseason comparisons to Marvin Williams and the game-changing aerial acrobatics he delivered off the bench on the way to a national title in 2005. If there’s been a common complaint about Little’s season, it’s that he hasn’t had the impact Williams did despite coming in with a similar skill set and resume, if not the same wingspan or height.

Then again, it’s funny what 14 years and a national title can do to our recollections. Adrian Atkinson, who blogs about North Carolina, posted a few “similarity scores” this weekend from the website of basketball stat guru Ken Pomeroy – more popular in baseball, similarity scores suggest past statistical comparisons to current players. The third-most similar season to Little’s since 2002, across all of college basketball? Williams in 2005.

“They’ve always had players like Little,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “He’s more of the same. He falls right into that category.”

And perhaps in 2033 (yikes!), if North Carolina makes this Final Four or beyond, Little’s dunk on Kabengele will acquire the same kind of mythical connotations that Williams’ putback to beat Duke has now – albeit, admittedly, on a lesser stage.

In the three days since the Duke game, Little’s nagging injuries healed and his mental health got a boost from a private one-on-one talk with Roy Williams neither would discuss publicly. Whatever the factors, Little’s emergence Saturday was well timed for the Tar Heels, considering that White appears to have hit the dog days of his own freshman year after another in-and-out performance, 0-for-5 from 3-point range to run his four-game slump to 6-for-27.

And while Little’s first-half dunk will get all the attention, his two-handed tip dunk of a Johnson miss – from high above the rim – in the final six minutes essentially sealed the win for the Tar Heels, emotionally if not mathematically.

It’s what the Tar Heels always wanted from Little, that little extra something off the bench. Saturday offered another hint of how good they can be with him delivering it regularly.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.